Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Ancient Feud

John Derbyshire lays down his semen-spattered anthology of Kipling poems long enough to turn a gimlet eye on Mark Steyn's new book, and proclaim himself displeased.

The bone of contention seems to be that while Steyn loves the British Empire as passionately as any Serious Man must, he doesn’t understand that its like will not be here again:

Like many another, Mark is dazzled to blindness by the example of the British Empire. Note to Mark: It was a one-off.
That said, Derbyshire is quick to point out that Steyn's grasp of geopolitics is, in some respects, nearly the equal of his own:
At the end of the book Mark says we have three options: submission to Islam, the destruction of Islam, or the reform of Islam. Just so, just so.
I'm annoyed that Derb has given away the book's ending, but I'm happy to learn that he and Steyn - the Clausewitz and Rommel of their day - have managed, against all odds, to find common ground on the question of the Raghead Menace.

The first of these options can be ruled out right away: We can't submit to those confounded Muslim chappies. For one thing, there'd be no more ogling underdressed fifteen-year-old girls for Derbyshire. It's a safe bet that the Islamomaniacs don't like show tunes, either, which puts them at loggerheads with Steyn. Submitting to Islam is simply a nonstarter, no matter how much the jihadists share our hatred of fags, uppity women, frivolous lawsuits, and poststructuralist theory.

On the other hand - and this is where our bright boys give Sun Tzu a run for his money - we can exterminate the brutes. The complete "destruction of Islam" may be impossible, but what kind of defeatist would refuse to give it a whirl?

When Steyn claims that we can "reform Islam," I assume that this means nuking Mecca, at the very least. In the first place, "reform" usually means "destroy now and forever" in wingnut-speak. And Steyn and Derbyshire have insisted elsewhere on the perfect, implacable enmity of Der Ewige Muselmann.

Speaking of implacable enmity, Thomas Gallagher's book Paddy’s Lament quotes 19th-century British political economists to the effect that the mass migration of the Irish only seemed to reduce the threat posed to England by Celtic subnormality; the danger remained that these sickly Irish weeds would thrive and bloom unnaturally when transplanted to American soil. The London Times understood precisely what this would mean for Civilization:
We shall only have pushed the Celt westwards. Then, no longer cooped up between the Liffey and the Shannon, he will spread from New York to San Francisco, and keep up the ancient feud at an unforeseen advantage…To the end of time a hundred million spread over the largest habitable area in the world, and, confronting us everywhere by sea and land, will remember that their forefathers paid tithes to the Protestant clergy, rent to absentee landlords, and a forced obedience to the laws which these had made.
What makes the Irish so frightening, you'll note, is the notion that they might be holding a grudge. Their mistreatment in the past actually mandates their mistreatment in the present.

It's all fairly silly, like reading Victorian warnings against self-pollution. But it was serious and sober enough at the time, and the science of comparative physiognomy could confirm Irish viciousness in the rare cases when anecdotal evidence didn't.

I assume that Derbyshire and Steyn are wistful about the British Empire because they're both given to laborious affectation; yammering about the glory of the Raj and the ingratitude of the wogs is cheaper, easier to master, and manlier than wearing a monocle. But I suspect they also like it because it was an era in which the White Race was as ideal and effortless a subject for the sentimental palette as Children Found Dead in the Snow. Given how much of their political program comes from this sort of childish, crackpot aestheticism, it's no wonder that, as Thers says, it's "unachievable in any real universe."

(Illustration from Comparative Physiognomy by James W. Redfield, 1852.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

For your consideration: Chromodoris kuniei.

(Photo by Tom Isgar).

Friday Hope Blogging

While there’s been some furious debate lately about the doings at Oak Ridge National Lab, I hope we can all agree that this is a pretty good idea:

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a four-foot wide solar collector that is mounted atop a building to collect sunlight and focus it into bundles of plastic fiber optics. This light is piped into the building, where hybrid fixtures fitted with diffusion rods spread the light in all directions. One solar collector can power up to 12 hybrid fixtures, producing enough light to illuminate 1,000 square feet.
Stirling engines are on the march:
Infinia, a company based in Kennewick, Washington, plans to release a Stirling solar dish about the size of a large satellite TV receiver. Instead of using photovoltaic cells, it will use the sun's heat to generate electricity. Standard solar photovoltaic panels are generally 12 percent to 15 percent efficient at converting light to electricity, though some can go up to 22 percent. Infinia's planned 3-kilowatt Stirling engine will operate at 24 percent efficiency.
Some Bay Area cities are lowering their outrageous permit fees for solar installations; the fees are now merely stupid and counterproductive, instead of corrupt. Still, it’s progress!

Solar-powered ice cream has a nice ring to it. But not as nice as this:
Researchers found that moderate amounts of alcohol – amounts equivalent to a couple of drinks a day for a human – improved the memories of laboratory rats.
Glad tidings indeed. Speaking of which...what was I going to talk about next? Can't seem to recall. Hold on a moment...

There now, thash muxh beterer. You go aheda an read this while I lied own for a munite:
Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia can now detect the spread of skin cancer cells through the blood by literally listening to their sound. The unprecedented, minimally invasive technique causes melanoma cells to emit noise, and could let oncologists spot early signs of metastases -- as few as 10 cancer cells in a blood sample -- before they even settle in other organs.
[Insert obligatory joke about Paris Hilton’s album here.]

WorldChanging reports on a new phone-accessible database that helps villagers in Bangladesh drill arsenic-free wells:
To access the database, a user sends a series of short messages to pinpoint their location based on either village name or geographic coordinates. Using data from previously drilled wells in the vicinity, the database calculates the safe start depth for the well at which arsenic concentrations are not likely to be toxic. The database also reports the probability of finding arsenic-free water at a certain depth.
Also from WC, a wonderful story about an Irish town that’s trying to reinvent itself, as the result of a plan devised by local students. If you’ve forgotten what democracy and common sense look like, this story may cheer you up. In a somewhat similar vein, check out this story on the community-wide effects of foreclosures, and what several groups are doing to prevent them.

In last week’s FHB comments, I was promoting radiolarians as an ideal Friday blogging life form. For more details, I direct you to Radiolaria.org. I also recommend a visit to the Micropolitan Museum of Microscopic Art Forms, whence comes this incredible image of “Scaly Hairs of Elaeagnus illuminated with polarised light.”

(Photo at top via Pruned.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Danger and Opportunity

The Indonesian mud eruption, which continues unabated after six months, is contributing to the world's storehouse of scientific and philosophical knowledge almost as quickly as it's burying factories and towns under hot sludge. For example, the SF Chronicle has used data gleaned from the eruption to pinpoint the precise difference between an unfortunate accident and a mindboggling catastrophe:

Only the vast scale of the flow, which began when a gas borehole was sunk, distinguishes the disaster from hundreds of lesser ones blamed on Indonesian mining companies.
That's a subtle difference indeed, and it's good to have it sorted out at last.
Refugees on the lake edge can point out the rooftops of their homes poking out of the 16-foot-deep, foul-smelling muck. Tests are being conducted to discover if the mud contains toxic chemicals.
I'm glad to hear that they're testing the mud, especially now that it's 16 feet deep. There are health issues to consider, of course, but the presence of toxins could also complicate disposal. I don't know much about Indonesian environmental laws, but in the USA, most landfills would refuse to accept 175,000 cubic feet of toxic mud per day unless it were sited in a minority neighborhood.

One alternative would be to dump the mud into the sea, but that would provoke the wrath of environmentalist Chicken Littles:
The government's latest idea is to dump millions of tons of mud in a river flowing into the nearby sea, but environmentalists fear that could devastate fish stocks by fouling the waters.
Those environmentalists are always afraid of something. Hell, I bet they were against the drilling too, despite its value to the local economy.

Have any of these alarmists ever stopped to consider that millions of tons of mud might not devastate fish stocks? For all we know, dumping could improve fish stocks, and help to feed the hungry on the other side of the world.

I just now asked a Javanese businessman what he thought about this theory, and his answer was reassuring:
You know, nature's going to respond to this mud eruption. It'll adapt on its own. What the eruption really represents is an economic issue. That's really what it is. How do we adapt to the millions of tons of hot, stinking mud that could be spewing out of this hole for decades? And how do we capitalize on that economic opportunity? And this is really, I think, where we're going to come ahead of the game because we're not looking at it as being a negative impact. It has a lot of positive impacts.
This is absolutely correct. Many motivational speakers have observed that the Chinese word for "crisis" comprises the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Although it's not true, it still teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of maintaining a spirit of can-do optimism when attempting to cash in on chaos and misery. Here are some folks who understand this perfectly:
A small army of spiritualists, religious worthies and psychics cast spells, prayers and incantations by moonlight on the stinking ooze, inspired by hopes of winning a 100 million rupiah (about $10,000) prize promised by a desperate village chief to anyone who can stop the mud.
$10,000 is serious money in any man's English, so I'd like to take this opportunity to announce that as of...wait for it...1:45 PM PDT, I am praying fervently to Echidne for the mud to stop. In addition to being a goddess in her own right, she's on friendly terms with Lempo and his army of mooses, so you can pretty much consider this divine intervention a done deal. As soon as the flow ends, or even slackens appreciably, I'll expect the money to be wired into my bank account.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Get Rich or Die Tryin'

If you were heartened by the benefits of runaway climate change to Greenland's 50,000 beleaguered souls, you'll be glad to know that the Arctic's doom will likewise be the salvation of Churchill, Manitoba (population 1,110). Here's local luminary Darren Ottoway, explaining the hard facts the rest of us are missing:

You know, nature's going to respond to global warming. It'll adapt on its own. What global warming really represents is an economic issue. That's really what it is. How do we adapt to changing weather and climate? And how do we capitalize on that economic opportunity? And this is really, I think, where we're going to come ahead of the game because we're not looking at it as being a negative impact. It has a lot of positive impacts.
I'm certain that nature will respond to global warming. But there's no reason to assume that this response will be comfortable, or even survivable, for us. The idea that the world's loss could somehow be Churchill's gain involves a degree of smug alienation that I can't even begin to fathom; civic boosterism in response to Arctic meltdown is Babbittry on an almost cosmic scale, and it reaffirms that money is to mediocrities what glue traps are to mice.

Although I've often complained about the left-wing tendency to long for an environmental apocalypse in much the same way that fundamentalists long for the Rapture, I do understand the desire to see these vexing arguments settled once and for all. Obviously, I'd prefer not to have humanity wiped out (or even made to suffer so much as a stubbed toe, honestly). But if a global catastrophe must happen, there's some cold comfort to be had in the thought that it'll permanently knock the dollar signs from the eyes of people like Darren Ottoway.

Ugly Memories

I'm glad Tony Snow informed me that "racism isn't that big a deal anymore." Otherwise, I'd be troubled by news like this:

African-American Medicare patients fare worse than whites even when they belong to the same health plan, according to a study released today that provides new evidence of the persistent medical divide between the races.
And this:
While the incidence of breast cancer in Latinas is 40 percent lower than that of non-Hispanic white women, Latinas are 20 percent more likely to die from it than white women diagnosed at the same age and stage and are more likely to be diagnosed with larger breast tumors, according to "Cancer Facts & Figures for Hispanics/Latinos," a report put out by the group.
And this:
Older black adults are less likely than whites to have their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar under control, even if they belong to a high-quality Medicare plan, researchers reported Tuesday.
And this:
Poor and minority neighborhoods suffered the brunt of Katrina's fury, but residents living in white neighborhoods have been three times as likely as homeowners in black neighborhoods to seek state help in resolving insurance disputes, according to an Associated Press computer analysis.
To a certain extent, I think this last story is a key to the others. One obvious reason not to seek help is the belief that one won't get it, or that it won't be worth the effort. I've previously discussed effort optimism in regards to education and employment. What today's stories have in common, I think, is that they demonstrate the effect of effort pessimism on communication itself:
Kitchens also didn't know she could appeal Allstate Corp.'s settlement offer to the state, but doubts it would have changed anything. Her husband, she said, simply lost faith that anyone would help.

"My husband didn't want to be bothered. I asked him, 'Why don't we sue the insurance company?' He said, 'They ain't going to do nothing .'
Snow said that racism is "quickly becoming an ugly memory." Putting aside the fact that Snow's wrong, and the fact that unless he were a mindreader he'd have no basis for this claim, and the fact that he's a soulless jackal who should be sealed into a barrel of fleas and catapulted into the sun, he misses the point entirely. A white person's "ugly memory" of racism will trigger a very different emotional response from that of a black person, for the simple reason that the white person's ugly memory is not a memory of being treated badly for being black.

A minor distinction, I realize, but an important one when assessing relative levels of effort optimism.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Instructions from Hell

As I'm sure you know, the Invisible Hand has left us unnecessarily vulnerable to a deadly flu pandemic. A new WHO press release explains the obvious, yet again:

Relying on market-driven forces alone, it is estimated that by 2008-2009 the production of pandemic influenza vaccine will not exceed 2.34 billion doses per year. At present, the production capacity for seasonal influenza vaccine stands at 350 million doses.
Revere finds this unacceptable:
The US has already burned hundreds of billions of dollars in their ill-fated Iraq debacle. Just ten billion of that, had it been invested in vaccines for the world's population in March of 2003, would have put us much further ahead.
No doubt. But bullets and bombs follow their own unique laws of supply and demand, which transcend ordinary economic pressures. Speaking of which, Arms Control Wonk notes that The Onion recently published one of its most incisive “jokes” ever:
Across the country, North Korean citizens cheered wildly after learning their nation had violently transformed the equivalent of 2.3 billion hot meals, 11 million housing units, and 1,700 hospitals into their component atoms.
That Kim Jong Il sure is crazy, huh?

Meanwhile, India faces a polio outbreak:
India has reported 416 cases of polio in 2006 - more than a quarter of the world total, a senior federal health ministry official said on Tuesday….Polio has been largely eliminated in most of the world but still exists in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s well beyond horrifying that any child could contract polio in this day and age. But the problem here isn’t just economic. In each of these countries, there are Muslims who fear that the West intends to use vaccinations to wipe them out.

It's easy to feel impatient with these people, whose fanaticism blinds them to the fact that while we might bomb Muslims indiscriminately, or imprison and torture them indefinitely, or dump toxic waste along their shorelines, we are not going to shoot their children up with pathogen-laced vaccines.

Then again, no sooner do I say this than I imagine John Derbyshire quoting Winston Churchill on biological warfare: "I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by psalm-singing uninformed defeatists."

After all, we face an existential crisis, and like bacteria, we must adapt to win:
Infectious disease can play a key role in mediating the outcome of competition between rival groups, as seen in the effects of disease-bearing conquistadors in the New World--or, on a much smaller ecological scale, the ability of bacteria to spread their viruses to competing bacteria. In a new study, researchers have compared two different general ways in which bacteria compete with one another, and they have found that each strategy seems to be particularly effective under different ecological circumstances--for example, depending on whether the bacteria are rare invaders or abundant residents….

The findings show that the release of chemical toxins is superior as a resident strategy to repel invasions, whereas the release of parasites is superior as a strategy of invasion..
I seem to have drifted - ever so slightly - from the subject of public health. In a new Scientific American article, Jeffrey Sachs argues – some would say “proves,” though I prefer to leave the burden of proof to our heartbreaking experience of everyday life – that conservatarian economics is a snare and a delusion, not least because Hayek was mistaken on a couple of basic points. Comparing Scandinavian “nanny states” to the USA, Sachs points out that we’re a good deal further along the Road to Serfdom than they are:
The results for the households at the bottom of the income distribution are astoundingly good, especially in contrast to the mean-spirited neglect that now passes for American social policy. The U.S. spends less than almost all rich countries on social services for the poor and disabled, and it gets what it pays for: the highest poverty rate among the rich countries and an exploding prison population. Actually, by shunning public spending on health, the U.S. gets much less than it pays for, because its dependence on private health care has led to a ramshackle system that yields mediocre results at very high costs.
If it’s a stretch to propose a correspondence between the self-destructive beliefs of anti-vaccination Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, and those of the average free-market fanatic in the USA, it's mainly because the Muslims can justify their paranoia, to some extent, by pointing to real-world examples of slaughter, torture, and eternal imprisonment. By contrast, the free marketeer’s repudiation of public health is based on nothing more substantial than hot air, and the weird certainty that we can build Heaven by following instructions from Hell.

UPDATE: Cervantes makes pretty much the same argument, but with statistics and without the insomnia-addled free association.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Here we have Polycera sp., whose "leaps should be set to the flageolet."

Photo by Jun Imamoto.

Friday Hope Blogging

From my standpoint, the best news this week comes from Grrl Scientist.

In other news, WorldChanging discusses the finalists for this year’s Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. All the ideas are interesting, but this one – which was contrived by India’s Appropriate Rural Technology Institute - is especially impressive:

[N]ew compact biogas technology developed by the inspirational Dr. Karve and his team of engineers, needs only vegetable residues, waste food and grain. Its daily consumption is just 1kg of feedstock (such as waste flour, leftover food, spoilt grain, spoilt milk, over-ripe fruit, green leaves and oil cakes) as opposed to the 40kg of cow dung needed for the traditional plants. From this small amount of feedstock it produces 500 litres of gas. The digestion process is also much quicker - taking place within 48 hours instead of the 40 days required when using dung.
SunPower has managed to make solar panels that are 22-percent efficient, with an output of 315 watts:
Compared with conventional solar panels, the new SPR-315 allows customers to generate up to 50 percent more power per square foot of roof area with half as many panels. If all goes as planned, you'll be able to add them to your roof in Spring 2007.
A company is attempting to get electricity from lightning:
Alternative Energy Holdings plans to be the first company to tap into the natural energy produced by a thunderstorm. The company says it has successfully developed a prototype which can collect power from the ground area surrounding a strike. This power can then be converted into electricity and sold through existing power grids.
Don’t know if it’ll work, but I love the idea!

An innovation I spotlighted a couple of months ago is now being field-tested:
Every step taken through ticket gates at JR Tokyo Station now helps generate electricity. East Japan Railway Co. started experimenting Monday with a device that converts vibrations from footsteps into electricity.
The EU is banning power-sucking appliances that use electricity even when they’re turned off:
Televisions with wasteful standby settings and DVD players that never switch off will be banned by regulations to be proposed by Brussels tomorrow to force households to cut energy use by 20 per cent.
I must say, I’d prefer that sort of authoritarianism to the brand we’ve got now.

A quart of oil goes into each 18”-square carpet sample, and these samples generally head straight for the nearest landfill after use. A new company aims to do something about it:
Tricycle has designed a digital modeling system called SIM that replaces physical sampling with a computer-generated replica which can be printed on recyclable paper, requiring no oil, and using 95% less energy and water than carpet. It's a clear example of the way technology can eliminate waste, conserve resources, and save companies money.
Vermont is offering loans to help dairy farmers go organic:
Called the Organic Transition Program, it offers farmers loans of up to $20,000 to defray the costs of switching to organic dairy production.
The DoD’s plan to dump VX hydrolysate in the Delaware River, which I’ve discussed numerous times, will have to undergo review by the GAO:
The bipartisan group of New Jersey lawmakers said the measure could cripple the Army's plan to dump a treated, watered-down form of the VX nerve agent called hydrolysate into the river at Deepwater, N.J.
This is absolutely fascinating:
Using grammar rules alongside test tubes, biologists may have found a promising new way to fight nasty bacteria, including drug-resistant microbes and anthrax.

Studying potent natural bacteria-fighters called anti-microbial peptides, biologists found that they seemed to follow rules of order and placement that are similar to simple grammar laws. Using those new grammar-like rules for how these anti-microbial peptides work, scientists created 40 new artificial bacteria-fighters.
And this is pretty amazing too:
Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington and eight collaborating institutions report in this week's Science a self-sustaining community of bacteria that live in rocks 2.8 kilometers below Earth's surface. Think that's weird? The bacteria rely on radioactive uranium to convert water molecules to useable energy.
No obvious practical implications, beyond a deeper understanding of the fact that we really know very little about the place where we live.

Apropos of which, I just stumbled on a stunning Flickr set of Chinese landscapes by tictoc912.

The Museum of the History of Science has a new exhibit called Drug Trade, which comprises apothecary jars and labels from 16th to 18th century Europe.

Sydney’s marvelous Powerhouse Museum - one of my favorite places on earth - has a blog on science and sustainability issues, called Free Radicals….very interesting and nicely done.

The spectral orb in the top photo is the sun, as seen through an extreme ultraviolet imaging telescope. You can find other gorgeous solar photos here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lead Astray

You may have heard of the U.S. Coast Guard's plan to create 34 live-fire zones on the Great Lakes, in order to train personnel on machine guns that fire 600 lead bullets per minute. A new article offers some interesting details on this scheme:

Coast Guard personnel would fire up to 430,000 bullets each year in the training zones, which are to be scattered across all five Great Lakes, according to The Muskegon Chronicle.
This adds up to about 6,900 pounds of lead per year. According to the the EPA:
Michigan industries in 2004 discharged 4,069 pounds of lead compounds into surface waters....
So we're potentially looking at dumping almost 11,000 pounds of lead per year into the world's largest supply of fresh water.

That said, assessing the hazard posed by lead (and lead compounds) in fresh water is complicated. In terms of wildlife, the greatest threat ordinarily comes from ingesting pellets (as few as three pellets can poison a swan). I've addressed other problems with lead ammunition elsewhere; I don't know whether the Coast Guard's ammunition poses these problems, nor whether it's prone to fragmentation. The company that performed a health-risk assessment said the firing ranges would "result in no elevated risks"; however, an aside buried later in the article sets off some alarm bells:
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson asked for more long-term analysis and another study that uses real lake water instead of cleaned water.
I don't know what "cleaned" means...but if they used pure, pH-neutral water, I'd probably want to see another study too.

There may be other problems with the study (or at least with the conclusions it's being used to justify). The Michigan Environmental Council claims that the researchers ignored existing background contamination, failed to take migratory bird patterns into account, and generalized across all 34 sites instead of considering whether each site could tolerate being used as a firing range. It also quotes the study as saying:
Plants and animals that exist at the bottom of the food chain might ingest and be directly exposed to the metals in the sediment.
On the other hand, the MEC doesn't seem to know that "adsorb" is a real word, which is a little troubling.

Environmental issues aside, I remain skeptical that there's a need for 34 firing ranges on the Great Lakes. In an earlier post on the freshwater shells of Quebec, I quoted an MP who professed to find the bombardment of Lac St.-Pierre inexplicable:
I was four years old when people starting shooting into Lac Saint-Pierre in 1952. We can't really offer any explanation for the first 40 or 50 years of this....
The MP was being coy, of course. They had plenty of explanations at the time, just as they have now:
Coast Guard officials have said that the live-fire training is needed to protect the Great Lakes region from terrorism and other illegal activities.
You can't argue with that. After all, we wouldn't want terrorists to poison our water, or contaminate our food.

The DOT is accepting public comments on docket No. 25767 until November 13.

(Photo of Lake Michigan via the American Photochrom Archive.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Nonfalsifiable Falsifiability

Most connoisseurs of arrant dingbattery will concede that NRO's Phi Beta Cons lacks the cracked glamor and solvent-huffing intensity of the Corner. To put it in terms that James Lileks can understand, the Corner is Wayland Flowers' Madame, while PBC is Burr Tillstrom's Ollie.

But that doesn't mean it's not worth the occasional visit. Today, for instance, I've been following an exciting evilutionary dust-up between Carol Iannone - who, as I've detailed elsewhere, is a sort of larval Althouse, only dumber - and Anthony Dick, an associate editor of NR and one of its lonely anti-ID voices.

Dick has answered Iannone's objections to "Darwinism" patiently, and at some length. The most interesting part comes during their debate over falsifiability. Iannone gripes that "Darwinians accept falsifiability only on their own terms." It's not clear what this is supposed to mean, but Dick seems to draw pretty much the same inference I do, which is that Iannone thinks a theory has been "falsified" once someone complains about it with sufficient vehemence.

In essence, she's claiming that scientists aren't properly "multicultural" and "diverse" (to use words that are demonized daily at PBC), and therefore don't understand that the willful incredulity of Carol Iannone carries at least as much epistemic gravitas as all that tedious stuff scientists do with beakers and hoses, and those big round bottles, and that thing you always see in the movies (you know...the thing you put your eye against).

Anyway, here's Dick's response:

The basic idea of falsifiability in science is quite simple: A scientific theory makes a positive claim about the world. If an empirical observation contradicts the theory, then the theory must be abandoned.
That's not quite true in theory, and even less so in practice. And for the sake of efficiency, I'm resisting my impulse to find out precisely where Dick stands on the Bush administration's "positive claims" about the world. Let's just put all that aside for now, and struggle onwards:
Modern evolutionary biology is bound to a fairly fixed timeline, with a fossil record that is constrained by the principle of gradual descent with modification via natural selection over billions of years. In the eyes of 99 percent of working scientists, no fossilized organisms have yet been found that contradict (or even seriously call into question) this evolutionary timeline.
Not the best rebuttal I've ever seen, but it does have the virtue of simplicity. And God knows simplicity is important when you're debating someone like Iannone, who prattles vacantly about "ribosome, the molecule that constructs DNA."

Iannone's response to all this is one of the funniest things I've read in a while. Here it is, in full:
Last Words on ID
[Carol Iannone 10/17 05:12 PM]
I really do feel that Anthony's answers, which I do appreciate as more complete than I've ever been able to wring out of any Darwinian, show that Darwinian theory is itself non-falsifiable. And the present pope is beginning to cast doubt on the falsely confident assertion that revealed Christianity and Darwin are totally compatible.
QED, motherfuckers!

The best part is, Anthony Dick now knows exactly how sane people feel when they read Jonah Goldberg or Ramesh Ponnaru on politics.

(Photo by Catherine Wagner.)

A Secret Plan

Be it known: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (above) have a secret plan.

BURNS: He says our president don’t have a plan. I think he’s got one. But he’s not gonna tell everybody in the whole world....There is a plan. We’re not gonna tell you, John. We’re not gonna tell you what our plan is because you’ll just go out there and blow it. Period! By heavens, that’s just common sense.
Although he comes across as something of a petulant buffoon, Senator Burns is actually quite correct. Thanks to sources I'd prefer not to name, I've actually seen the plan. And while I can't give tell you every last detail, I can tell you that it involves the following top-secret components:
A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!
Remember, though...you didn't hear it from me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paint and Suffering

A decade ago, the EPA was required by law to issue regulations for lead-safe remodeling of older homes, mainly in order to protect children from the serious, undisputed neurological effects of ingesting lead. After dragging its heels for six years, the EPA now claims that it's exempt from this requirement.

In a recent court filing, EPA claims that once six years have elapsed it can no longer be compelled to comply with the law. EPA struck this novel legal posture in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a coalition of public health and community organizations.
That's bad, but this is worse:
Up until 2005, EPA claimed that, while tardy, it was still working to develop the rules. That year, however, PEER discovered the EPA public statements were false and that the agency had made a secret decision to abandon the rules altogether....

“The implications of EPA’s latest position are just appalling – the agency can run out the clock by assuring everyone that it is working on compliance and then suddenly claim that is immune from suit,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who co-authored PEER’s reply brief filed today in federal district court in the District of Columbia.
This is just about as basic a public-health issue as you could hope to find. As the CDC says:
The risks of lead exposure are not based on theoretical calculations. They are well known from studies of children themselves and are not extrapolated from data on laboratory animals or high-dose occupational exposures.
In other words, our knowledge of lead's effects on children comes at a staggering human cost. And that cost grows as lead-damaged children grow:
In 1996, Dr. Needleman published a study of 300 boys in Pittsburgh public schools and found that those with relatively high levels of lead in their bones were more likely to engage in antisocial activities like bullying, vandalism, truancy and shoplifting. In 1979, Dr. Needleman, using measurements of lead in children's teeth, concluded that children with high lead levels in their teeth, but no outward signs of lead poisoning, had lower IQ scores, poorer attention and poorer language skills.
These are fairly grim findings. Regardless, Pat Cleary of the National Association of Manufacturers finds childhood lead poisoning rather droll. After all, what kind of idiot eats paint?

You'll frequently hear Serious People "scientifically" explaining black delinquency in terms of IQ differentials, or "oppositional culture," or a "culture of failure." While other factors are important, it's worth noting that the highest levels of lead exposure, according to the EPA itself, are consistently found in poor black children:
For all income levels, non-Hispanic Black children had a greater risk of elevated blood lead levels than white children. However, the disparity is greater for Black children who live in families with incomes below the poverty line.
Lead is also a problem in affluent areas - hell, it's not impossible that George Allen's horrible personality has something to do with lead exposure - but of course, society reacts a bit more leniently to the sociopathy of wealthy white kids.

Aren't you glad we live in a culture of life, where no child is left behind?

(Photo by Wynn White, whose site is well worth browsing.)

Bye-Bye Blackboard

The Museum of the History of Science has posted a tribute to the blackboard, as part of its centenary celebration of Einstein's theory of relativity, and notes that "the blackboard is fast disappearing from meetings, classes and lectures."

Whle you're at it, check out Chinese Public Health Posters, Animals as Cold Warriors, Astrolabes of Africa, and Severe Weather in Ohio.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Offsite Releases

At the risk of shocking you, it turns out that underground nuclear tests in Nevada vented significant amounts of radiation.

U.S. above-ground testing ended in 1962. However, since 1961, radioactive material escaped from 433 tests, "some of which have simultaneous detonations" where several explosions would go off at once, the report says. "However, only 52 of these are designated as having offsite releases," according to the report.
There's also astonishing news from Santa Susana, CA, where a sodium reactor melted down in 1959:
The study shocked even the most veteran SSFL observers, revealing that the now-infamous 1959 meltdown of the lab’s Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) most likely caused cancer in 260 to 1,800 people within a 62-mile radius of the east Ventura County lab.
Meanwhile, the news that radioactive snails have been discovered in Spain puts Reuters in a playful mood. It posted the article in its "Oddly Enough" section - which is normally consecrated to incompetent thieves, people who fall into chemical toilets, and intricate sexual mishaps - and gave it the droll heading Investigating escargots that glow?

This is standard-issue hackwork; glowing snails are funny, just like depressed fish. The reality, though, remains rather drab:
The discovery of radioactive snails at a site in southeastern Spain where three U.S. hydrogen bombs fell by accident 40 years ago may trigger a new joint U.S.-Spanish clean-up operation, officials said Wednesday.

The hydrogen bombs fell near the fishing village of Palomares in 1966 after a mid-air collision between a bomber and a refueling craft, in which seven of 11 crewmen died.
I bring these stories up because a group of nuclear-industry experts has reportedly proclaimed that the most serious threat of nuclear terrorism comes from dirty bombs made with radioactive medical waste.

Part of the argument here is that "nuclear power plants are essentially fortresses," and are therefore impregnable to terrorists. Maybe that's so. But as I've mentioned before, the entire security force at Oak Ridge National Labs was "killed" in 90 seconds during a preparedness exercise. In another incident, sixteen foreign-born workers with phony immigration papers were able to enter ORNL's Y-12 weapons plant with impunity.

Just in case you noticed the dates on these stories, and assumed the problems have been addressed, an article dated 10/16/06 says:
The Energy Department cannot meet its own post-Sept. 11 security standards to repel a terrorist force at the Ft. Knox of uranium, a facility in Tennessee that stores an estimated 189 metric tons of bomb-grade material, agency officials acknowledged.

The material is stored in five masonry and wood-frame buildings at the Y-12 facility, a key part of the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure at the Oak Ridge site near Knoxville.
Last, here's a tangentially related story:
A train carrying high-level nuclear waste between plants owned by CP&L/Progress Energy was recently boarded illegally by one or more inmates in Richmond County, NC...."If these people had been intending to cause serious harm, they were in perfect position to do so," said Nora Wilson, an organizer with the group. "Being scared off by armed guards after they were already on the train? That's too late."
Putting these anecdotes - and their implications - aside, it's interesting to think about the potential effects of dirty bombs versus the actual effects of soberly debated U.S. policy at sites like Hanford and Yucca Flat. Radiological dispersal is interpreted very differently depending on whether the culprits "hate America," or have merely designated part of it as a national sacrifice zone.

(Photo by Emmet Gowin.)

UPDATE: I just remembered that CKR discovered a similarly grim radioactivity-themed story in Reuters "Oddly Enough" section.

UPDATE II: POGO Blog has more on the current ORNL findings.


Submit a schematic of a perpetual motion machine to the Patent and Trademark Office, and they'll reject it. Start a Ponzi scheme, and you'll probably wind up in jail. Call for dramatic increases in ethanol production, and you're a world-healing visionary.

Engineer-Poet explains (again) why ethanol is a fraud, and ends with this devastating observation:

There are benefits from it, but those benefits aren't for you.
The pollution, however, is yours, mine, and ours:
As President Bush promotes ethanol as a green alternative to gasoline, his administration is quietly relaxing environmental rules for dozens of new corn-to-fuel refineries sprouting up across the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to change the way ethanol plants are treated under the Clean Air Act, a move critics say could make it easier for the burgeoning industry to evade controls that dramatically reduce toxic air pollution.
This will be a godsend for ADM, a heavily polluting company whose capacious pockets are the final resting-place of most of the taxpayer dollars that subsidize ethanol production.

The Wall Street Journal notes that "private-equity firms and hedge funds see enormous opportunities" in ethanol. No doubt. And if we legalized three-card monte, there'd be enormous opportunities in that, too...at least until the public realized through bitter experience that this was a game they couldn't win.

Photochroms and Ambrotypes

The American Photochrom Archive offers more than 1,300 century-old views of America, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. Absolutely breathtaking.

Stephen Berkman has created a disturbing series of ambrotypes. Granted, morbid Victorian chic has been done to death, but I'm a sucker for it when it's done well.

Thomas Weinberger superimposes nighttime photos and daytime photos, for an eerie, rather clinical effect.

Last, a somber gallery of pictures of Gunkanjima, formerly the world's most densely populated island, now deserted (more info here and here).

(First and second links via Coudal; third link via things.)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Ceratosoma sinuata:
it squints out
from under a seven-hued eyebrow.
Its lid is washed clean by fires,
its tear is hot steam.

Towards it the blind star flies
and melts at the eyelash that's hotter:
it's growing warm in the world
and the dead
burgeon and flower.

(Photo by Jun Imamoto.)

Friday Hope Blogging

This time around, I’d like to focus on the steady erosion of conventional wisdom…at least until I run out of applicable stories.

It’s looking as though the loathsome Richard Pombo (R-CA) - who's always been considered untouchable - could actually lose his seat. Pombo inaugurated his House career with a deranged lie, and has conducted himself more or less like a character out of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest ever since. ‘Til now, this has benefited him in his generally Republican district. But shifting demographics (along with the fact that the stench of Pombo’s corruption is becoming impossible to ignore, and the spread to the general population of Bush Derangement Syndrome) have made him vulnerable. Defenders of Wildlife is working overtime to unseat him (click here to donate or get involved), and his opponent Jerry McNerney could use donations and volunteers too. There are more important races, in pragmatic terms, but this is the one that I take most personally. If you can help in any way, please do.

I’ve argued repeatedly (here, here, and here, just for starters) that Bush’s religiosity is a sham, and that he and his cronies have been playing the fundies for suckers. As I’m sure you know, there’s new evidence that this is indeed the case; the fact that it comes from the former Deputy Director of the Office for Faith-Based Initiatives makes the accusation fairly devastating, and I don’t think it’s going to go over very well at all:

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.
If it's any consolation, I’m sure BushCo would launch far more vituperative attacks on this rather lovely idea from Iceland:
Authorities in the capital Reykjavik will turn off street lights on Thursday evening and people are also being encouraged to sit in their houses in the dark, writer Andri Snaer Magnason said on Wednesday. While the lights are out, an astronomer will describe the night sky over national radio.
This is socialist tyranny, plain and simple. The jury’s still out on whether we’re truly facing a Global Rotation Crisis, but even if we are, free-market solutions are always preferable.

Speaking of which, The Weather Channel – another omphalos of Trotskyite dogmatism - is launching a new broadband channel on climate change:
Their stated goal is to "create a national dialogue around and humanizing the impact of climate change". They call it One Degree in reference to the "one degree of warming that has occurred in the last century and the fact that what seems small – just one degree – can make a big difference in the climate and in people’s lives." In fact, the sub-title on the website is "One degree can change the world".
Given TWC’s credibility and vast viewership, the forecast is cloudy for the denial industry. (Plus, they’re currently reduced to arguing that they shouldn’t be tried and executed for crimes against humanity, which is not the most successful example of framing a debate I’ve ever seen.)

WorldChanging reports on The Canary Project, which is amassing powerful photographic evidence of climate change and environmental degradation. Its images are getting plenty of circulation:
As you might expect, the photographs are appearing in art galleries, but they’re also seeping into all kinds of other public spaces. In Denver, 12-foot visuals of global warming are on the sides of public buses. Podcasts are providing material for public schools, and magazines are publishing photo-essays. Free images are also available for groups like UNESCO, which will feature them on the cover of its journal Globalization and Education for Sustainable Development. Ultimately, The Canary Project will release a book combining essays and images to win over even more people.
It turns out that “lower-cost housing” in suburbs and exurbs is more expensive than people think:
A study of Washington and 27 other metropolitan areas by the Center for Housing Policy found that the costs of one-way commutes of as little as 12 to 15 miles -- roughly the distance between Gaithersburg and Bethesda -- cancel any savings on lower-priced outer-suburban homes.
As David Roberts notes, the really interesting point is made at the end, by Steven Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth:
"A three-car family puts a lot of money into depreciating assets, instead of into mortgages and college educations," he said.
Although elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn on their creators, this one moves slowly enough that the benefits may outweigh the risks:
A solar-powered robot with 20/20 vision, on a search-and-destroy quest for weeds, will soon be moving up and down the crop rows at the experimental fields at the University of Illinois. What's more, this robot has the potential to control weeds while significantly reducing herbicide use.
Of course, there’s always a chance that foreign robots will stream over the border and take jobs from American robots. But such is life. As President Bush has wisely observed, "we live in a global world."

San Antonio is switching to cleaner-burning fuel in big rigs and buses:
When ultra-low-sulfur diesel is used in all trucks and buses, diesel emissions are expected to be reduced as much as 95 percent, the environmental group National Resources Defense Council said.
Treehugger has an interesting post on the Pelamis wave energy converter, which includes a link to some terrific animations. Also from Treehugger, titanium fiber paper:
[T]itanium dioxide nano-fibers…create a paper-like product that can withstand 700 degrees Celsius, making the paper fire resistant. In addition, due to the fun properties of titanium dioxide it is also self-cleaning in UV light, and could act as a re-usable sterile filter.
Speaking of Ti02, BLDG BLOG discusses titanium dioxide tiles that form respiratory oases:
When positioned near pollution sources, the tiles neutralise NOx and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) directly where they are generated. They transform previously inert urban surfaces into active surfaces, re-appropriate polluted spaces for safer pedestrian use, and invert problem spaces – dark, polluted, uninhabitable – to benevolent spaces that benefit communities.
This is an interesting idea:
With no external power requirements or wires whatsoever, you can’t find a simpler or more inexpensive way to illuminate dark walkways around your home or in your garden. Just replace standard bricks or pavers with our completely self-contained Sun Bricks.
Maine is experimenting with porous pavement:
While water puddles up on the other lots and then runs off, it leaks right through this one. Even the contents of a 5-gallon bucket disappear without a trace.
A large section of the Amazon forest has been protected:
Known for its diverse landscape, the 5.7-millon-acre area has more than 1,700 species of animals and plants, reports Conservation International (CI) and the Amapá State Institute for Research. Among these are 430 species of birds, 104 species of amphibians, 124 reptile species and 127 mammal species. (The forest is swarming with bats; of the mammals, 62 are bat species.) A recent expedition brought to light 23 potential new species, including the fish and frog above.
If you’re in the mood to pore over technical papers (it’s good for what ails ya!), I recommend this fascinating article on Air Wells, Dew Ponds, and Fog Fences. I also enjoyed this discussion of participatory map-making.

Via Defense Tech, a strange new material allegedly stops bleeding instantly:
Swab a clear liquid onto a gaping wound and watch the bleeding stop in seconds. An international team of researchers has accomplished just that in animals, using a solution of protein molecules that self-organise on the nanoscale into a biodegradable gel that stops bleeding.
If the material works as well in humans, it could save thousands of lives and make surgery far easier in many cases, surgeons say.
This is pretty amazing:
[A] 14-year-old who suffers from epilepsy, is the first teenager to play a two-dimensional video game, Space Invaders, using only the signals from his brain to make movements.
The goal, of course, is not to make teenagers lazier, but to make controllable artificial limbs.

Now, let’s talk photography. Ceci Est Un Test has complied links to all previous editions of Friday Nudibranch Blogging. It's pretty amazing to see how many there are, and nice to have 'em in one place. I'm grateful!

The Smithsonian Photography Initiative is a huge searchable database of images, which allows you to make your own montages from the collection (click Enter the Frame to access this feature).

Gerhard Richter’s Atlas is similarly dizzying, falling somewhere between Hannah Hoch’s Album, and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne. Marvelous stuff, but the images could be a wee bit bigger.

Assuming you ever find your way out of those labyrinths, the European Space Agency has beautiful photos and animations of small galaxies merging into a larger galaxy (see photo above). If you prefer to stay in your own backyard, try the Digital Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon. Or you can explore these grain elevators, thanks to the good folks at Pruned.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Terrible Twos

It’s Bouphonia’s second anniversary today, and believe it or not, I almost didn’t notice. It’s been a whirlwind year, after all! Between writing a monograph on antique oyster-tins, serving as a consultant and – I hope – trusted friend to civic leaders from Murmansk to Vorkuta, building a cruise missile, and lisping rococo blandishments into the fragrant ears of doe-eyed admirers, it’s a miracle that I found time to produce this exquisite body of work, alongside of which the most ardent scribblings of Edgar Saltus are a mere footnote.

There’d be enough honor in that, God knows. But I think we also ought to acknowledge my fortitude. Not so much because I wish your admiration – I’m quite certain I have that – but on the off chance that it will inspire others to greater efforts (if not – perish the thought! – greater accomplishments). Though I'm crazy with horror and rage over the events of the past year, I've still found the heart to busy myself with all sorts of abstruse speculative maundering, and to serve it forth in lumbering, affected prose that's as protective of my shattered nerves as Republicans are of predatory pedophiles.

But perhaps I protest too much. Honestly, it sounds harder than it is. Nine-tenths of the battle is having good working methods. Mine are modeled closely on the filliae acediae enumerated by Giorgio Agamben in his consideration of monastic sloth:

[P]usilllanimitas, the “small soul” and the scruple that withdraws constantly before the difficulty and effort of spiritual existence; desperatio, the dark and presumptuous certainty of being already condemned, and the complacent sinking into one’s own destruction, as if nothing, least of all divine grace, could provide salvation; torpor, the obtuse and somnolent stupor that paralyzes any gesture that might heal; and finally, evagatio mentis (wandering of the mind), the flight of the will before itself and the restless hastening from fantasy to fantasy. The latter manifests itself in verbositas (garrulity), the proliferation of vain and tedious speech; curiositas, the insatiable desire to see for seeing’s sake….instabilitas loci vel propositi, the petulant incapability of fixing an order and a rhythm to one’s thought.
See? That’s how we do it on our side, yo, so don’t none of u hataz be trippin’.

Anyway, thanks for putting up with the past year’s ramblings. The friends I've made while blogging are very dear to me; the education I've gotten from you is invaluable and humbling - invaluable because it's humbling - and what hope I have for the future comes from my everyday experience of your kindness, wisdom, and humor. Here’s hoping that we grow old together (I warn you, though, that I was born with a considerable head start).

Unless you’ve got a bottle or two of laudanum to spare, I ask for no gifts. But do drop in and say hello, especially if you’re a lurker, to assure me that we are good fellow creatures, and I am not contemn'd by you.

(Illustration: Skeletons Warming Themselves At a Stove (1889) by James Ensor.)

UPDATE: Thers has posted some home movies from the dear dead days. Oh, the times we had! Our like will not be here again, begob.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

War in Heaven

Defense Tech discusses the Project for a New American Solar System:

While the Clinton policy aimed to highlight international cooperation and collective security in space, the Bush NSP takes a go–it-alone stance, using strong language that asserts U.S. unilateral rights in space while possibly also being intended to "negate" the rights of other space-faring nations. In ominous tones, the document threatens in one section to "dissuade or deter others from either impeding [U.S.] rights or developing capabilities intended to do so" – raising the specter of preemptive action against other nations’ dual-use space technology.
The NSP also specifies that no international laws will be allowed to restrict "the rights of the United States to conduce research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests."

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Ming the Merciless was dismissive of BushCo's plans:
Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've hidden from it in terror.
In an entirely unrelated story, the first civilian death has been attributed to the malfunction of a UAV:
As if things weren't enough of a Hobbesian nightmare in the Democratic Republic of Congo, comes this horrible news: a Belgian drone fell from the skies over the Congolese capital city of Kinshasa, "killing one woman and injuring [at least] two others," according to Flight International. It's "believed to be the world's first case of a civilian being killed by a crashing military UAV," or unmanned aerial vehicle.
Last time I checked, 32 nations were developing 250 varieties of drones. They're also attractive to terrorists, who view them as "carbombs with wings."

Apparently, you can apparently bring a drone down with a lucky shot, but Serious People prefer to develop anti-drone drones (which will be subject to their own malfunctions, and will inevitably find their way into the hands of "evildoers").

In other words, everything's under control.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

That Which Surrounds Us

Over at Grist, Kit Stolz staggers under an awful rhetorical burden:

If I call myself an environmentalist, I'm using pretentious diction, for the sake of vagueness….Environs means essentially: that which surrounds us.

But can you imagine calling yourself a "surroundalist"?

Can you imagine claiming you're passionate about "surroundalism"?

Of course not, it sounds absurd.

That's why I'm frustrated with the word "environmentalist."

On a spiritual level, it's self-contradicting.

On a linguistic level, it's irritating.

On a political level, it means little.

On a moral level, it binds us to nothing.
I don’t think I agree. On a political level, the term means a great deal (thanks in large part to its enemies, who’ve managed to define it as everything from joyless asceticism to self-coddling decadence). And how “surroundalism” might bind us to nothing, or be spiritually "self-contradicting,” is beyond me.

At any rate, while Stolz confronts this existential crisis, Bob Herbert discusses the dumping of toxic waste in poor neighborhoods:
The evidence has been before us for decades that black people, other ethnic minorities and some poor whites have been getting sick and enduring horrible deaths from the filth that they breathe, eat, drink and otherwise ingest from the garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other world-class generators of pollution that have been deliberately and relentlessly installed in the neighborhoods where they live, work, worship and go to school.
And former Surgeon General David Satcher says that black people receive substandard medical care:
[M]ore than 83,500 "excess deaths" among black Americans annually could be prevented if the "black-white mortality gap" could be eliminated.
Which of these two stories is about "the environment"? For that matter, what is "the environment"?

In my experience, people tend to think of it as "wilderness." I'd argue that whereas wilderness is an emotional construct - and has as much to do, in “these ravaging money-mad days,” with nostalgia and romanticism as with ecosystems - "environment" is a political term inclusive of polar ice shelves and refineries sited in residential areas and racially biased healthcare.

To me, contaminated neighborhoods and substandard healthcare are symptoms of the same sickness; they're based on the same lunatic confidence in the possibility of distance and autonomy, which is promoted by the same corrupt, shortsighted ideologues. Like toxic waste, mistreated people and untreated diseases tend not to stay where we dump them. They can affect anyone and may affect everyone, and viewing them as isolated rather than systemic problems is, to quote Marilynne Robinson, “like quarreling over which shadow brings evening.”

People like Michael Crichton – people, that is, who wear their stupidity like a halo - tend to conflate wilderness and environment, in order to imply that opposing the construction of a coal-fired power plant is basically the same thing as allowing oneself to be stung by tse-tse flies or eaten by grizzlies. To hear them tell it, opposing drilling in ANWR will one day force us to undergo gallstone surgery while wide awake, like Samuel Pepys, and will end in a return to cave dwelling and cannibalism.

Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation is a member of this school. He invokes no less an authority than Ayn Rand to argue that wilderness is worthless until oil is struck or trees are felled:
[I]t is hard to make sense of the claim that a pristine wilderness that no human being is anywhere near is intrinsically valuable. What does that mean?
Richman can’t quite grasp that human nearness is relative, especially when you’re talking about a small planet surrounded by airless space. South America could be completely uninhabited, but that wouldn’t mean that razing every inch of it would have no effect on people in Europe. Alaska could have nothing in it but birds, but migratory birds interact with people and animals all along their flyways.

These are facts that very small children have managed to learn. But they remain hermetic mysteries to clever people like Richman, who presumably know that the earth goes ‘round the sun only because Ayn Rand, at some point, devoted forty pages' worth of sophistical hectoring to the proposition.
“[V]alue” indicates a relationship between something and a being capable of valuing. As Rand puts it, it is something one “acts to gain and/or to keep.” Value presupposes a valuer. No valuer, no value. There is no intrinsic value.
You don’t have to be a theologian to wonder whether God - that special friend and confidant of the American conservative – might possibly count as a “valuer.” But one needn’t ascend into metaphysics to notice that Richman’s concept of “valuing” depends for its persuasive power on magically ending the chain of causality at the first convenient point: What happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica, for no other reason than that if it were not so, Richman would have to find a new tune to whistle.

So the problem really isn't that it's absurd to call oneself an environmentalist, even in the sprawling sense of "surroundalist." The problem is that we’ve naturalized the cornucopian fantasy that it’s possible for reasonable people not to be environmentalists, so that calling attention to the demonstrable realities of our situation seems like special pleading. A sense of rootedness in and subjection to our environment is realism; any other approach to the world is escapist at best. There's not much point in debating solutions until you've got a fair grasp of the basic problems you face, but devotees of Ayn Rand are incapable of recognizing any other basic problem than insufficient attention to the thought of Ayn Rand.

By contrast, environmentalism demands attentiveness to "that which surrounds us." Ideally, it should help one to reject false dichotomies and false economy wherever they're found, from public health to business to industrial design to environmentalism itself. Far from being "vague," it requires a commitment to looking at a larger picture than theory-struck loons like Richman can conceive, instead of treating greed-addled tunnel vision as a moral necessity, or naturalizing historically contingent economic arrangements, or assuming that earth has an inexhaustible supply of the things that make human life pleasant, let alone possible. Compared to the narrow, pinched, irresponsible outlook of objectivism and its allies, the all-embracing "surroundalist" sense of "environmentalism" really isn't all that bad. But "realism" would probably be more to the point.

(Photo via Pruned.)

My Appointed Rounds

Arms Control Wonk on North Korea:

I close this discourse about operational confidence by noting that the United States has built a missile defense that does not work, to defend against a North Korean missile that does not work, that would carry a nuclear warhead that does not work.
Bruce Schneier reports on the latest advances in dual-use technology:
Airport Security Confiscates Rock
They already take away scissors. Can paper be far behind?
Cervantes discovers that Denny Hastert issued a press release in August about his program to stop online pedophiles:
“Recent news stories remind us that there are predators using the Internet to target children,” Hastert said.
Thers on the vagaries of American politics:
The Republican Party is entering the November elections upset that a gay Internet sex scandal is preventing them from running on the message they really wanted to present to the voters: that Torture is Good.
PZ Myers responds to the news that the self-lobotomized nonentity Stephen Baldwin is making a splash in intelligent-design circles:
We need a scientist who is willing to snort cocaine for a couple of years, sleep willy-nilly with models and any half-naked starlet with no taste, and bash himself repeatedly over the head with blunt objects until his IQ descends to perilously low Stephen Baldwin levels, all so that we can enrapture the precious skateboarding teenager bloc. Any volunteers?
Interrobang on Plan B in Canada:
Think about buying some to take home if you're here visiting, playing the casinos in Windsor, visiting Niagara Falls or Stanley Park, or skiing in the Rockies or Collingwood. Even if you wind up not needing it, you probably know someone who will, and better safe than sorry. It may be the best $40 you ever spend.
Last - and most important - an action alert from Echidne.

(Photo by CKR.)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cities of the Plain

As part of their pitiless assault on the moral foundations of Western Civilization, gay people tend to travel, shop, and pay taxes. This money circulates freely through our society, as indistinguishable yet unreconcilable as the transfused blood of a black man in Trent Lott's veins.

Nationally, gay men and lesbians spent an estimated $50 billion on travel last year, a number expected to continue to grow as more destinations around the world market to them, industry experts said.
Having forgotten all about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Atlanta is saying "Hello sailor!" to these gay gadabouts, and tempting them unblushingly with such decadent pleasures as eating in resturants and visiting museums:
City boosters are taking the journalists — who write for the nation's gay and lesbian newspapers, magazines and Web sites — to dinner at gay-owned and gay-friendly restaurants; to meetings with gay and lesbian entrepreneurs; and to visit neighborhoods where openly gay residents can live without harassment.
This effort isn't limited to gays, apparently. Atlanta's also targeting:
[F]amilies, sports enthusiasts, women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others.
But never mind about them. What about these gays, and their perverted, slack-jawed, throbbing, thrusting, gasping...um...gay lifestyle?
"They want to enjoy their break somewhere where people are friendly to them and welcome their business."
If you believe that, friends, you'll believe anything. The real gay agenda is revealed at the end of the article:
"Yes, we are all playing catch-up in regards to promoting our city as a gay destination," said Corley, who also is owner of CLC Resource Solutions, an Atlanta recruitment and retention firm...."With ongoing partnerships...we are sure that our numbers will continue to multiply."
There you have it: A confession so forthright that it makes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look like the Voynich Manuscript.

Thank God we have men like Gerald Schoenewolf to stand up for Decency.

(Illustration: Lot and His Daughters by Hendrik Goltzius.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

Halgerda tesselata, wilt thou go with me
In this strange death of life to be,
To live in death and be the same,
Without this life or home or name,
At once to be and not to be -
That was and is not - yet to see
Things pass like shadows, and the sky
Above, below, around us lie?

Friday Hope Blogging

Friday Hope Blogging concentrates enough on new technology that I’m sometimes afraid people will mistake me for a Sensible Technocrat…the kind of person who thinks that a few new inventions, coupled with some retooling of current technology, will allow us to live indefinitely in the style to which we’ve become accustomed (long live the new flesh!)

Actually, my viewpoint is quite a bit different. If technology is normative – and it assuredly is - then it’s logical to assume that new technology can lead to new behavior and new thinking. (Whether it’s logical to assume that this new behavior and new thinking will be sufficent is another matter, of course.)

As a very simplistic example, take the design of soda cans. When I was a kid, the streets and beaches were littered with little metal rings attached to dangerously sharp, curled metal tongues. This was rightfully considered a problem, and it was addressed not by convincing people to stop discarding pull-rings, but by redesigning how soda cans open. As a fringe benefit, the new appearance of soda cans – and the fact that they required different steps to open – communicated a message, however modest, about littering.

With that in mind, consider this new study, which suggests that scaring people is not a reliable way of getting them to change their behavior:

[T]he most effective strategies were to prompt practice, set specific goals, generate self-talk, agree a behavioural contract and prompt review of behavioural goals. The two least effective strategies involved arousing fear and causing people to regret if they acted in a particular fashion.
Part of what “prompts practice,” as the soda-can example demonstrates, is design and technology. An article from a couple weeks ago – which I’ve misplaced – talks about how the mere fact of owning a car makes people more inclined to use it, regardless of whether that choice is actually in the owner’s best interests at a given moment. It may feel like rational choice, but isn’t; it’s reflex. (An article on how drug samples influence prescription trends underscores this point.)

Since design affects how people think, and constrains how they act, it makes sense to change it. San Francisco has taken a respectable step in this direction by building a shopping mall with no parking lots:
"No new parking was built to accommodate the 25 million people a year expected to visit the mall, which has tripled in size (through the addition of 1 million square feet of retail and office space). The decision not to add parking is in keeping with the city's "transit first" policy, which encourages the use of public transportation."
And Toyota is putting eco-indicators in new cars, which will allow drivers to see how driving choices affect gas mileage. As Treehugger says:
When you stop to think about it, it's pretty obvious what causes good or bad fuel economy, but that's exactly the problem: Most people don't stop to think about it, or at least not while they are driving. They need constant reminders.
Which reminds me that WorldChanging has a terrific article on deglamorizing consumer choice:
Sometimes, we need a hole in our wall, so we buy a drill. But we don't need the drill, we need the hole. A system that offered the object on demand when we needed results would provide us with the hole but eliminate having a dusty drill sitting in our toolbox for 20 years….

It's one thing to recognize that what we desire is an end result, but another entirely to release our longing to be surrounded by all the means that take us to these ends. It's a deep shift that will lead us to long for an outcome, not an object.
Optimal change requires ideas, obviously, and lots of them. Unfortunately, in wealthier countries, a lot of our problem-solving is top-down, and involves a pointless intensification of comforts we already enjoy. People in more (obviously) desperate circumstances tend to be a lot more innovative. Subtopia’s discussion of squatter mimicry describes:
[A] future world where the squatters and refugees will be the leaders of a self-sustainable revolution, a bottom-feeders' guide to survival and the retooling of cities on a global scale. It may be those very same principles of self-mobilization and scavenge that will save urbanization from itself.
This ties in with WorldChanging’s feature on Brazil’s Catalytic Communities program:
CatComm's online Community Solutions Database (CSD) offers public, freely available information (in three languages) on community-initiated solutions to local challenges, which may include everything from sanitation to unemployment to HIV. The CSD accepts submissions from community groups who have documented their work as a means of sharing their solutions with others who might use similar strategies to deal with issues in their own communities.
Obviously, these efforts require infrastructure, which is why projects like Green WiFi are so valuable.

Speaking of community groups, I enjoyed Amanda Griscom Little’s interview with Majora Carter, the remarkable founder of Sustainable South Bronx:
[W]e recruit folks, almost exclusively from the neighborhood. I'd say 95 percent have been on public assistance, and most just received their GEDs. The ages range from about 20 to 45 and we train them in everything from landscaping and green-roof installation to brownfield remediation. Already we've graduated almost three dozen people from the program, and most have paying jobs.
It's amazing how much one person can do. Defense Tech describes how the British comedian Mark Thomas shut down Internet arms dealers:
[H]e helped a bunch of teenaged schoolgirls set up an online arms dealership. Before long, they were pricing out tanks, negotiating for grenade launchers, and -- in his words -- buying up stun batons and other "equipment intended for torture or ill-treatment."

"Mark Thomas, the stand-up comedian, has done more to expose illegal arms deals than the Ministry of Defence, the Export Control Organisation and HM Revenue and Customs put together," the Guardian proclaims, "simply by searching the internet and the trade press and attending the arms fairs the British government hosts."
And an NYT article describes how a woman in Montclair, NJ is using Google maps to increase awareness of destructive development patterns:
“Maybe something like this will give people pause,” said Ms. George, 39, in her office at her gracious 100-year-old home. “Knowing you’re having your house on the teardown map, knowing it will be part of this trend, I don’t think it has a positive implication.”
Demolished Buildings of Portland is a somewhat similar site…well worth looking at.

In other news, specially designed paving stones could collect and purify rainwater:
Roads, driveways, pathways and the like make up 60 per cent of impervious urban surfaces. The run-off from them causes flooding and pollutes waterways. Professor Beecham says until now, harvesting rainwater from them has proved more difficult than from roofs. His team is developing a system in which porous concrete pavers allows run-off to seep into underground tanks made of galvanised metal or a flexible plastic lining filled with gravel.
Twenty percent of Guatemala’s debt to the United States has been forgiven in return for forest conservation:
"The areas protected in this agreement lie in the heart of Mayan civilization, and they are home to jaguars, scarlet macaws, harpy eagles, and countless other species," said TNC President Steven J. McCormick.
Well and good…but the fact is, we owe them, not vice versa.

A byproduct of organic and recycled paper can be used as compost, and may have the fringe benefit of reducing plant disease:
The ecological benefits of this are obvious: less fungicide has to be applied to plants, less peat is required thus preserving peat bogs, and green waste and paper waste that would otherwise be land-filled is recycled.
This seems a bit too good to be true, but what the heck:
A newly-patented eating, breathing membrane that cleans waste water and sewage has won an invention award….Dr Taylor, an ANSTO microbiologist, said the membrane literally ate waste matter and breathed air, and was self-perpetuating.
Glenn Reynolds has yet another option for eternal life, and all he has to do is act naturally! The rest of us can content ourselves with eating curry to stave off amyloid plaque diseases:
UCLA/VA researchers found that curcumin -- a chemical found in curry and turmeric -- may help the immune system clear the brain of amyloid beta, which form the plaques found in Alzheimer's disease.
Coudal alerts me to an amazing site called Art of the Photogravure. You’ll need to set aside a couple of days to browse it properly, but in the meantime, here’s Prescott Adamson’s Mist Steam and Smoke (1904):

Pruned investigates Faraday Waves, and links to an incredible film called Fingers and Holes in a Shaken Cornstarch Solution. It also invites you to consider the heartstopping beauty of astrogeology:

You might also enjoy Doodles, Drafts and Designs: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian. And Photomicrography. But if you get seasick easily, you'll probably want to avoid these dizzying 360-degree views of wind tunnels.

(Photo by Peter Garfield, from his series “Falling Houses.”)