Monday, February 28, 2005

Supporting the Troops, Part XI

Here's something that'll bring the roses to your pale cheeks. Apparently, the Air Force spent a million dollars on handheld chemical detectors for use in Iraq, despite knowing that they didn't work properly:

Air Force officials may have violated federal laws and military rules when they bought 100 commercial versions of the detectors and supplied them to commanders in the Middle East while knowing that the manufacturer's tests showed the devices did not work well in hot areas or under battle conditions, the Deseret Morning News reported.
The manufacturer in question is BAE Systems Integrated Defense Solutions, and here's what it said about the conditions under which the sensor will work:
JCAD ChemSentry™ performs its mission in the most adverse environments users can encounter.
There's a nice ambiguity in this phrasing; it reminds me of the Gumby cartoon where Gumby and his associates visit a lemonade stand that advertises "all you can drink for ten cents," and are denied a refill because one glass is "All you can drink for ten cents."

Ronda Foster of BAE was similarly ambiguous in this interview:
Q: Tell me about JCAD. Since it's now deployed, what kind of feedback are you getting?

A: The feedback we're getting is very positive. The most pleasing comments are that the system resists interferents better than others (resulting in fewer false alarms), that it works in the harsh conditions they expose it to, and that it's easy to use.
Fewer false alarms than what system? As I noted elsewhere:
A Senate investigation heard in 1994 that each of the 14,000 chemical weapons alarms around the troops went off on average twice or three times a day during allied aerial bombardment of Iraq - a total of between one and two million alarms. All were said to have been false alarms.
Assuming those official figures were accurate, the ChemSentry would only have to work once in a hundred attempts to have "fewer false alarms" than the 1991 system. The figures almost certainly weren't accurate, as it happens, but "fewer" is still a meaningless term without a specific comparative context.

These aren't the only examples of BAE's reticence about the ChemSentry. According to this article:
BAE already has sold several hundred units to the military. Although the company won't say so, some of those units are expected to be put to use in Iraq.
Fair enough. My understanding is that the ChemSentry costs roughly $10,000 per unit; what, then, am I to make of this?
The U.S. military has ordered 270,000 chemical weapons detectors, CNET reported Friday....The detectors, which are called Joint Chemical Agent Detector ChemSentry and made by BAE Systems, cost $2,000 each and can detect chemical agents including sarin and VX.
That's almost certainly a typo; my guess is that $2,000 wouldn't even buy a carrying case for the ChemSentry. Indeed, the detectors sometimes cost considerably more than ten grand:
Fort Worth officials bought three units for $45,000 last month with grants from the Justice and Homeland Security departments. Also through a grant, Bedford officials purchased a unit.
So now we're up to $15,000 a pop. Clearly, when cities buy faulty CW detection equipment, they should go for volume discounts, so as not to waste the taxpayers' money.

As you can see, the difficulties of the Voynich Manuscript are child's play next to the ChemSentry. But what I find perhaps most outrageous about all this is the original article's observation that the Air Force didn't wait for Dugway Proving Ground to test the device. What's the point of blighting the country with a literal plague-spot like Dugway, if it's not going to be allowed to test devices that are supposed to save people's lives?

Fun facts to know and tell: In addition to being (if memory serves) the world's largest global arms dealer and a sometime partner of the Carlyle Group, BAE Systems also invented George W. Bush's personal nemesis, the Segway.

The View From Beneath the Dunce Cap

On those dreary occasions when one really must know what an idiot thinks about the burning issues of the moment, Dick Armey's the man to ask. Behold the airtight logic with which he dismisses Social Security:

"If it is such a great deal, why does the government have to make it mandatory," he said.
A good question, and I'm going to take a stab at answering it. It's mandatory because the government recognizes that people are not always wise or provident, and that accidents happen whether people expect them or not, and that an elderly or disabled person who can't pay rent or buy food is a burden on society, as well as a reproach to its sense of decency. It's mandatory because America's wealth is created by workers, and the mere fact of that work entitles people to a basic standard of living when they retire, or if they're injured, regardless of what some dead-eyed Republican hypocrite thinks about the matter. It's mandatory because it's a safety net and an insurance policy, not an investment program or a pyramid scheme or some bureaucratized game of roulette.

Those who imagine - in defiance of history, religion, and common sense - that fantastic wealth will make them better people are free to pursue that empty goal to their hearts' content, Social Security notwithstanding. But people who don't labor under that delusion - or who didn't get the hundred-mile headstart that an intellectual and emotional cripple like George W. Bush received as an accident of birth - should be able to earn a guaranteed pension, adjusted for inflation, without having to worry that their life savings will be stolen by the glorified three-card monte dealers on Wall Street.

That's astonishingly little to ask from the land of one's birth, it seems to me. But the GOP - which relies for its living on public stupidity and greed and confusion and innumeracy - doesn't like this sort of mandatory protection any more than a flock of vampires would like mandatory garlic necklaces. It's turned itself into the party of three-card monte dealers; its rhetoric appeals primarily to hapless people who believe they can win a rigged game. And oddly enough, they very often turn out to be the people who need Social Security most.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Please note: All appearances to the contrary, this is not Friday Sex Toy Blogging. I run a respectable place, here.

Friday Hope Blogging

It's very interesting to think about cases in which "progress" causes people to abandon a technology before it's perfected. For instance, with the advent of fuel-powered ships, sailing ships became outdated, which meant that there was no longer a compelling economic reason for people to continue improving the technology.

Now, as a fascinating and inspiring post over at Alternative Energy Blog explains, people are taking a new look at sails, and figuring out how to make them more efficient:

Modern windships can...take advantage of new technologies and materials that weren't available in the days of sail. Wind tunnel tests on different types of rigging and sails quickly showed the Danish team how poorly traditional sails perform....So the Danish team came up with an alternative that exploits materials borrowed from the aerospace industry. Using high-performance steel for the masts does away with the need for stays to hold them upright. The sail itself is made of fibreglass, with a profile like an aircraft wing. Flaps on the sail's trailing edge generate extra thrust when extended, but can be retracted to minimise aerodynamic drag - important when using engine power alone. Wind-tunnel tests showed this design to be twice as efficient as the sails on a traditional windjammer.
Even more promising is the SkySail, a sort of giant kite which harnesses the stronger and more reliable winds that prevail about 1500 feet above the ocean:
SkySail's largest version, with an area of 2000 to 5000 square metres, will generate propulsive power equivalent to a large ship's engine....
One wonders how many other common technologies from past centuries could be improved, given the knowledge we've gained in the interim. (I can't help daydreaming about possible applications for oversized wind-up motors and clockwork.)

AEB goes on to describe solar ferries, gravity-powered planes, and other remarkable things. Be sure to check out the links at the end!

What's My Problem, Anyway?

The noble and virtuous NYMary asked me earlier today whether Bouphonia had turned into an environmentalist blog.

It hasn't. At least, I don't think it has. Although now that I think about it, I might not admit it if it had. I tend to steer clear of the term "environmentalism." Like "diversity," it seems to imply that a simple acknowledgement of reality amounts to some sort of special pleading. I don't see any rational means of assessing human beings apart from their shared environment, let alone any reason to try it.

But Mary's question got me to pondering just what the hell I'm up to here. I do jump around an awful lot, and I've sometimes wondered whether it tries people's patience. Accordingly, I thought I'd try to give some sense of the crayon scribblings that comprise the blueprint of Buffoonia's hallowed precincts. The fact that I'll be making it all up on the spot will not, I hope, make it any less authoritative and impressive.

As I mentioned in my first post, which as many as two people may recall, the Bouphonia was an ancient ritual in which everyone involved in slaughtering an ox avoided taking personal responsibility by passing blame onto someone else. At the climax of the ceremony, the knife and ax were found guilty, and were cast off a cliff as punishment.

There are many, many things I admire about this ritual. For instance, I like the contrast between the solemnity and pomp of the ceremony itself, and the venal, violent, and stupid concept behind it. And I really like the notion that a society can escape moral guilt by blaming inanimate objects for its own actions, and by implication, for the flawed thinking or dull habit that made those actions seem necessary.

Most of the things that are happening to us today, politically and environmentally and economically, are the result of nothing more glorious than bad ideas, bad decisions, and bad habits, which bad or foolish people have championed without being required to take any real responsibility for their results. Our "tools" - neoclassical economics, for instance - allegedly require us to make these decisions, through what Lawrence Summers would call their "impeccable logic." And so what begins for us as an economic imperative becomes a political imperative, and then a moral imperative.

I'm interested in how these false imperatives affect us, across the board. Environmental issues come up pretty often, because environmental destruction provides a very explicit picture of how our economy works (or doesn't). It's really not a separate issue from economics, though; nor is media consolidation or healthcare or political corruption or land use or almost anything else I discuss. All of these evils proceed from a few basic theories, and those theories are founded on a couple of basic desires. (And those desires, unfortunately, tend to be utterly base and vile.)

It's really astonishing, the state we're in. A handful of "visionary" thinkers got us where we are today, and despite the fact that it's a remarkably unhappy and frightening place, the prestige of these thinkers seems only to have increased. And this has happened even though virtually every idea that forms the official basis of our society is either a lie, or a desperate oversimplification, or some forlorn truth to which professional cynics pay lip service but would never dream of honoring in private life.

I find it all very aggravating. I'm unhappy that these people have devalued or done violence to virtually everything I hold dear, and I'm angry that they justify themselves by means of half-bright sophistries that would make a cat laugh.

My "hope blogging" in particular tends to be about industrial redesign, cradle-to-cradle, alternative energy advances, and the like. Not because I'm an "environmentalist" - though I like clean water and clean air and birds and trees as much as anyone else - but because the people working in these fields are the only people whom I feel are making real, practical progress against the false economic assumptions that constitute the roots of our problems. (Or the accessible roots, at any rate. There's not much we can do about the fact that our brains don't work right, or that some people are evil.) These assumptions cause most of the problems that beset us, and they're not based on the purely impersonal workings of some marvelous natural law discovered by Adam Smith or David Ricardo or anyone else, but on the prejudice, resentment, fear, vanity, stupidity, and greed of society's self-styled best and brightest.

Marilynne Robinson's Mother Country - which discusses the cultural and philosophical roots of a specific environmental catastrophe along pretty much the same lines as I've just done - had such an effect on my thinking that I find it very difficult to remember that I held strong opinions on these issues before reading it. These lines from her introduction often float around in the back of my mind, and I think they provide the best possible explanation of where I stand:

I have had time and occasion to note the disproportion between my objective and my resources. If I accomplish no more than to jar a pillar or crack a fresco, or totter a god or two, I hope no one will therefore take my assault as symbolic rather than failed. If I had my way I would not leave one stone upon another.

What Could Go Wrong?

Shell has come up with one of the worst proposals I've heard in a while. It wants to build an LNG plant in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. The plant would suck 100 million gallons of water per day from the Gulf, use it to raise the temperature of the liquefied gas (which is 260 degrees below zero), and then return the now-frigid water to the Gulf.

That's an insane idea for so many perfectly obvious reasons that the chances of it actually happening are effectively nil. Still, you almost have to admire the supreme insouciance of the people who came up with it.

Eyeballing the Kill and Maim Zone

Cryptome's latest collection of photos from the war is not at all gory, but in my opinion it's one of the most harrowing installments in the series. The final image of George W. Bush - especially when contrasted with the earlier photo of a woman watching a news report about her dead husband - could easily stand as an emblem of human evil for the ages.

Have a look, if you dare.

Following the Money

The cynical, unethical, and scientifically worthless dietary study I discussed below, in which a group of malnourished African children were given two spoonfuls of meat to "prove" that vegan diets are tantamount to child abuse, turns out to have been sponsored by such utterly disinterested groups as the National Cattleman's Beef Association, Heifer International, Land O' Lakes, and the Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Program.

And now that I've read the actual study, I can alert you to these charming details:

The prevalence of malaria, infection, splenomegaly and intestinal parasites was high. C-reactive protein was elevated (>10 mg/L) in 17.8% of all study children. Malaria was found in 31.8% of all children using the faliciparum malaria antigen dip stick (27), and 45% of children had enlargement of the spleen, indicative of endemic malaria. As for intestinal parasites, Entamoeba histolytica (amebiasis) was found in the stools of 21.4%, giardia in 12.5% and hookworm and ascaris in 2 and 3%, respectively. Serum iron values are not interpretable in the presence of malaria (42), but nonetheless low values were seen in 52.4% of all children. Zinc deficiency was present in 66% of children and riboflavin deficiency in ~25%. Both copper and folate concentrations were normal except for 1% having mild folate deficiency. Ferritin concentrations, usually a reflection of iron stores, were seldom low and more often were elevated, probably due to the presence of acute infection and malaria.
I really admire the use of "nonetheless" above; that's a rhetorical luxury I intend to indulge in far more often.

All the diseases from which these children were suffering are preventable, which is another reason why this study teaches us more about the moral economy of first-world science - and its strange bedfellows - than it does about good dietary choices.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Influenza and Bioterror Revisited

I'd intended to append this to my earlier post on the subject, but as usual, Blogger won't let me open my archives.

Anyway, Effect Measure has a very important post on this subject, which really must be read in full:

Before this topic goes much further, let me sound a note of caution. Bioterrorism is an issue in this instance only because it shows that the huge amount of time, effort and money fed willy-nilly into the bioterrorism maw has bought us little of real substance. But it is not the main issue or even close to it, as I shall argue below. I have real discomfort raising the flag of bioterrorism whenever it suits us to raise the visibility of a problem. If we are going to beat up on public health officials and their political bosses (and we should when we see the need) it should be for the right reasons. This was an alarming episode, not because it revealed a chink in our bioterrorism armor (armor which doesn't exist and probably cannot exist), but because it raises the alarm about surveillance and our preparedness for influenza and other emerging infectious diseases.
I couldn't agree more, and I hope my post didn't give anyone any other impression. The best defense against bioterrorism is an efficient, fully staffed, well-funded public-health system, preferably with a high degree of international cooperation. Just to make it perfectly clear where I stand on this issue, here's something I said back in October of last year:
The classic libertarian line is that the only business of government is to protect the public from attack. If that applies to bioterrorism, it applies to epidemic disease generally; no one dying of smallpox or cholera is going to be comforted by the fact that it occurred naturally, especially in this day and age....An H5N1 epidemic could kill 25 million Americans in a matter of months; it worries me more than terrorism does, and I'd rather have more money going to prevent that (not that Bush is actually doing anything to prevent terrorism).
My nightmare scenario is one in which "bioterrorism defense" becomes something along the lines of "missile defense": a bottomless hole for public money, which gives the false impression that serious people are addressing a problem in a serious way, and siphons money and attention away from more important security threats, and - as a punchline - never delivers a working product.

A million thanks to Revere for reminding me of the need for cautious, effective framing of this (and every other) issue.

Folie à Deux

Robert M. Jeffers has written an excellent piece on fundamentalism's symbiotic relationship with modernity:

[W]hen "reason" insisted on primacy of place and the right to judge all aspects of human existence, even the "metaphysical" ones (Ovid's Metamorphoses is not about fantasy and gods, but about human passions and how individuals change) and the metaphorical understandings, an irruption was bound to occur. And that occurence, in religion, was fundamentalism.

It is, of course, inherently unstable, as well as unhealthy. Calling it a pathology is not an inapt metaphor. It is our Ouroboros, the world snake devouring its own tail. This is visible in our cultural life, and in our political lives. It affects the way we understand the world, and understand others in the world; and the way they understand us. Mark Miller is right: in its excess, in either the Bush Administration, or "Focus on the Family" or even Al Qaeda, it is pathological. But until we understand the basis for the problem, we won't understand how to respond to it.
One basis for the problem, it seems to me, is the vulgar error of believing that diametrical opposition is necessarily a sensible corrective to a false (or simply objectionable) intellectual conception. Too often, such opposition merely leads to a dance of death wherein each side justifies and reinforces the other's worst excesses through its own.

When "reason" defines itself primarily through dogmatic opposition to a given system of thought - as it does in the more extreme forms of what Daniel Dennett calls "greedy reductionism" - it ceases to be reasonable, and starts resembling that which it claims to detest. Reason, properly so called, is neither a reflex nor a habit, but an achievement; it requires a considerable amount of effort, and an even greater amount of personal honesty. Having managed it on one occasion doesn't mean you'll inevitably manage it on the next. This makes it something very different from the sort of thinking that goes into the standard Technological Sublime boilerplate.

My favorite example of the latter is Ray Kurzweil's books, with all their techno-triumphalist prattle about downloading intact human personalities onto computers; it astonishes me that such writing is thought of as scientific, instead of as a modern-day version of those Medieval wonder-books in which any irrational or impossible claim could be made so long as it inspired the correct amount of reverent awe. The willingness to accept such crude conceptions as somehow "rational," simply because they're made by a scientist, is the would-be rationalist's equivalent of believing that Jerry Falwell is morally excellent simply because he's a preacher. In both cases, belief is formed through an assessment of context rather than content, which is anything but rational.

The larger problem is that fundamentalists welcome noisy opposition from scientists and atheists; it shows that they're doing their job, and it brings in lots of donations from the faithful. "Rational" opposition poses no real threat to the political vitality of fundamentalism, and has done a great deal to abet it.

Unfortunately, as long as it remains easy to "prove" one's rationality by attacking fundamentalism, and to "prove" one's sanctity by attacking science - as long, in other words, as seeming remains a convenient substitute for being - things probably won't change. We're a nation that adores convenience, after all, and few things are more convenient than a self-hewn shortcut to personal righteousness.

Influenza and Bioterror

Dr. Henry Niman has suggested that the WSN/33 influenza sequence circulating in South Korea contains genes from an engineered laboratory strain of the virus, and may have been released accidentally or intentionally:

If the sequences are real, and no credible evidence has been presented to show that they are not, then at a minimum there was a major laboratory lapse that allowed a dangerous human virus to escape and infect swine in conjunction with avian flu viruses.
He follows up on this important story here, here, and here.

I'm not a virologist or anything like it, so I'm in no position to judge whether he's correct or not. But it seems to me that the ongoing official vagueness and confusion about the existence of this sequence - let alone its origin - is problematic, no matter what the truth turns out to be. As Dr. Niman says,
The inability to resolve the existence of the sequence after being in the public domain for almost 3 months...raises serious bioterrorism preparedness issues.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Feigning Ignorance

This kind of talk is getting very tiresome:

What's the cost of a clearer social conscience?

It appears to be $3,000 to $5,000, the premium automakers are adding to sticker prices on the current batch of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles.

Some people in Detroit no doubt have a hard time believing that an American consumer who's not a tree-hugger would spend that kind of extra cash to save only a few hundred dollars a year in gasoline.
As long as we're amusing ourselves, what's the cost of appeasing psychosexual insecurity? If you buy an SUV, it's about $20,000...not counting the higher owning and operating costs. Evidently, "some people in Detroit" have no trouble believing that American consumers will spend hundreds of extra dollars on gasoline per year in order to drive an unnecessarily large vehicle with serious safety flaws. Can you believe these people actually pay more than they have to for a faulty vehicle? Why, they must be the silliest people on earth!

And while we're at it, what's the cost of impressing one's corporate cronies with a Cartier watch, instead of buying a ten-dollar digital from Walgreen's? About $4,440, if you're pinching your pennies; you could easily spend five times that. And yet, you'll find Cartiers in boardrooms all over the country. What better target for journalistic mockery could there be than these money-squandering herd animals?

Guess what, folks? Consumers don't make buying decisions solely on the basis of price. This has been known for centuries, and even in our degraded educational system some mention of it usually creeps into classes on economics and marketing. I really think it may be time to retire feigned ignorance of the fact as a rhetorical device.

Honestly, as expensive status-symbols go, hybrids barely rate a mention. But of course, what's really bothering all these hack writers is not the extra cost of hybrids, but the mere concept of socially conscious buying, the worthlessness and dishonesty of which is an a priori assumption of American journalism.

The Impeccable Logic of Lawrence Summers

Thanks to a post at Effect Measure, we now have an even better picture of just who Lawrence Summers is. In a 1991 memo, Summers, who was then Chief Economist at the World Bank, made a number of "politically incorrect" statements, as thus:

Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?
Lest anyone accuse me of jumping to conclusions, or of taking Mr. Summers' remarks out of context, I hasten to note that Summers does clarify his stance admirably:
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
In a further display of this impeccable logic, Summers goes on to suggest that certain third-world countries are "under-polluted." That's a shocking state of affairs indeed.

He does make one very interesting and valid point, though:
The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand.
How true that is. Of course, in humanitarian terms, the last thing such a country needs is to serve as a dumping-ground for toxic waste. But according to the ineluctable dicates of corporate psychopathy, such countries are indeed ideal dumping-grounds: their generally high mortality rates, poor public-health infrastructure, and low life expectancy will combine to hide the long-term effects of newly introduced environmental toxins. (A real virtuoso could even use "evidence" from such countries to argue that such toxins are "obviously" safe for dumping in wealthier countries.)

Be sure to read the entire EM post. It ends with a truly magnificent denunciation of Summers by Brazil's former Secretary of Environment, upon which I couldn't possibly improve.

UPDATE: No sooner did I post this than I remembered that in some dark recess of my mind I already knew about this memo, and that I'd been infuriated by it when Clinton nominated Summers to run the Treasury Department. I really think I'm suffering from outrage fatigue...I'm finding it harder and harder to keep track of the things these maniacs say...

Under the Anaphylaxis Tree

This delightful article raises the concern that the pollen of transgenic trees could trigger anaphylaxis:

Before leaving the discussion of the control of flowering in trees it may be useful to consider the potential side effects of the ablation toxins used to create sterile trees. Barnase ribonuclease proved toxic to the kidneys of rats (19). Barnase was cytotoxic in mice and in human cell lines (20). Animals may not find the GM forests welcoming. Diphtheria toxin has been associated with anaphylactic response (221).
It's hard to imagine anything worse than the pollen allergies I already have, but it's nice to know that biotech firms are working on the problem.

I'd also suggest that the "need" to create these pointless trees, and to make them sterile, is symptomatic of the cognitive and ethical disarray endemic among biotech researchers.

Monday, February 21, 2005

USDA-Grade Science

Whether a vegan diet is unhealthy for children or not, this isn't how you study the question:

Putting children on strict vegan diets is "unethical" and could harm their development, a US scientist has argued....Research she carried out among African schoolchildren suggests as little as two spoonfuls of meat each day is enough to provide nutrients such as vitamin B12, zinc and iron.

The 544 children studied had been raised on diets chiefly consisting of starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking these micronutrients.

Over two years, some of the children were given 2oz supplements of meat each day, equivalent to about two spoonfuls of mince.

Two other groups received either a cup of milk a day or an oil supplement containing the same amount of energy. The diet of a fourth group was left unaltered.
There are - how can I put this delicately? - some serious methodological problems here. You'll note that Allen - whose research was conducted under the auspices of the USDA - attempts to draw some convoluted equivalence between malnourished African children (who fare better when they're given more food...I'm glad that Science has finally sorted that out!), and first-world populations wherein a vegan diet need not be limited to "starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking...micronutrients."

I'd further suggest that an experiment which relies for its dubious efficacy on witholding food from already undernourished children is, in itself, unethical.

As for whether a vegan diet is healthy for children...I have no real opinion, except to say that it's probably no more unhealthy than what the average American child eats. If it's "unethical" to feed children badly, that's yet another good reason to get fast-food vendors out of America's schools.

The Grumbling Hive

(I'm a little busy right now, so I'm posting this a few days late.)

While I have only the most basic understanding of what "organization theory" is, I find Joseph Logan's ongoing discussion of it at PublicOrgTheory to be utterly fascinating.

A recent post discusses "hives" (us) versus "packs" (them) in the blogosphere, in response to a piece that appeared on Tom Maguire's conservative blog Just One Minute. I take issue with Maguire's assertion that the Right comprises a passionate but disorganized "pack" of groupthink-avoiding enthusiasts. Actually, I'll go a bit further and say that this rosy characterization of Conservative Blogistan is about as cynical and creepy as the worst of Soviet "Socialist Realist" artwork. Either that, or it's deluded.

The degree of "hive" organization on the Right is awe-inspiring - as a brief stroll through SourceWatch will demonstrate - and the Left has nothing that can compare to it. The Right's bloggers are often willing or unwitting loudspeakers for a ruthlessly coordinated message; Grover Norquist doesn't hold weekly meetings on framing for nothing. They may think of themselves as a pack, but they take their marching orders from a hive that knows very well how to flatter their egos while exploiting their emotional weaknesses.

In one episode of "The Simpsons," Homer taunts Mr. Burns to release "dogs with bees in their mouths, and when they bark, they shoot bees at you." If we really must have a bee vs. dog metaphor here, that's probably a more accurate one for how the Right operates.

It also struck me, while reading Maguire, how silly a lot of our current debates are. Arguing over legitimate differences of political opinion is something people do in a functioning democracy, and that's not where we are right now. We can resume intelligent debate on the fine points of policy when Bush-fanciers stop supporting an objectively dishonest, anti-democratic, and anti-constitutional administration (as many Republicans have, in fact, done). Until that point, the struggle is not between Right and Left, but between democracy and tyranny. The only meaningful political division in our society is between people who care when Bush lies, and people who don't.

Maguire's views aside, Mr. Logan raises some interesting questions about blogs-as-organization. I recommend it highly, and not just 'cause he throws a couple of bones (ha!) my way. If you prefer a bit more Maguire-bashing, go directly to Metacomments: Do not pass "Go," do not collect two hundred dollars.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging

It's always horrified me when a relatively small earthquake - which I'd take in stride as a Californian - kills 25,000 people in, say, Iran.

Obviously, that doesn't have to happen. This house, currently being perfected by the Federation of American Scientists, is composed primarily of expanded polystyrene (EPS) made without CFCs. It's cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And its inhabitants can sneer at earthquakes:

[A] two-story test house...made of EPS clad with cement board (and fit together without wood framing or braces) has passed earthquake testing. But this wasn't just passing minimal structural requirements: the house remained fully intact after being shaken harder than the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.
The drawback to buildings of this type is usually the lack of locally available materials, and the expense and hazard of shipping materials into poor and possibly chaotic countries. This is why many reconstruction groups prefer straw-bale architecture and other traditional building techniques. But according to the FAS, a small styrene house can apparently be built in Afghanistan for as little as $1000, provided a small steam plant is built in Kabul to expand the lightweight styrene pellets. Humanitarian building projects need to be tailored to the needs of individual communities, so EPS isn't going to be appropriate in every situation. But it sounds very promising indeed.

The outfitting of such houses with solar power is also very exciting; there are currently plans to power entire Afghani villages this way. Strangely enough, in areas with intermittent or no electricity, the "downside" of solar energy isn't quite as apparent as it might be to a family of four in Duluth. In Afghanistan, where the sun shines 300 days out of the year, solar power is the ideal choice for rural electrification.

But even without a community-level solar infrastructure, primitive solar water-heating systems are very cheap and easy to install; the simplest solar water-heater, after all, is a plastic bag with a hose attached.

Solar ovens are great, too; there are many varieties, and some of them are very low-tech indeed. Along with water-heaters, they reduce the need for chopping and gathering wood, and for using kerosene and the like.

Also, you can build a solar water-pasteurizer for much less than ten dollars. We always hear about people in poor countries being told to boil their water, especially after disasters. But as Dr. Robert Metcalf notes:
During the cholera outbreak in Peru, the Ministry of Health urged all residents to boil drinking water for 10 minutes. The cost of doing this would amount to 29% of the average poor household income. In Bangladesh, boiling drinking water would take 11% of the income of a family in the lowest quartile....Because the quantities of fuel consumed for boiling water are so large, approximately 1 kilogram of wood to boil 1 liter of water, and because firewood, coal, and coke are often used for this purpose, an inadequate water supply system significantly contributes to deforestation, urban air pollution, and other energy-related environmental effects.
Think about this, and look again at the simplicity and low cost of solar water pasteurizers. And finally, consider the fact that contaminated water kills roughly two million children per year.

It's a funny thing about human nature. People in rich countries will hem and haw about contributing money to lifesaving projects like sturdy low-income housing or solar's like pulling teeth to get $25 out of them. But when a tiny earthquake crushes tens of thousands of people who were living in cemented cinderblock hovels, they'll write out a check for $100 without thinking twice.

My advice is to avoid the post-catastrophe rush, and send a few bucks to Architecture for Humanity. You can also make donations to Solar Cooking International, which "has enabled 30,000 families in Africa to cook with the sun's energy, freeing women and children from the burdens of gathering wood and carrying it for miles."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Apocalyptic Landscape

Over at Peak Energy, Monkeygrinder has an excellent and sobering post on the need to strike a balance between realistic pessimism and realistic hopefulness, without falling prey to the lures and snares of terriblisma on the one hand, and complacent optimism on the other.

I've been thinking about the questions he raises for a couple of days now. I have no solutions, but I do have lots of disorganized and probably irrational thoughts. (What a shock, eh?)

The painting above, since you asked, is called Apokalyptische Landschaft. It was painted by Ludwig Meidner, way back in 1912. Meidner's era, like ours, aestheticized catastrophe to a remarkable extent, and Meidner was one of those melancholic artists who saw destruction as horrible but necessary, given the degraded state of the world. His contemporaries in the Italian Futurist movement, by contrast, called war "the world's only hygiene" and celebrated the idea of destruction as a noble goal in and of itself. To them, destruction was not merely punitive or cathartic, but something more akin to a spiritual duty.

In this dichotomy, I think we can see hints of today's divide between the devotées of terriblisma on the Left and Right: very generally speaking, left-wing melancholics tend to feel that destruction will punish or cleanse them, while right-wing militants believe that being agents of destruction will exalt them. Both hopes, I suspect, come from a similar dissatisfaction with a way of life that lacks meaning. Both groups, though they turn their weariness with the status quo in radically different directions, are basically saying "If the world must end, let's get it over with; the suspense is killing me." (And they're right, is killing them. We might - with a nod to the irritating crypto-teleological sophistry of Richard Dawkins - call an organism in this state "Something Eager to Die.")

I assume that anyone who's reading this doesn't want the world to be violently, gruesomely transformed a la Meidner or the Futurists, no matter how likely or even inescapable that fate might seem. In this regard, Rorschach has aptly quoted Gramsci's call for "pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will." And as a personal stance, that's pretty close to ideal in my book (though the intellect does have a knack for undercutting the will, as I know all too well).

As a public, rhetorical stance, though, I'm afraid it's insufficient, and possibly counterproductive. There's a real longing for upheaval and catastrophe in some quarters, and horror stories about the future - even if they're intended to shock people into awareness - may amount to little more than fuel for that fire. Fortunately, there's more to people and societies than the urge to punish and be punished, to kill and be killed; if there's hope for us, I believe it lies in disavowing pessimism, catering to healthier societal urges, and turning unhealthy urges in more constructive directions.

I argued a few months ago that powerlessness corrupts, and I really feel this is a truth that can't be overstated. To the extent that we encourage a sense of powerlessness, we push people towards the emotional adaptation of aestheticizing or spirtualizing or otherwise justifying disaster. It may even be that the current epidemic of gleefully destructive moral nihilism on the Right is partially a response to the warnings of impending ecological or nuclear disaster promulgated by the Left in decades past. Who knows? At any rate, it seems obvious that Americans do feel powerless. They're looking for something to fill this void...and when they can't beat it, they join it.

In answer to Monkeygrinder's question, I don't know what might "save" us from the problem of peak oil (or any other looming disaster). But I do know we need a strong public demand for progress, and a general willingness to make sacrifices. We have thousands of people in this country who were willing to give up their own lives, or the lives of their sons and daughters, for Bush's cruel hoax of a war. If that degree of commitment could be refocused on something useful, much smaller sacrifices could have much more positive results.

Therefore, I think the main issue here is one of framing. The Right needs to be seen by the popular mind as a group of people who stand in the way of something new and exciting. We need to convince people that there's a brighter, more interesting world right around the corner, and that the main thing keeping us from reaching it is a relatively small group of greedy people who lack vision and wisdom.

Of course, we might not find a technological fix for our energy problems. But the more years we can squeeze out of whatever oil's left, the better our chances are. In my opinion, the chance that we'll solve at least part of the energy problem in the next twenty years is far better than the chance that we'll have a working space-based missile defense program in the next fifty.

Therefore, we need to encourage conservation. But does this mean we need to advocate it on the basis of an apocalyptic peak-oil scenario? I don't think so...or at least, not always. The one-issue mindset limits our ability to be effective advocates for change. There are other, more effective types of leverage than fear of calamitous social breakdown...especially when so many people dislike the society we've got, and may have a secret wish to watch it collapse.

On the Left, we tend to focus on issues that we feel should be of interest to responsible adults. But America is not entirely a nation of responsible adults. There's nothing wrong with pointing out, on occasion, that BushCo is denying us not just clean air and water, but more fun and better toys.

The Right has had a lot of success painting us as puritanical killjoys. But all you have to do is look at sites like Treehugger, Metaefficient, Boing Boing, and Near Near Future to see that, in fact, it's the cheap-labor, anti-competition, scaremongering blowhards of the Right who are the real killjoys. They're not just enemies of biodiversity; they're also enemies of technological and scientific diversity, and they're robbing us of all sorts of interesting and attractive products and possibilities.

There are other forms of leverage, too. The epidemic of obesity among the working population, which costs employers a fortune, could conceivably be used as justification for redesigning residential areas or workplaces in ways that would, coincidentally, reduce dependence on automobiles. For instance, employees who bicycle to work might receive, say, 20 minutes of vacation time per day. In a year, they'd earn an extra two weeks of vacation time. The incentive here has nothing to do with peak oil, but it has a real effect, however modest, on both conservation and air quality.

As I said, these are very disorganized thoughts. But I do think that if we can't come up with a miraculous solution like cold fusion, we need an innovation economy that produces lots of little solutions, and promotes cooperation between experts - and amateurs - in many different fields. Meanwhile, on the rhetorical level, we need to give people hope, and a personal stake in seeing the world change. If a certain amount of apocalyptic thinking comes from emotional dissatisfaction with what passes for life in these United States, then we need to make people eager for a more wholesome form of "regeneration" than fascism offers. As it stands now, I'm afraid that apocalyptic scenarios are simply too emotionally attractive to have any reliable transformative power. As odd as it sounds, we're simply going to have to offer people something a bit more fulfilling than the end of the world.


While looking through my site stats, I stumbled upon a great blog called PostSecret, which compiles anonymous confessions that were written on postcards and sent to the webmaster. Some simply have text; others, like the one above, are a bit more...evocative.

It's well worth reading in full.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Chicken Little's Right-Wing Man

As usual, things are looking less than rosy over at Alan Caruba's National Anxiety Center, that aggressively cheerful site where "The good news is...the bad news is wrong!"

Caruba's self-defeating motto comes as a real relief this time around, because in between mocking "scaremongers" and "anxiety peddlers" and "Chicken Littles," Caruba informs us that things are desperately awful, and our very lives hang by the most tenuous of threads. Ever the cockeyed optimist, Caruba points out that no matter what President Bush tells us, bringing democracy to the Middle East won't save us or our children from a brutal death at the hands of heathen fanatics:

[M]any Americans still want to believe that Islamists, the extreme Muslims characterized by the Taliban and al Qaeda, are just a minority of greater Islam. The wish that, once isolated and destroyed, we will be embraced by those to whom we have brought freedom and democracy, ignores the long history of Islam's quest for world domination....Arab Muslims kill each other and anyone else with impunity to insure Jihad succeeds. Why would we ever think they would not want to continue to kill us as well?
Sounds bad, alright. But as Caruba points out elsewhere, if the Muslims want to destroy us, they'll have to get in line:
The Greens and the Animal Rights groups use every protection afforded by the Constitution and every loophole in our legal and IRS codes to pursue their war on capitalism, property rights, and the welfare of this nation. They are a Socialist Taliban....While our attention is focused on the threat of the global Islamic Jihad, we also have to keep an eye on these groups.
Not crippled by anxiety yet? That's because you don't understand the UN's diabolical plan for global tyranny:
[T]his global octopus will spread its tentacles of power to impose global taxes....We will end up paying for our own enslavement.
We will, that is, if we live long enough. After all, liberal elites are trying to depopulate the earth:
Efforts to leave millions vulnerable to diseases can be seen in the US and UN-based attacks on the use of pesticides that contribute directly to the needless deaths of millions from Malaria and other insect and rodent-borne diseases.
Education could help, if it weren't in a state of socialist-inflicted crisis:
The present educational system does not effectively and successfully teach children to read or write well. It does not teach history or civics well. Pocket calculators have replaced the learned ability to compute anything in any way. It requires large numbers of those children to be medicated with mind-altering drugs.
Believe it or not, despite all this paranoia and scaremongering, Caruba really does think that the name "National Anxiety Center" is a humorously ironic reproach to this nation's prophets of doom.

(Note: If you want the links, you can get 'em through Google.)

Easterbrook Gets Crazier

No time for a clever preamble this time around. Suffice it to say that Gregg Easterbrook seems to be going completely around the bend:

The world's first international anti-global-warming agreement to take force is not the Kyoto treaty. It is a Bush Administration initiative, and you have not heard a peep regarding the initiative because the American press corps is pretending it does not exist.
Oh, the humanity!

It turns out that the object of Easterbrook's paranoid affection is Bush's "Methane to Markets" scheme. I'm sure he was looking nervously over his shoulder while typing this startling exposé of Operation Ignore Methane to Markets, lest some "enviro" should assassinate him with a curare-tipped dart shot from a fair-trade blowpipe made of organic bamboo.

Having offered a blunt summation of his conspiracy theory, he attempts a typically clumsy sleight-of-hand:
Needless to say you've probably never seen a front-page article with a headline like, BUSH TAKES STEP TO CUT GREENHOUSE GASES.
Isn't Easterbrook just the cleverest thing on two legs? First, we learn that the press is pretending the Bush scheme doesn't exist. Now, his complaint is merely that they didn't put the story on the front page, and give it a sufficiently flattering headline.

Of course, it might be wise, just for the sake of comparison, to consider how often news about climate-change negotiations makes it onto the front page of newspapers. But that's a question for another day. I do note that USA Today ran the story on July 28 of 2004, with the headline Bush plans trade in methane to curb climate change. That's not good enough for our Gregg, apparently. Nor does he approve, I'm sure, of the St. Petersburg Times article headed U.S. agrees to pitch in against greenhouse gas, which ran on November 17 of 2004.

The story was also covered by the New York Times on July 28 of 2004 (the article notes that Bush opposes regulating carbon dioxide emissions), and again on November 16. The Washington Post likewise discussed the plan on November 16.

None of this window-dressing matters, though, because Easterbrook's got a deadly conspiracy to unravel. Among other things, we learn that the scientific and popular focus on carbon dioxide - the most common greenhouse gas, of which the United States happens to be the world's largest source - is nothing more than an example of the "Blame-America-First Strategy," a very demanding bit of business which also calls for coordinated censorship of Bush's methane-reduction plans, and blind worship of unregenerate European socialists:
The press corps is pretending the anti-methane initiative does not exist in order to avoid inconvenient complications of the Black Hat versus White Hat narrative it has settled into regarding global warming. In this narrative, the White House is completely ignoring building scientific evidence of artificially triggered climate change; everything Bush does is wicked; everything the enlightened Euros do is noble....
He goes on and on and on like this, building to a crescendo shrill enough to shatter wineglasses at a hundred paces. And finally, after you've crossed this wasteland of paranoid raving and pseudoscientific posturing, he deigns to explain just what it is that makes Bush's plan so gosh-darned special:
The president has approved $53 million over the next five years to research ways to cut global methane emissions by 50 million metric tons of "carbon equivalent," the cumbersome term used for global warming calculations.
Isn't it amazing how vague Easterbrook can be when he feels like it? You'd think that if he really wanted to redress a solid year of willful journalistic neglect, he wouldn't be quite so stingy with the details.

Well, here's the deal as I understand it. Under the "Methane to Markets" plan, BushCo will hand $53 million of taxpayer money over to U.S. corporations, who will use it as seed money to elicit private investment in methane-recovery systems in poor countries (which, incidentally, must agree to remove any laws or regulations that would impede said investment).

There's really not a hell of a lot more to the plan than that, Easterbrook's sententious wrath notwithstanding. If we're lucky, everything will go as described and we'll prevent a significant amount of methane emissions. If not...well, I suppose the most likely result is that certain folks will walk away with a tidy sum of public money. One can lawfully debate how well the plan will work (most of Bush's plans fail miserably, after all), and whether it could possibly make up for Bush's utter neglect of almost every other scientific recommendation on climate change. But Easterbrook, curiously, prefers to worry his pretty little head over whether a description of the plan has appeared on the front page of American newspapers, under a suitably fawning headline.

Another thing that makes Easterbrook so utterly goddamn ridiculous is that Methane to Markets has been widely discussed in the environmental community, and has not uncommonly been welcomed as a step - albeit a depressingly small one - in the right direction. Here's one example. Here's another. And another. And yet another.

Isn't it amazing that all these "enviros" - whose feeble brains are supposedly in utter thrall to Easterbrook's "white hat/black hat" narrative - have managed to disseminate information on Bush's plan, and discuss it publicly (and sometimes even positively), despite their intense emotional need to keep it under wraps?

Clearly, these people will stop at nothing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Received Wisdom

Paul Kerr at Arms Control Wonk says he's shooting fish in a barrel by deconstructing Stephen Rademaker's obnoxious comments about WMD intelligence. Well, I'm not even going to work that hard; I'm simply going to fire a cannon directly into his barrel full of long-dead fish, from about an inch away.

Rademaker says:

I guess it's the received wisdom now that the Bush administration was all wrong in its assessment of Iraq. I think it's important to just recall that – I mean, errors may have been made but they were not simply made by the Bush administration. The judgments of the Bush administration with respect to weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq were the same judgments that the Clinton administration reached prior to the Bush administration.
It's true that other parties than the Bush administration had bad intelligence, Mr. Rademaker...but it's also true that this intelligence didn't inspire anyone else to lead a disastrous, incompetently prosecuted war on Iraq. The problem isn't that BushCo had bad intelligence; it's that it acted on it, despite knowing that it was false, insufficient, outdated, or some combination of the three.

Rademaker strives desperately to revive that sad old false dichotomy which says that BushCo's only options were to 1) invade Iraq, or 2) let Saddam do whatever the hell he wanted, without let or hindrance. No credible intelligence ever supported this daft assertion, and pretty much everyone but BushCo and its hebephrenic handmaidens has long since acknowledged as much.

Before 9/11, Colin Powell said containment and inspections had worked, and so did Condi Rice. The Clinton administration may indeed have thought Saddam was a threat, but even the most casual observer will note that Clinton did not go so far as to illegally and unnecessarily invade Iraq. No, it took George W. Bush and his cadre of professional liars, whores, profiteers, and thugs to do something that stupid. And I really don't think that BushCo gains much credibility by being compared to an administration that didn't use faulty or fraudulent intelligence as an excuse to squander America's blood and treasure.

The Watchdogs of the Free Press

The good folks at Behind the Homefront cordially invite you to put this in your pipe, and smoke it:

After counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke's top secret Jan. 25, 2001 White House memorandum was declassified last week, it was disseminated to ... one person: Barbara Elias, a researcher from the National Security Council, the Congressional Quarterly Web site reported on Friday.

[Note: this is a typo on BTH's part: Ms. Elias is actually from the invaluable National Security Archive at GWU]

Why was Elias the sole recipient? Despite the fact that gallons of ink have been spilled over the memorandum, she was the only person who ever bothered to actually make an FOI Act request for it.
This is one of those stories that I had to read several times before I could feel the proper amount of outrage. Not because it's complicated, God knows, but because it's so completely astonishing that my brain couldn't initially process it. After all those weeks of sober debate over Richard Clarke (i.e., conflating him with the host of "American Bandstand," and making childish insinuations about his sex life), not a single journalist saw fit to make a FOIA request for his January 25th memorandum?

It seems impossible...and yet, it also seems all too possible.

You can read the memorandum here.

Running On Fumes

Ford is planning to expand its groundbreaking fumes-to-fuel system:

Ford is turning paint fumes--the scourge of any auto manufacturing plant--into clean electricity. Its patented fumes-to-fuel technology, co-developed with the Detroit Edison unit of DTE Energy, could be worth millions in energy savings and licensing fees, Ford says.

"It's almost too good to be true," said Jay Richardson, redevelopment manager of Ford's historic Rouge Center in Dearborn, Mich., where the technology was first tested in 2003. Encouraged by the results, Ford is now putting larger-scale versions of the system into two other factories.
Actually, it is too good to be true, when you consider Ford's miserable track record on fuel efficiency; their cars continue to be the least fuel-efficient in the country.

It's great to reduce factory emissions, and better still to hire William McDonough to redesign your plant...but it doesn't make up for selling millions of cars with poor fuel efficiency and high emissions. Some of today's Fords get fewer miles per gallon than the Model T did in the early 1920s, and they've lobbied Congress to block an increase in CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards.

Until Ford starts making real progress on efficiency, their other innovations amount to little more than greenwashing.

Monday, February 14, 2005

A Pleasure Seeker

Here's further proof that the living dead walk among us:

A Christian minister claims the tsunami of Sunday, Dec. 26, killing at least 160,000 people, was direct result of "pleasure seekers" breaking God's Sabbath...."Some of the places most affected by the tsunami attracted pleasure-seekers from all over the world. It has to be noted that the wave arrived on the Lord's day, the day God set apart to be observed the world over as a holy resting from all employments and recreations that are lawful on other days."
I'd like to suggest that the Rev. John MacLeod, of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, is a "pleasure seeker" of a considerably more loathsome type: he takes pleasure in imagining that he's privy to the workings of "divine justice." And having found that this "justice" bears a gratifying resemblance to his own petty revenge fantasies, he allows himself to view an unimaginable catastrophe as a feather in his own cap. How flattering it is, after all, that God has the good sense to agree with him!

I'm tempted to wish that all the suffering and grief of tsunami victims, and their survivors, could be visited upon MacLoed in a paroxysm of agony that would blast the despicable old hypocrite's carcass into its constituent atoms. But I really prefer not to travel even that small distance in his direction. I'll merely paraphrase Isaac Asimov, and say that it doesn't matter whether God exists or not: MacLeod won't be getting the reward he expects in either case.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Shock and Awe In Indiana

Here's a pretty picture of human nature at its brightest:

Indiana farmers voted for President Bush in large numbers, but they didn't know his next budget would immediately begin cutting farm programs.


"When farmers face increased costs for seed, feed and fertilizer and increases in property taxes, there's no way they can pass those costs along to the next level," Villwock said. "Farmers need a reliable safety net for when times get tough."
Don't we all.

Let's see if I can explain what's going on here in simple terms. We had a certain amount of taxpayer money. Bush gave most of it to his friends and family. Then, he spent money we didn't have, and put the burden of debt on our children and grandchildren. That left us without enough money to pay our bills. And now, you folks who were so righteously indignant about other people's hand-outs and entitlements are learning that you're not going to get yours, either.

There's a lot of other stuff you're not going to get, and some of it is going to be very hard to live without. And you can't blame it on gays or liberals or Michael Moore. To use a homely agricultural metaphor, it's your own fault for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Enjoy your "victory," folks. Here's hoping your fond memories of Bush's "mandate" will keep your bones warm when winter rolls around and you can't pay your heating bills.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

BoBo In Purgatory

A dark cloud has crept across the face of that kindly sun whose honeyed light warms the verdant and undulant fields of BoBo's World, and this has driven the great man to an Agonizing Reappraisal:

There comes a time in any man's life when he realizes that he is an insignificant speck of dust careering aimlessly through the cosmic woof of time.
There ought to come a time in Brooks' life when he realizes that he writes some of the most abominable prose in the debased demimonde of American print journalism. This sentence is straight out of a stoned teenager's first stab at writing a science-fiction novel...though I admit that it does take a special sort of genius to divine the difference between significant and insignificant specks of dust.

What's eating Brooks, you ask? Why, nothing more nor less than the fact that he's not enough of a "playa" to get good baseball seats:
I have dreamed of sitting just behind the dugout with cadres of high-cheekbone Protestant "machers," sharing in the jollity that prevails when self-important people get together in circumstances that confirm their own self-importance, laughing at jokes no one bothered to tell, suppressing our motorcade-envy long enough to swap tidbits with Condi and Karl.
Brooks' jocular tone, and his effete raillery against "self-importance," can't hide the fact that being accepted as an equal by the Kool Kids is exactly what he's been dreaming of ever since he was old enough to understand that real men don't eat quiche. That's precisely what makes him the sniveling, cringing, lickspittle toady he is.
This is an age in which it is immoral to discriminate according to race or sex...
Actually, David, it's immoral to discriminate according to race or sex in all ages. After all, we're not moral relativists, are we?
We have worked up so many subtle gradations based on occupational status that if the characters from Edith Wharton novels could come to earth, they'd be so put off by our social stratifications they'd probably turn into Bolsheviks.
Jeez, BoBo...don't you know that literary allusion is a blue-state affectation? No wonder you don't get to hang with Karl and the gang. They don't have time for that Frenchified, sissy-boy chin music...they're busy blowing up frogs with firecrackers!

I love the idea, too, that Brooks is attempting to frighten us with the prospective disapprobation of this gaggle of recherché fictional characters. I wonder what Melmoth the Wanderer would think about social stratification among hack journalists? And what about Dr. Benjulia, the evil genius in Wilkie Collins' Heart and Science? Surely his stony heart would be moved to pity by the sad plight of David Brooks?
And what about us journalists? The beauty of Washington is that we have created the illusion that journalists are as important as the people we cover. It may be secretly true that we media types are actually like those haute couture sales clerks who think they have the right to be snooty because they once sold a thong to Courtney Cox.
It's not "secretly true"; it's Sunday-sure and pikestaff-plain to anyone with the intelligence of an axolotl. Strip away all the false humility from this passage, and Brooks is saying little more than "I degraded myself unconscionably for social gain, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Brooks' meandering j'accuse ends on a note of Jovian, but tightly controlled, wrath:
The V.I.P.'s must be taken care of, as they are in any other circumstance.
That's right, BoBo. And despite today's fit of infantile pique, you'll be wearing out your lyin' tongue on their boots in a matter of days. And you'll undoubedly still be wondering why a man who so reliably falls on his knees before mere power can't get any respect.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Given all the excitement at Rampaging PMS today, I don't think anyone will care...but this is the clown nudibranch.

Friday Hope Blogging

There are many incandescent words in the literature of hope, whose kindly beams light our tortuous path through this darkling world. But the brightest paean to hope that genius ever penned cannot, I think, compare in illuminate amplitude with these simple words of the Spice Girls:

"All you need is positivity!"
This most efficacious of spiritual exhortations long ago woke the ice-blasted wasteland of my heart to an unending springtime, where there is no sorrow save for the knowledge that so many fellow travelers still stagger across the blade-keen sastrugi of despair. To banish such miseries is to perfect my own joy. Thus, I'm obliged to do whatever I lawfully may to "spice up your life."

I'm hoping this preamble has gotten you hot and bothered enough that you'll actually enjoy reading about exciting innovations in continuously variable transmissions, which allow vehicles to run at up to 95 percent efficiency throughout their speed range. Apparently, this could save a great deal of fuel per year.

But actually, that's not really what I wanted to talk about. The CVT story comes from WorldChanging, where every day is hope-blogging day; the entire site is geared towards casting aside "vapid anger" and working towards solutions. It's not surprising, then, that they're butting heads with James Howard Kunstler, who is, to them, a proponent of oddly gleeful pessimism which they recognize, very cannily indeed, as a modern-day form of terriblisma:
...the strange, gratified awe one feels when beholding dreadful disasters and acts of God from afar.
Now, I like Kunstler - he's a fine writer who has said a great many constructive and wise things - but to the extent that he sees the horrors of a post-oil world as inescapable, the criticism is a fair one. Part of Kunstler's problem is that he believes Americans are "a wicked people who deserve to be punished." I understand that sentiment - I'm sure there's a world of sincere anger and heartache and disillusionment behind it - but whatever "punishment" comes our way is likely to take its greatest toll on the weakest people in our own country, and in countries around the world. For that reason alone, one can neither gloat over the idea of our downfall, nor sit idly by while it happens, nor even, truth be told, call it inescapable. We got where we are today by abdicating power and responsibility; abdicating more power and responsibility, or encouraging other people to do so through defeatism, isn't going to help anyone. At least, not anyone who matters.

In his article, Alex Steffen lists a number of promising trends:
Large-scale renewable energy projects combined with smart grids and distributed power; Green buildings, especially homes and workplaces which are greatly more efficient, filled with bright green products and appliances; Sustainable transportation systems; New methods of industrial production....this is all stuff we know how to do now....And what we can do today is only the beginning. Yes, the situation is serious and the consequences of failure grave, but we're also growing more and more able to deal with that situation.

What we lack is the vision and the will. The vision we're starting to get -- every day a new plan for rebuilding some key sector of the global economy on new, radically more sustainable lines crosses my desk (take, for instance, Lester Brown's vision of a gas-electric hybrid/ wind power economy). The will is taking a little longer. But I don't think we'll get that will by promoting apocalyptic scenarios. I think we'll get it by imagining a future worth fighting for, and cities worth building.
This may be counting our chickens before they're hatched, but it sure beats counting our dead before they're killed! Radically different and better ways of producing almost everything are either here right now, or are within our reach, and it's impossible not to be inspired and humbled by the hard work and creativity that brought us to this social and technological tipping-point. No matter what the future holds, this work is not in vain, and to promote the idea that it will come to nothing is, in an essential way, immoral. It's also very likely to be wrong.

Ask A Stupid Question...

Wow. Last night I wondered whether BushCo would be resuming simulant-based vulnerability tests over metropolitan areas.

This morning, I got my answer.

The Pepsi Degeneration

The folks at Infosential have set up a wiki to expose fake blogs - or "flogs" - created by corporations for marketing purposes. Eschewing the evocative in favor of the concrete, they've named it FakeBlogsWiki.

It's very small so far, but promising. If you're looking for laughs - hollow ones, especially - check out ThatPepsiGirl. This is supposedly a personal blog by a guy named "Justin," who's sexually obsessed (in a cute and harmless way, of course) with some dismal woman who appeared in a Pepsi ad during the Super Bowl.

In reality, Justin appears to be a creature spawned by the unholy coupling of Pepsi and iTunes. (Be sure to check out his Pepsi-floggin' profile!)

At one point, they try to defuse the site's creepy sexual implications by having Justin warn his inamorata that "there are some crazy people out there."

He's right. And most of 'em are in internet marketing. If ThatPepsiGirl were a real blog, nine out of ten people would view it as sinister or sad.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Vulnerability Testing?

Defense Tech has an interesting article on the failings of bio-sensors that are intended to detect biological and chemical weapons:

[D]espite the hundreds of millions of dollars dumped into the sensors, the gadgets are, for all intents and purposes, useless.

A quick example: for years, the military has been trying to put together bio-detectors that use laser radar, or LIDAR, to pick up toxic clouds. But the dust and organisms that naturally float around in the air often blind the sensors, absorbing the light before it gets to the cloud. And even when LIDAR sensors can see through the grime, they don't have the ability to figure out what that cloud actually is. Just like radar can only figure out the broad outlines of a plane, LIDAR only sees that there's a cloud of something biological in the air. But what exactly that something is -- the sensors can't tell. Pollen, anthrax, and diesel exhaust all look about the same, according to Al Lang, a LIDAR researcher at Sandia National Laboratories.
That's unfortunate, if true, though it's not really surprising. But here's what I'd like to know: Will BushCo resume urban biowarfare tests using live but "harmless" bacteria (or other simulant agents)? When LIDAR tests are conducted, are they conducted in an artificial atmosphere mimicking the average city's air? Do testers simulate the effects of buildings and automobiles and convection from subway grates? Under what variety of conditions were these results obtained?

It's really not an unreasonable question. BushCo has presided over a renaissance of BW experimentation, and "vulnerability testing" in cities was a hallmark of earlier BW programs. We know that open-air tests using simulants have been conducted in proving grounds since 9/11.

I'm inevitably reminded of what Saul Hormats, former chief scientist at the Edgewood Arsenal, said in 1985, as quoted in Clouds of Secrecy, Dr. Leonard Coles' book on vulnerability testing in populated areas:
"Our whole attitude in matters of this kind was different then...but today I would say this sort of thing would be reprehensible...I'm speaking of me today. You have a lot of people in the Pentagon who just don't give a damn, and that bothers me."
Hormat thought a new round of simulant testing over populated areas was likely to happen during the Reagan era. I have no idea if it did, but it's pretty hard to see how else one could get reliable data on the behavior of an aerosol cloud as it interacts with the unique vortices and eddies and thermal gradients of a big city.

There's no real point to this post, mind's all just idle, late-night speculation. Defense Tech makes the far more serious point that a practical early-warning system requires excellent public-health infrastructure. The fact that ours is an utter goddamn shambles is far more disturbing to me than the fact that a gaggle of fancy bio-sensors don't work properly.

Sound Resource Management

I recently spent the weekend birdwatching around California's Central Valley. It was pretty amazing. It's migration season, and in some places we saw Ross's geese and Sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands. From a distance, one field seemed at first to be covered in snow. The amount of noise they made was unbelievable, even from half a mile away.

It was hunting season. At the trailheads where hunting was permitted, there were pick-ups and SUVs surrounded by pudgy white men in khaki pants. Most had guns, and a few pulled little carts laden with dead birds whose necks dragged in the dirt. We pulled into one lot, and our bland but very incongruous rental car was given a palpably hostile once-over. We left immediately, assuming we'd transgressed against some unwritten law.

I'm often told how grateful I should be to hunters, because most of the wetlands that are left in this country were bought or restored with their money. And honestly, I am grateful. I 'll admit that I don't comprehend why someone would want to blast a goose out of the sky instead of admiring it in flight, but I do recognize that this is a less-than-ideal world and well-regulated hunting is necessary for the greater good. I've had people tell me this a million times, and I've always agreed. And why shoudn't I? It's completely true.

But there's an important part of this story that tends to get left out: the federal government literally had to force hunters into the conservation efforts that they're so very, very proud of today. Hunting is a perfect example of those game-theoretic situations where the pursuit of individual gain causes an overall loss for everyone. Birds are a renewable resource, but only provided they're given sufficient latitude to renew themselves. And it's the government - not hunters - that gave them what latitude they enjoy today.

Most people who are avid birdwatchers are familar with the classic series of ornithological books by Arthur Cleveland Bent, which were written in the early years of the twentieth century. On page after page, he describes the total or near-total destruction of bird species: some for food, some for pointless "sport," and some for their plumes. By 1913, the situation was so dire that the federal government stepped in and put migratory birds under its protection. In particular, the wood duck, an indescribably beautiful bird, had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, a thirty-year moratorium on hunting these birds - and strict regulation of hunting after that - brought their numbers up to fairly safe levels.

In 1934, the government designed a duck stamp, which every hunter was required to buy along with a hunting license. Since then, the money from sales of the stamp has paid to protect nearly forty million acres of wetlands. (If a conservative ever challenges you to name a federal program that works, mention the duck stamp program and watch him sputter and stammer.)

Nobody's perfect, of course. Like many people, hunters had to be forced to do the right thing initially...but in the years since, they've done a fair amount of good for birds and the environment, often purposefully. And if they want to strut around and bellow about how they're "the real conservationists," I usually figure there's no harm in letting them enjoy themselves.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at deranged, dishonest nonsense like this:

Lead ammunition won't be banned for big-game hunters in California, as least not in the short term, and four proposed projects to convert capped wells in the Mojave National Preserve to wildlife water sources have been approved by the National Park Service.

Both of these decisions are major victories for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts who are interested in sound resource management and efforts to protect and improve wildlife habitat.
No, that's not a typo. According to this writer - who clearly thinks of himself as one of the real conservationists - the fact that hunters can still litter the ground with lead ammunition is a victory for people who want to "improve wildlife habitat." And it's not just a victory: it's also an example of "sound resource management" ("sound" being yet another word we'll have to throw on the ash-heap thanks to the radical right).

When she worked at a wildlife hospital, my wife treated animals with lead poisoning fairly often...birds, mostly. When they died, as they generally did, she usually found lead pellets in their stomachs or gizzards. There are hundreds of pellets in a single shotgun shell, so even when an animal is hit, most of the shot goes onto the ground or into the water. The government made it illegal to shoot waterfowl with lead shot in 1991, but some hunters still use it anyway, and lead shot is routinely used on other game. And of course, ammunition that contaminated the ground and water before the ban still poses a problem...not least for the hunters who unwittingly eat lead-laden birds.

It's very true that birdwatchers, conservationists, and hunters need to find common ground if they're to withstand BushCo's unprecedented attack on the environment. But ignorant, unscientific, dishonest, smug articles like the one above make it very hard. Thankfully, there are hunters who aren't as stupid and callous as this self-styled spokesman for "sound resource management." They really need to speak out against his brand of idiocy.

Anti-Social Behaviour Order

PublicOrgTheory has a must-read post on England's grotesque, neo-Stalinist attempt at curbing "anti-social behavior," which includes...well, just about anything other people do that you happen not to like (starting illegal wars excepted, of course):

Troublemakers as young as ten years old can be barred from entering neighbourhoods, ringing doorbells, using public transport and mobile phones or even uttering certain words for a minimum of two years. Securing an ASBO is easy. Hearsay evidence, for instance, is admissible in court. The consequences of stepping out of line are weighty: a maximum of five years in prison for doing something that is not necessarily an offence in law. Not surprisingly, such a powerful weapon is popular: more than a thousand ASBOs were handed out in the first half of 2004.
All together now: "If you're innocent, you have nothing to fear!"

Educated Fools

There's a constant, wearisome debate in our media over hybrid cars and organic food. Do they really do what they're supposed to do? Will customers really pay more for their alleged benefits? The framing of these arguments usually involves a heroic effort to ignore obvious facts about both markets, which I'll address in turn.

First, hybrids. In November of 2003, we were informed that hybrid cars have no mainstream appeal. But in June of 2004, demand was so high that dealers simply couldn't keep hybrids in stock.

In December of 2004, Honda said that it expects hybrid sales to double in 2005. But on January 12 of 2005, we learned that hybrids face a bleak future:

For hybrid vehicles at this year's North American International Auto Show, the "wow" factor is over....Since 2000, U.S. hybrid sales have grown at an average annual rate of 88.6 percent, according to Michigan-based R.L. Polk & Co. But to keep posting those kinds of gains, automakers will have to keep improving hybrid engines and keep hybrid prices down. Hybrids currently cost around $3,000 to $4,000 more than regular gas versions.
Pardon my recourse to vulgarity, but can you believe this bullshit? A product with an average annual growth rate of 88.6 percent is doing just fine; most manufacturers would be ecstatic to see demand grow at a quarter of that rate. And the need to keep improving engines isn't some crisis that heralds the hybrid's doom; on the contrary, the need for constant improvement (or the appearance of improvement) is a basic fact of life in the automotive industry. As to the last comment, here's a really revolutionary idea: if you're saving money on gas, you can factor the total amount you'll save annually into the cost of the car.

Still, the debate rages on. Hybrid vehicle sales doubled in 2004, sure, but they might reach a plateau by 2010! On second thought, they will reach a plateau by 2010, if not before! (These are two different articles about the same which came from the same firm who said in November of 2003 that hybrids had no mainstream appeal.)

Then again, maybe hybrids do have mainstream appeal! Or maybe not!

Here's the problem, as I see it. Commentators, for the most part, are thinking of hybrids as gas-saving vehicles. Consequently, they tend to predict sales based on how consumers are feeling about gas prices, and how well hybrid technology meets the public desire for fuel efficiency. But the Prius, for instance, also represents a fairly radical change in design; it has attractive features that have nothing to do with fuel efficiency, and these features also drive sales. The appeal of a product like the Prius is the sum total of all its real and perceived benefits; if you concentrate on the single feature of the hybrid engine, you miss the point. You don't recognize that some consumers will say "I love the way this car looks, I love the way it feels...and it gets better mileage!"

Regardless of the future of hybrids (or whether they're actually "green" in any meaningful sense), the companies that first made them are making good marketing decisions and good design decisions, and that's very likely to keep them ahead of the curve in years to come. To reduce all these complex marketing issues to some kneejerk neoclassical trade-off between price and fuel efficiency is just silly.

You'd think that by now, we would've completely given up the idea that people reliably make buying decisions based on price. That was supposed to be the reason organic farming was doomed to ignominious failure, remember? Well, it turns out it wasn't a failure at all...but that's apparently because people are so goddamn stupid and irrational:
Ten years ago, Wegmans threw away much of its organic produce, but not anymore. The stores' overall sales have jumped 70 percent since last year. Wegmans has responded by increasing organic offerings, especially at its upscale stores.

Wegmans' nutritionist Jane Andrews said that people are buying based on feelings and not necessarily fact. "Customers want to believe that it's better for them, that it's safer, that it's more nutritious. I can't say that, because there is no proof," she said.
Maybe not. But there's ample proof that the processes inherent in conventional agribusiness are socially harmful, whether its food products are safe or not; the idea that an increasing number of consumers recognize this, and are making moral decisions based on it, has apparently never occurred to most experts (though one scientist quoted in the article above concedes that organic farming "does have a bit of an advantage, because it may be more environmentally friendly").

Experts have repeatedly failed to recognize the potential of products of this type, largely because they labor under a narrow, reductive view of what drives buying decisions. The notion that some consumers have an honest, altruistic motive for buying a given product (whether that motive is realistic or not) simply doesn't come naturally to them, no matter how many times they hear people say they're doing just that. Nor does the idea that some people avoid certain food products out of sincere moral horror. I've been longing to introduce another cumbersome, pretentious phrase into the lexicon of cultural theory, so I'll call this phenomenon "apotropaic consumption": buying intended to ward off evil. Remember, you heard it here first!

In terms of organic food, some of the more highbrow commentators do invoke the spectre of conspicuous consumption, especially as regards what Veblen called "the ceremonial differentiation of the dietary." But again, this is overly reductive. Neither "rational self-interest," nor conspicuous consumption, nor irrational fads, nor the three combined, can sufficiently explain current consumer trends. As long as experts fail to recognize this, they'll keep making fools of themselves with the sort of articles I've quoted here.

History For Dummies

AMERICAblog has an interesting quote from the fundamentalist American Family Association:

When Chief Justice John Marshall tried to force a national bank upon President Andrew Jackson, Jackson responded, "Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."
A national bank? Andrew Jackson's alleged response to Marshall was in regard to the Supreme Court's ruling on Worcester v. Georgia (1832), which said, in essence, that the Cherokee nation - which had a constitutional government - was sovereign, and that the state of Georgia had no right to confiscate its land and relocate its people.

To put it more bluntly, the Cherokee sued Georgia in the highest U.S. court, and won. Legally, Jackson had no right to evict them from their land (which, coincidentally, had been found to contain gold the same year Congress passed the Indian Removal Act). But he did it anyway, and the Cherokee were driven from Georgia on a forced march that is now known as the "Trail of Tears."

Though the quote attributed to Jackson certainly reflects his contempt for the rule of law, serious historians agree that he never actually said it.

This is not a particularly obscure bit of history, and Worcester v. Georgia is widely considered to have been one of the most important decisions the Supreme Court ever made (you can read the full text here). I find it very interesting that in an article urging Bush to follow Jackson's lead, the AFA has completely misrepresented what Jackson actually did. I know conservatives who think that Jackson's treatment of the Cherokee is one of the most shameful acts ever committed by a United States president.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Third Views, Second Sights

I honestly do realize that it's time (again) to stop boring everyone with obsessive posts on land use/cultural geography issues. But before I move on, I have to take a moment to plug Third Views, Second Sights, an absolutely wonderful book and DVD-ROM documenting Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe's ongoing "Rephotographic Survey of the American West."

Third View revisits the sites of historic western American landscape photographs. The project makes new photographs, keeps a field diary of its travels, and collects materials useful in interpreting the scenes, change and the passage of time.

The Third View project began in 1997 and completed fieldwork in the year 2000. Over the course of four years the project revisited 109 historic landscape sites, all subjects of nineteenth-century American western survey photographs. The project’s "rephotographs" were made from the originals’ vantage points with as much precision as possible. Every attempt was also made to duplicate the original photographs' lighting conditions, both in time of day and year.
Earlier rephotographic work appeared several years ago in a fine book called Second View, but the current project goes farther and fares better. The DVD-ROM includes automatic photo-animations, so that users can see changes at certain sites over roughly 150 years. The effect is beautiful and thought-provoking: People fade into mounds of dirt, trees spring up on barren hillsides, lakes evaporate, huge buildings rise and fall. Before long, the idea of an "inexorable trend" towards growth seems even sillier than usual. (You can see versions of these animations here, but be warned that they don't do justice to the remarkably fluid animations on the DVD-ROM.)

Of course, there are the sort of changes you'd expect (a wild landscape of falling water and cliffs morphs into an overgrown field behind a chain-link fence; an odd geological attraction is replaced by a highway and a traffic sign). But what's far more instructive is how many towns - important ones - literally vanish, as whatever opportunities they once represented turn sour. This, I suspect, is the long-term fate of a lot of current "boomburbs" in the West - especially in places like the Central Valley, where the employment rate lags very, very far behind the development rate - and this is precisely why good design is so important. Much of our sprawl uses toxic and unrecyclable materials that are hard to disassemble and harder still to dispose of safely. (That's one reason why innovations in prefab housing design are so valuable.)

If this subject interests you, pick up the book by all means! It's one of the best multimedia productions I've ever seen...I spent a couple hours playing around with the DVD-ROM, and there're still lots of features I haven't explored...