Thursday, December 6, 2007

In Mitt's 'symphony of faith,' I'm the guy who forgot to shut his cell phone off.

Mitt, meet me over by camera three.

Listen, Mitt. I don't think this campaign should descend into bickering and arguing over whose sect is an abomination in the sight of whose God. Frankly, who cares if you think you'll ascend to godhood after you die, or that your church may or may not believe that Jesus is married to multiple wimmins? As Kennedy's speech illustrated, we can get past our differences, and come together in the pursuit of a society that tolerates and values every citizen, regardless of their nutty beliefs.

Damned fine speech Kennedy gave. Yours? Not so impressive.

Nothing against your speechifying, mind you. Perhaps a little effete and uppity for us plainspoken folk here in the West, but you do know how to turn a phrase. It's not the wrapping paper that got to me, but the... how can I put this... the dead puppy inside the box.

Couldn't you have cut me an airhole or two?

I'm an atheist. I used to make a big deal about it, but these days I'm working on a live and let live attitude. You know, cultivating that "tolerance" thing you paid such rapturous lip service to in your speech. But your speech didn't make me feel tolerated, much less valued.

On the surface, you and Kennedy look like similar cases. Like him, you're a member of a distrusted minority religion with somewhat autocratic impulses. Like him, you've got great hair.[1] But where Kennedy appealed for a nation where we politely refused to elevate one form of religious belief over another, you cravenly admitted that you were fine with a nation that honors any belief -- no matter how kooky -- over no belief at all.

Under the Kennedy principle, nobody should have a moment's hesitation about your ability to serve as president of the entire United States. Under the Romney principle, only those who believe in God, those who kneel in prayer before the Almighty, can properly guide this country. Therefore, it's perfectly legitimate for each citizen to ask, "Does this candidate practice a form of worship that my God finds acceptable? Does my God hear Mitt Romney's prayers?"

Given the crowd you've been so cravenly sucking up to these last few months, I doubt it. Anyone remember this?

I agree that nobody in this country should vote or fail to vote for any candidate simply because of his or her privately held religious beliefs. I wish you felt the same.

[1] I mean, damn but you've got good hair. I swear, if your hair went off and ran for president by itself, it could easily get 15% of the vote.

Monday, December 3, 2007

You don't have to be crazy to vote Democratic, but it helps.

Gallup did an interesting, if not necessarily illuminating poll, showing that Republicans are way more likely to report themselves as being in "excellent" mental health than Democrats. The blogosphere took the news with its usual humility, and good grace, by opening a polite and nuanced discussion about whether Democrats are insane, or Republicans are conscience-disabled sociopaths. I gave my opinion, though to be completely honest, nobody asked:

No, Jeff. The comments here only show that all of us tend to interpret news in self-serving ways. Had the Democrats fared better than the Republicans, which side of the aisle would be playing up the disconnect between self-reported mental health and actual mental health?

You cite Louis' letter, which describes Republicans as optimists and Democrats as gloomy. But shift your perspective a bit, and it's reasonable to make precisely the opposite case. Which party is more optimistic about the government's ability to affect lives for the better? Which party believes that we can have a country that is both safe from terrorism and a staunch defender of civil rights? Which party believes that we can engage in a respectful foreign policy, rather than bullying everyone who disagrees with us?

The Republicans strike me as hopelessly negative, whether it be their acceptance of torture, their increasingly shameless efforts to keep us angry and fearful towards our enemies by invoking 9-11, immigrant hordes, "Islamofascism," and "East coast liberals" (the rallying cry of Utah's recent attempt to pass school vouchers). The message of Republicans seems to be, "Be afraid. Be afraid of the gays, the immigrants, the secular atheists, the abortionists, the environmentalists who want to take your jobs and give them to spotted owls. But above all, be afraid of a Hillary presidency."

Either party can be spun as the party of optimism. I don't think that explains the poll results. None of the explanations offered so far really satisfy me, though a difference in introspectiveness comes close. My guess (which is probably self-serving) is that Republicans tend to be less affected by reports of suffering, not because they're discompassionate or sociopathic, but because they tend to ascribe personal suffering to the consequences of the sufferer's poor choices rather than systemic problems.

Therefore, it would make sense if Republicans were less troubled by bad news than Democrats. As someone who believes that there are severe systemic inequities in the world, such a dismissive, "I gots mine" attitude seems heartless and naive. But it might also give Republicans a feeling of greater control over their circumstances and a more positive outlook. They may also be optimistic because they compare the world around them to a world where everyone lived under Sharia law, or everyone is broke because liberals dismantled the economy and used the scrap to make hemp farms. Democrats are more prone to compare it to the more just, equitable, and sustainable world that they're hoping will emerge, and get frustrated and dissatisfied.

More grist for the discussion: a Pew Research poll indicating that Republicans rate themselves as happier.

Is it better to increase your mental well-being by turning a blind eye to suffering? Or to let yourself be dragged down by things you cannot control?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

On Vouchers

Now that Utah's voucher bill has gone down to epic, humiliating defeat (67% against vs. 33% in favor), I'm taking a few minutes away from my latest conspiracy theory[1] to think on what that means.

Honestly, what does it mean? On paper, it looks great. The reddest state in the Union overwhelmingly repudiates one of the far-right's most important pet projects, saving itself from the same sort of privatization schemes that brought us Enron, Halliburton, and Blackwater! Go Blue!

I hadn't seen the polls in the run-up to the referendum, and I was sure that voters were going to buy into the "liberal, east-coast unions want to trap your kids in their failing schools" chatter on TV. When state rep. Greg Hughes said, "This is a Ronald Reagan solution, this is a Mitt Romney solution, this is a Governor Huntsman solution... lets trust those we've elected, and let's follow their advice, and let's vote for it,"[2] I thought the "follow the prophet" mantra would be convincing to a lot of people.

Something is going on here, something that doesn't jive with my impressions of Utah as a state that is actively hostile to "big government", and a state that wouldn't put much stock in the church-state issues that plaguevoucher proposals. The most kooky, right-wing reason I could think of was "fear of government-funded madrassahs"[3], but that's an argument I never heard. A lot of rural voters voted against it simply because there were no private schools in their areas. The 100+ mile commute was a bit of a dealbreaker for them.

My current theory is that the public school system isn't what most Utahns envision when they think of "big government." I don't mean that in the "keep government's hands off my Medicare" sense, but in the "we're too busy thinking about arrogant political bureaucrats and welfare queens to think about our neighborhood elementary school." Or maybe voters really do recognize the value of the public education system as the foundation of a diverse, egalitarian society.


Let me close with the words of founder Patrick Byrne, who donated more money to Parents for Choice in Education than the rest of the country put together: "[Utahns who voted against Referendum 1] don't care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don't care enough about their kids to think outside the box."

He also said that the state failed its IQ test. Can you say "sore loser?"


1) The writer's strike is a transparent attempt by liberal unions to derail Stephen Colbert's presidential campaign.

2) KCPW's vouchers debate, closing arguments. (mp3)

3) Islamic schools with a reputation for backward and anti-Western teachings.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Some sorta enviro-bloggy dealie

Cory Doctorow says that today is Blog Action Day, and everyone is supposed to blog something about the environment. But it's late, and I've got nothing, so I guess I can just link to No Impact Man instead of doing anything constructive myself. He's good.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The return of St. Krugman the Outraged

After two years in the wilderness, I am mere hours from being able to read Paul Krugman's columns again (Tom Friedman I didn't miss so much). That's right, folks: the New York Times' TimesSelect experiment is dead.

Since NYT put its opinionators behind the Great Wall, I've seen almost nothing of Krugman online. It's been a huge loss, because I think his opinions on social justice and income inequality really deserve a broader hearing. His opinions on Bush and Iraq are also noteworthy, though folks like Sidney Blumenthal and Gary Kamiya are acceptable substitutes, so I don't feel the lack so keenly.

Anyhow, welcome back to the bloggytubes, Paul. Watch out for freepers.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Have a patriotic Burning Man!

The theme for Burning Man 2008 is American Dream. I wrote this back to the Element11 group. It feels good to just wallow in idealism from time to time.

Catching up on old mail here.

Like you, my initial reaction was one of shock and awe. "Why? Why do they hate us so? They must hate us for our freedoms! That's it!" But I quickly came around to Jodie's line of thinking.

We've really reached a nadir of national pride, especially among the left. I can't ever remember a time when it was so hard to say, "I'm proud to be an American."

Someone mentioned elsewhere (in the 'assholes at Burning Man' thread) that we tend to dissociate ourselves, both physically and mentally, from people whose behavior bothers us, when it might be better to try and connect. The last several years, we've seen increasingly incomprehensible and heartbreaking behavior from our country, starting with the twice-over election of an incompetent warmongerer to the White House, and culminating in a brutal and utterly unnecessary occupation of Iraq that has killed hundreds of thousands of their citizens and thousands of our own military men and women, with a thousand shameful steps along the way.

So it's unsurprising that many of us have lost faith, severing (or at least straining) our connection to the vast, sprawling, infinitely intricate idea poorly contained by the words "The United States of America." The actions of the United States in the world and at home seem like the outbursts of a lunatic, not behaviors that we would voluntarily associate ourselves with. So we dissociate ourselves from America, leaving behind the land of televangelists, guns, SUVs, depressing suburbias, preemptive wars, and rapacious, self-entitled consumption. It's not us. That's not what we're about.

So we go do "something else," things that we hope will make the world a better place, something that sets us apart from the nightmare America that shames and haunts us. Whether it's creating art, doing volunteer work, trying to be more environmentally aware, or political activism, we revel in the feeling of being a bit "unpatriotic," as though we're going against what everyone thinks it means to be "American."

I guess that's the magic of America. The concept is huge enough to incorporate this broad current of selflessness and creativity, to let it flow in and draw strength from it. Whether your thing is organic foods, hyperlibertarianism, mass transit, socialist utopianism, gay rights, human rights, animal rights, eco-communities, or just committing yourself to being less of an ass than Bill O'Reilly, your dreams and your longings are as much part of the American Dream as the dreams of any avaracious financier or cookie-cutter suburbanite.

So I like the theme. There is room for great creativity and expression in it. Together we can explore the America that once was (or maybe never was), the America that we fear and love today, and the "city on a hill" that we keep climbing towards, but seem unable to reach. It forces us to take a deep look at ourselves, and to help us understand and accept our connection to this concept of nationality. In doing this, in redefining and reenvisioning what it is to love our country, maybe it will give us the strength and the passion that we'll certainly need to undo the fear and anger that has driven this nation these last several years.

I'm ready to burn Red, White, and Blue. Anyone else?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Front page over at Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. Technically, it would be more correct to say that the CIA gave him very compelling evidence that there were no WMDs, and Bush chose to believe a taxi driver and con artist named Curveball instead.

Still, what's done is done, and it only divides the country when we start asking impertinent questions about how we got into this quagmire in the first place, right? The fact that the administration lied to Congress and the American people about why we needed to invade Iraq shouldn't mar their credibility when they say we need to stay in Iraq. None whatsoever.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Rise of the environment-killing pedestrian zombies

Why are most of my blog posts just repostings of letters I wrote to the forums at Maybe because I expect that someone will actually read. Or maybe it's because I need a fire lit under my butt before I produce anything I consider worth reading.

Today's kindling is brought to you by "leading environmentalist" Chris Goodall, author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life and foremost proponent of the new and evil "driving is more eco-friendly than walking" meme. I attached this lengthy letter to Andrew Leonard's skeptical analysis of the claim.

Goodall's basic claim is that, if you have to choose between walking to a grocery store 1.5 miles away and driving the same distance, the food needed to replenish the burned calories has a bigger greenhouse gas impact than the gasoline burned.

There are obvious problems with this research (beyond the fact that his book's website breathlessly announces this conclusion as "new research", without mentioning that the research is entirely his own). First, and most suspicious, he assumes that all the calories come from factory-farmed beef, which has enormous environmental impact when compared to eating lower off the food chain. The other factor which severely undermines his conclusions is this: once a person decides on a car trip, it becomes very easy to travel further. Rather than the three miles in Goodall's calculations, they might go ten miles to take advantage of the two for one sale at a competing grocer, or a few more miles to go to multiple grocers, or another dozen miles to Costco to stock up on soy milk (guilty as charged).

There are other, less pressing inaccuracies, some of which actually help his case. He forgets that starting up a cold engine for a short trip uses more gas than a car's MPG rating would indicate. He also ignores cycling as an option (cycling burns about half as many calories per mile as walking). He forgets that you would burn more calories walking back, because you're carrying a lot of groceries. He seems to have made a mistake converting from miles to kilometers. A three mile walk should burn 300 calories, not 180. 180 is more likely from a three kilometer walk.

This crappy, back-of-the-napkin calculation doesn't warrant near the publicity it's receiving; it certainly shouldn't drive anyone's lifestyle changes. When I first heard of this, I (like Andrew Leonard) assumed that the calculation was just hyperbole designed to show how woefully inefficient our industrialized food production is. But reading Goodall's own "research", he mentions replacing walking with driving as the environmentally friendly option, not replacing that slab of factory-farmed steak with some peaches from the local farmer's market[1]. Sure, towards the end he makes a wistful comment about "reduc[ing] the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs." But it is supremely irresponsible for anyone who touts himself as a "carbon-reduction guru" to make "walk less, drive more" his only concrete suggestion.

Elsewhere, he has compared carbon credits to medieval indulgences[2], and has been commissioned by the Times of London to do a "carbon audit" of Prince Charles (a celebrity climate change crusader, somewhat akin to Al Gore on this side of the pond). Such behavior makes me suspect that the damage Gooding is doing to environmentalism is due to malice, not incompetence.


After a timely e-mailed response from Mr. Goodall, and a deeper perusal of, the author strikes me as sincerely committed to helping people reduce their environmental impact. I still worry that, on this particular issue, he's framing the story in a disastrous way, and a lot of people are going to take the message the wrong way. But I think his book has a lot of timely information, and it will be good for everybody if it sells well.


[1] In several places in Gooding's report, he goes to great lengths to equate factory-farmed meat to all foodstuffs. Elsewhere, he calls ruminant-based food production "particularly damaging".

[2] I don't trust carbon credits yet, but I do believe that with better science, more auditing, and international agreements to give them more standing, they're going to become a key part of the fight.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

From Salon: We're all going to die!

Malthus fascinates me. When someone mentions him, I have to chime in. Reposted from here for anyone who doesn't want to click on the link:

I'm in the "Malthus was right" camp. To me, the lack of a population crash thus far isn't evidence against his theory. Let me explain.

Malthus was certainly right in the trivial sense: exponential population growth cannot continue forever. But was he wrong for failing to predict the rise of the industrial agriculture and chemical fertilizers that have managed to feed our exponential growth? No. These developments didn't negate Malthus' theories. In fact, these discoveries may have worsened their eventual consequences.

Humans didn't find a brand new way to permanently increase our food supply. Instead, we started a straightforward oil for food program, where we pumped oil and natural gas from the ground, changed it into fertilizer and pesticide, and sprayed it all over the planet to increase our harvests. It's akin to the difference between getting a better job and finding a pile of money under a rock.

As a non-renewable resource, oil is a terrible basis for population growth. Once it runs out, the population supported by oil will need to either change their food source or shrink until it comes back in line with what the Earth can sustainably produce. If the supply of oil drops too suddenly, you end up with six or seven billion people living on a planet that can only really support a billion, all looking for their next meal.

Having that temporary infusion of resources has allowed humanity to far exceed the numbers that the planet can legitimately support. Malthus predicted that as we reached the limits of growth, there would be increasing downward pressure on the population, to the point that we could never overshoot carrying capacity by much. What he didn't foresee was a situation where the population didn't just reach the limits of subsistence, but rocketed past them, making the consequences of the eventual crash far more calamitous.

That's why I was a bit rankled by this post. Malthus' "limits of subsistence" are defined by the amounts that humans need in order to survive. It seems possible to reduce population growth by allowing each individual to consume far, far more resources than survival dictates. But whether the increased demands on resources come from our increasing numbers or our increasing consumption per capita, we're still putting ever greater stress on the planet's ability to sustain us.

Solving the population problem by bringing everyone up to a First World standard of living is a non-starter. The planet cannot keep up with the demands for resources humanity currently places on it. We need to scale back resource usage by either cutting back on people or resources used per capita.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ah, for the good old days of government waste and mismanagement.

Conservatives, in the belief that government does things inefficiently, have outsourced waste and mismanagement to private contractors. Sure enough, they're far more efficient at wasting and mismanaging that money than the public sector ever was.

From the government report:
"The value of Federal contracts awarded without full and open competition has more than tripled since 2000. For the first time on record, last year more than half of Federal procurement spending was awarded through no-bid and limited competition contracts."

Not surprising that this trend has seen so much of an upswing since Bush took office. His tendency has always been towards greater privatization and less oversight.

Democrats are promising to look into this waste and abuse. Indeed, this report is a good start. I'm cynical enough to believe that this is intentional on the part of the Bush administration. No-bid contracts funnel taxpayer money into the pockets of shareholders, while bankrupting the government so as to make it incapable of providing for its citizens (as Grover Norquist put it, this helps make the government "small enough to drown in a bathtub"). Also, because we're getting so little bang for the buck, it makes the government look like a terrible mechanism for solving societal problems, which is how Bush-style conservatism wants us to view our government.

We need to demand oversight and accountability on every cent that the government spends, whether directly or through private contractors.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Internet thinks I'm Gandhi.

The results of my latest Political Compass test puts me ideologically close to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and The Dalai Lama. I'll take that as a compliment.

Take your own Political Compass test.

I was surprised that I was categorized into the strongly libertarian camp, since I've gleefully criticized libertarians as self-aggrandizing morons. My impression is that most of them want the world should be one giant dog-eat-dog brawl where that they can better indulge the fantasy that they are the biggest, scariest dogs out there.

I distrust government power somewhat, but I distrust corporate power far, far more. The former needs to be powerful to act as a check on the latter. But government power also needs to be both highly responsive to the will of the people and highly respectful of personal individual rights. I respect the idea of voluntary, regional collectivism, but I don't see how it can answer the problems of global problems like global warming.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Forgive us father for allowing a prayer of the wicked"

I finished reading Hardcore Zen yesterday, then tried meditating for the first time in a couple of years. When I opened my eyes again, the world looked strangely blue-filtered, and it seemed to me that I had some interesting ideas rolling through my head.

My brief foray into zen mastery accomplished little, but it made a certain blogosphere mini-controversy particularly relevant to me. Yesterday, the proceedings of the U.S. Senate were opened for the first time by a prayer from a Hindu cleric. As he tried to begin, the prayer was disrupted by angry shouting from three protesters.

Talking Points Memo has the YouTube video and commentary. The TPM story says that the anti-abortion group "Operation Rescue/Operation Save America" claimed responsibility for the protest, but I don't see an indication of that in the press release they sent out. All I see is unwavering support for their actions, and a chilling manifestation of a Talibanesque mentality right here in the U.S. As published on

Theology has moved from the church house onto the floor of the United States Senate, and has been arrested.

Contact: Dr. Pat McEwen, Operation Save America, 321-431- 3962

WASHINGTON, July 12 /Christian Newswire/ -- Ante Pavkovic, Kathy Pavkovic, and Kristen Sugar were all arrested in the chambers of the United States Senate as that chamber was violated by a false Hindu god. The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ. This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers.

"Not one Senator had the backbone to stand as our Founding Fathers stood. They stood on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! There were three in the audience with the courage to stand and proclaim, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' They were immediately removed from the chambers, arrested, and are in jail now. God bless those who stand for Jesus as we know that He stands for them." Rev. Flip Benham, Director, Operation Save America/Operation Rescue

To Schedule Interviews with Rev. Benham:

Contact Pat McEwen: 321 431 3962

In the defense of the evil, backsliding, cowardly senators, all reports indicate that the Senate chambers were mostly empty. That's hardly unexpected, since half our senators are busy running for president. Anyhow, our senators are only paid the paltry sum of $141,000 a year. When you're paying such paltry wages, you have to expect a bit of sloth and indifference from your employees.

Cynical tangent aside, the press release sends a clear message. This government is the sole and exclusive property of our God, and any recognition of religious plurality defiles the original intent of our Founding Fathers.

I don't buy the whole "our Founding Fathers established a Christian nation" argument. First, whatever their personal beliefs about religion and spirituality, their intentions for the country can best be derived from the Constitution itself. The Constitution says surprisingly little about religion, except that religious tests are forbidden, and Church and State should keep their grubby paws off each other. If the Founders really believed as the righteous rednecks claim, they had ample opportunity to fill our nation's supreme document with all manner of pro-Christian items. They could have easily formalized the Constitution Party's belief that only believing Christians should be allowed to hold office. They could have easily forbid the government from passing laws contrary to the Bible. They could have required that all proceedings begin with a prayer by a Christian minister, to keep "a prayer of the wicked" from ever being uttered in the hallowed chambers of the Senate.

They didn't. Hell, when they were drafting the Constitution, they didn't even start their own proceedings with a prayer[1]. If their goal was to create a nation founded on Christian principles, it seems like that would be the first order of business.

They didn't found a "Christian nation," because they knew that political power corrupts religion, turning it from a source of solace and inspiration into a tool for oppression. To imagine the country the Founding Fathers were striving mightily to avoid, just put yourself in the head of a protester who would shout "Lord Jesus, forgive us father for allowing a prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight," and imagine what sort of country he would found if given the chance.


[1] Yes, we're all aware of Benjamin Franklin's famous plea that they do so. When I was a teenager, I was taught on numerous occasions (Church, Boy Scouts (basically the same thing)) that this speech marked a turning point in the Constitutional Convention. According to the legend, after he gave that speech, the logjam was broken and compromise became easier, all because God was now present at the proceedings. Perhaps his eloquent words did make people more generally inclined to compromise. But the hagiographical version of this story never fails to eave out one critical fact: Franklin's proposal was never voted on, and according to his own recollections, "except for three or four persons, [the attendees] thought prayers unnecessary." [source]

Of course, it's more complex than I'm letting on. It always is.

[Note: Blogger has Ctrl-P mapped to "Publish", when my EMACS-trained fingers think it merely means "move cursor to previous line". So when you see a half-written post, you now know precisely how I screwed up.]

[Frak! I did it again!]

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Anonymous cowards

Andrew Leonard's How The World Works is my favorite globalization blog. His most recent entry on the housing bubble notes this bit of weirdness from the New York Times.

“We don’t really know the ripple effects,” said one industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity and gravity of the situation. “It is causing a revaluation of the securities, some of which may lead to additional liquidations. That’s possible, but it’s not set in stone.”

Now, I realize that the financial gurus who invested heavily in sub-prime mortgages are feeling a little nervous right now, and there are a lot of people looking to find a lot of other people to blame. But unless the next sentence out of his mouth was, "Also, the upper management of Goldman-Sachs keep a gaming preserve where they shoot hobos for sport," this self-styled industry official is saying something pretty innocuous. He sort of reminds me of that friend everyone has; you know, the one that makes a big deal about some secret that he simply must not share. Then, when he reluctantly and ever-so-dramatically spills his guts, it's completely anticlimactic. It's something you already knew, or it's simply not the juicy gossip he thinks it is.

Anonymous sources played a key role in the run-up to the Iraqi occupation, especially in cases where the always chatty "Senior Administration Official"
pseudonymously towed the Administration party line. Since then, we've seen other mind-bending abuses of anonymous sourcing. The most hilarious example has to be when "Senior Administration Official" gave an interview in which he defended the honor of Sith Lord Dick Cheney. It was unmistakably clear from the quotes that "Senior Administration Official" sounded like a bit of a Dick himself.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just make one editorial comment here. I've seen some press reporting says, "Cheney went in to beat up on them, threaten them." That's not the way I work. I don't know who writes that, or maybe somebody gets it from some source who doesn't know what I'm doing, or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business.
We don't expect much from the Vice President anymore (aside from the faint smell of burning sulfur when he enters the room), but can't we at least expect the competent handling of pronouns?

In my mind, anonymity should only be granted when a source faces potential retribution for revealing information, and there is nobody else willing to come forward with that information. In "Industry Official's" case, there have to be a number of people in the industry who would be willing to say what every last one of them must be thinking. In "Senior Administration Vice Pres-- er, Official's" case, there were clearly no grounds for granting anonymity. The protection of anonymous sources is for protecting the powerless from retribution by the powerful, not for protecting the powerful from accountability for their own words.

But it's not hard to understand why Cheney would want anonymity. Greenwald calls it an exercise in imperious power; he paints a picture of a veep so crazed with power that he demands no person be allowed to utter his name. I think there is a much simpler explanation: given Cheney's shaky credibility, everything sounds more believable when it doesn't sound like it's coming from him.

I'm going to start collecting these weird uses of anonymous sourcing, because the topic interests me, and because it's faster than composing an entire long-winded rant. Gotta keep the content comin'.

On a related note, I got my first anonymous troll. It's good to know that someone is reading.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Climate crusader ... Rupert Murdoch?

Rupert Murdoch is going carbon neutral, and wants to take all of News Corp. with him. It's like waking up one morning to the headline, "World's Bunnies Picketing Major Cities: Demanding 40-hour Work Week, Carrots." It's as though the West Antarctic Ice Shelf of my brain has detached from the firm ground of reality, and is sailing off into the ocean of hallucination, to melt and raise the oceans of insanity until they drown this whole crappy analogy.

What I'm saying is, it was unexpected. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been. Murdoch is a businessman, and environmentalists have long argued that heading off climate change makes good business sense. Yet I find myself surprised that anyone was listening, much less someone with such a reputation for no-holds-barred right-wingery.

He's also an Australian, and as he mentions in the interview, Australia is in the middle of its worst drought in 100 years. That must hit close to home. He was also greatly influenced by his son, who has been arguing the issue with him for a while now.

News Corp going carbon neutral is laudable. But I'm more excited -- and more concerned -- that Murdoch wants to use his media outlets to give global warming greater coverage. I'm not worried that Fox News will take this as a directive to give more camera time to uber-skeptics like Richard Lindzen. In fact, I'm sure that this time media consolidation -- and FOX News' unique brand of "fair and balanced" journalism -- will work in my favor this time around. But it's a tiny bright spot amidst an overwhelmingly negative trend.

I, for one, look forward to seeing Sean Hannity call someone Un-American for driving a Hummer. It'll warm my heart.

Monday, May 14, 2007

First it's men marryin' men, then it's men marryin' goats.

I tried to post a response to Dinesh D'Souza's strange piece that seems to claim that gay marriage makes polygamy unavoidable, and somehow Mitt Romney is responsible for it all. I had trouble getting the posting to work (further evidence of the vast, right-wing conspiracy to silence me), so I'm reposting here (somewhat modified):

I would agree that, once gay marriage is widely accepted -- something I very much hope will happen -- it's a pretty short logical and ethical jump to get to polygamy. But in your lazy analysis, you're glossing over several factors that make it unlikely that polygamy is inevitable or even likely:

1) Whereas gay marriage simply requires a few deletions of gender references (as there is very little legal distinction between the "husband" and "wife" roles), polygamous marriage requires that every piece of legal code factor in the possibility of a third interested party.

2) Very few of the people fighting for gay marriage are taking up arms in defense of polygamy as well. In fact, many advocates are downright hostile to polygamy.

3) In turn, many of the most strident practitioners of polygamy (those who practice it out of a sense of religious duty) are hostile towards gay marriage, or any combination that involves more than one man.

In short, once gay marriage becomes a mainstream legal entity, polygamy will not simply be an unintended consequence. Despite being the next logical step, it would still face huge legal hurdles. You could just as easily say that, because most arguments for banning marijuana are equally applicable to cigarettes, we're just a razor's edge from legalizing the former or banning the latter.

Another problem with your simplistic, slippery-slope thinking: any such argument requires that you demonstrate that the bottom of the slope is a terrible place to wind up. If two men and three women did decide to enter into a lifelong, committed relationship, why is that horrible? It doesn't affect your relationship with Mrs. D'Souza. I don't see any widespread social ills arising. Hell, you can't even say that The Lord Almighty finds the practice offensive; there are just too many biblical counterexamples.

It's pure sophistry to pretend that the various restrictions on the practice of marriage are equally subject to revision. You list four:

1) "It requires that only two people be involved"

2) "It requires that they be adults"

3) "and not closely related"

4) "and (except in Massachusetts) it insists that one of the parties be male and one female."

Why not add some more?

5) "Marriage must be between members of species homo sapiens."

6) "Marriage must be entered into by the consent of both parties."

If gay marriage passes, are those two restrictions in imminent danger as well? Surely not. Allowing gay marriage won't open the floodgates for plural marriage, brother-sister marriages, man-on-child marriages, forced marriages, or marriage between a man and a box of pencils. Each is a different situation with different social and ethical ramifications, different supporters and detractors, and each would require separate changes to the law to enact. To pretend otherwise is just crap punditry.

I bid you adieu, and wish you nothing but poor luck in your defense of the Inviolable and God-Ordained Sanctity of the subset of possible marriage customs that were openly practiced and socially accepted in the 1950's-era U.S.

Though I failed to add it, I thought it was odd that homophobic views would be found 'neath a banner that says, "News Bloggers: Hard News, Raw Opinions, Penetrating Perspectives." Somebody over at AOL must have had trouble keeping a straight face when they pitched that slogan. Also, pay particular attention to comment #4 beneath the story; it contains some of the most insightful commentary on the sex-crazed gay menace that you'll ever see.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Rumblings from the icy fields of Greenland

The debate thus far: In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore popularized the rather alarming vision of a twenty foot rise in sea level. That's how much rise we'd get if the water tied up in either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or the Greenland ice went into the oceans (or half of each). It's not easy to forget that graphic showing the water moving inland into Florida, or the idea that millions of senior citizens might have to move back in with their kids.

That picture acted as a great big two-by-four to the skull of America's collective consciousness, summing up in a few seconds the many varied potential devastations our inaction might cause. It was too effective to go unanswered. In the journalistic travesty that was "Exposed: Climate of Fear," Glenn "Prove to us that you're not working with our enemies" Beck tried to stem the damage[1]:

BECK: Now, what about that really cool animation of Florida and Manhattan drowning? Huh, cool, huh? You`ve seen these horrific scenarios everywhere based purely on catastrophic hypotheticals that dramatically exaggerate even what the U.N. says. It`s Al Gore`s best supporting actor, the word "if."

GORE: If we have an increase of five degrees, if Greenland broke up and melted...

... if this were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet.

MARIO LEWIS, PHD, GOVERNMENT POLICY ANALYST: Where he`s misleading is that he gives the impression that this is something that is likely to happen. The likelihood of this is next to nil.

DAVID LEGATES, PHD, CLIMATOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE: The IPCC report is that the upper limit of sea level rise by the year 2100 is going to be about 23 inches.

HORNER: That`s why Al Gore makes up 20 feet. The truth isn`t scary.

BECK: Just look at the difference between Greenland`s ice melt in Al Gore`s scenario when spread out over a century versus what the IPCC projects.

CHRISTY: To come up with 20 feet is really grasping at straws, I think, but it does make a dramatic image.
Indeed, the IPCC report does say that 23 inches of sea rise is the most we can expect, and 2100 seems awful far away. Time doesn't come to a stop at the end of this century, and sea rise would continue over several centuries, eventually leading to the rise that Gore reported in the movie. But twenty feet doesn't sound that dangerous, if we have a millennium to adapt or fix it.

But that's just the question: will it take millennia, or decades? We know that if present warming trends continue, we are eventually going to lose major portions of both ice shelves. The real controversy is exactly how long it will take and how much we will lose.

Enter the reassuring IPCC figures on global sea rise -- the only part of the IPCC report that climate skeptics seem to take seriously. Beck's posse wants us to believe that the twenty foot scenario is laughable to anyone who actually understands the issues. To do that, they fundamentally misrepresent the findings of the report.
(as always) does a great job reporting on this issue. It's especially interesting to see which contributions to overall sea level rise are factored into the IPCC figures.

But let's just focus on the critical weasel words:
Dynamical processes related to ice flow not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise. Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude. -- IPCC Report (Summary for Policy Makers)
In other words, the IPCC is being very conservative in their sea level estimations. In these words, we see that the IPCC recognizes that the ice shelves are not well understood, and may slide into the ocean far faster than their projections would indicate.

What the global warming deniers are contractually obligated never to acknowledge[2] is that these IPCC reports are very conservative documents. They do not go beyond the evidence available in the published literature, and in fact they have to set a date after which they don't accept new research (to avoid having to rewrite the report). New evidence -- which didn't make it into the report -- suggests that the Greenland shelf is becoming highly unstable.

Recently, geologists discovered an unusual class of earthquake, associated with the movements of ice sheets. In Greenland, they're highly seasonal (occuring mostly in the summer months), and -- more worryingly -- the number of incidents has more than doubled in the last few years.

More information can be found here. It's too soon to say whether the ice will melt gradually or crash into the ocean in a few sudden rushes. The science isn't in yet.

While we're waiting to find out exactly how bad it's going to be, and how quickly we'll have to rush to build twenty foot high walls around our coastal cities, everyone get out there and start shopping. For Hummers. Because the most important thing we can do to prepare for the future is to grow the economy so big that we can pay for any problems that arise. And keep watching Glenn Beck to get "the other side of the story." That boy's a straight shooter.


[1] Beck is far from a neutral source on the issue. Of the nineteen "experts" he's brought on his show to discuss global warming, only two of them supported the consensus position [source]. While he's hardly the first skeptic to take on the topic of sea levels, his approach is representative of the techniques used.

[2] Standard Noncorporeal Essence Transferrence of Ownership Contract, Article IV, subclause 3. Requests for sample copies of this contract can be made to the Legal Affairs Department of the Third Circle of Hell.

The steady-state economy

I'm mostly recovered from my carpal tunnel surgery. While I was busy being incapacitated, I got quite a few books read, including two books by an economist named Herman Daly, called For the Common Good and Steady State Economics. I highly recommend the first, as well as the first half of the second (the second half, consisting of several essays where Daly interacted with various critics, were a bit repetititititive, and therefore only recommended to the hardcore).

So, what is The Steady State Economy? I think the best way to start is by describing the neoclassical model, to which the SSE is intended to be an alternative. In the standard model, you have consumption and production, with an arrow going from production to consumption, and another going from consumption to production. When you buy something that has been produced, you're consuming, and the money you pay goes to finance more production. It's kind of like The Circle of Life you saw in The Lion King, if Disney had hired Milton Friedman to write the screenplay.

The first thing that Daly points out is that the diagram shows a perpetual motion machine, which thing cannot exist according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law says that you can never get as much useful work out of a system as you put into it[1]. So if you find a system that gives the appearance of running forever, you have to look and figure out where new useful energy is being fed into it, and where the waste energy is being deposited.

The Steady State model does exactly that, adding two more arrows and two more nodes. An arrow points from resources to production (because you need to obtain natural resources from the environment in order to produce), and another points from consumption to "waste sinks", because you cannot consume any service without some amount of waste to the environment.
These two additions don't just save the model from charges of blasphemy by physicists; it also returns the concept of "environment" to the field of economics, which has otherwise been sluggish to pay attention to the ecological supports that prop up our economic activity.

In the neoclassical picture, economic growth is an easy sell; why have less when you can have more? Choosing less economic activity is tantamount to choosing poverty. Resource limits are unimportant, because a lack of natural capital can always be offset by greater intellectual capital. In other words, if there is a shortage of some resource X, we can overcome it merely by devoting more study to the problem of making Y perform the same function.

This is the core of the problem: while relative prices is a great mechanism for optimally distributing a given set of resources among a set of people, it has no way of regulating the total resources to be distributed. Say you have an ocean that can produce a thousand tons of herring every year without impacting future catches. What happens to the price of an additional ton of herring once the quota is caught? The price goes down a bit, but certainly nothing in the price of ton 1001 indicates that any sort of important limit has been reached.

To put it another way: if there were but one breeding pair of Bengal tigers left in the world, if there was just one acre of forest left, there would still be a market-induced incentive for harvesting them.

Daly compares the economy to a cargo ship. The market distributes resources relatively efficiently, which is akin to loading the ship evenly to prevent it from tipping and capsizing. But no matter how perfectly the weight is distributed, the ship can only carry so much.

The main question that needs to be asked is: which of the two economic visions can best provide for human happiness? Daly argues that his model is better, and I'm inclined to agree simply because it better represents the physical reality of our situation. But he made one point that really drove me to his side on this question: future people cannot bid in current markets. No matter how useful a member of the graduating class of 2107 might find a certain barrel of oil in the ground (say they'd be willing to pay $500 for it) they can't actually make that exchange, because somebody from the present bought it out from under them for $50.

For any given resource that future humans might need, the only way to ensure that it will be there for them is for present humans to draw from the resource pool at a rate that can be sustained into the indefinite future.

But that leaves us with far fewer resources to work with in the here and now, and that will have a huge impact on our current standards of living. I see that as a problem with the lifestyle itself, not for the economic theory. Still, Daly proposes the beginnings of a solution, which derives from his distinction between growth (aggregate size of the economy, as measured by resource use) and development (an increase in the fulfillment of human desires). Using a given resource stream, development occurs when manufacturers find ways to make their goods more durable, more recyclable, and more efficient at delivering the intended service. The circle in the middle of the diagram is still expanded, but without altering the flows that enter or leave the system.

Unlike the neoclassical model, the steady-state economy requires that an upper limit be placed on the number of people that can be allowed to share the globe at the same time. Just like the last paragraph, this fact makes steady state a tougher sell, but doesn't alter its fundamental truthfulness. Daly supports a plan by one of his fellow travelers, which suggests that each woman be given a certain number of credits, each bestowing the ability to bear one tenth of a child. Collect ten, and The Man won't give you any grief about your spawn.

It's certainly better than, say, a strict "one child per family" policy, which doesn't make any allowances for personal preferences. It also encourages the blessed state of affairs where children are being raised by the people who most want to take on the role. But lots of people find any sort of government meddling intolerable when it comes to such deeply personal choices. Of course it's a deeply personal choice with society-wide implications. I certainly sympathize. However, if population limits are needed (and it's hard to argue otherwise), this plan seems to offer the best hope for allowing people to make the choices that best suit them.

Steady-state Economics is an amazing book, and I don't think I'll look at economics quite the same way again.[2]


[1] I don't remember where I read it, but I once came across a very handy shorthand for the Laws: 1) You can never win. 2) You can never break even. 3) You can never leave the game.

[2] For the Common Good also touches on this topic, but in addition it provides interesting material about politics and community. I should probably address it in another post.

Monday, April 23, 2007

That whooshing sound overhead?

It may in fact be the sound of a joke whizzing by.

Last week, singer Sheryl Crow unveiled a plan to help save the Earth and all the fluffy critters on it: limit toilet paper usage to a single square:

Now, I don't want to rob any law-abiding American of his or her God-given rights, but I think we are an industrious enough people that we can make it work with only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where 2 to 3 could be required. When presenting this idea to my younger brother, whose judgment I trust implicitly, he proposed taking it one step further. I believe his quote was, "how bout just washing the one square out."

She was clearly joking, but her humor was a bit too subtle and nuanced for many commentators on the right, who reported it as an earnest suggestion.

So Sheryl Crow, singer turned anti-global warming warrior, wants to limit everyone’s toilet paper use to “one square per restroom visit.” Surely she jests. -- Margery Eagan

Now from a website branding itself as "the intelligent alternative":

That said, let's get on to your other tasteless and calculatedly sensational grab for publicity. Come on, Sheryl, you cannot honestly believe that someone like yourself, who travels in high society, actually practices what she preaches, in claiming that everyone must save the planet by using only one sheet of toilet tissue per bathroom visit, no matter where or when it's made. -- Joan Battey

Good name, Ms. Battey.

The best coverage had to come from the crack team over at Newsbusters. The story was important enough to require no fewer than five separate updates. Ken Shepherd spent a lot of time today thinking about Sheryl Crow's butt. I suppose it's a nice gig, if you can get paid for it.

Spend even a minute in the story's comments, and you lose all hope for both Newsbusters and for humanity in general. It's all "Don't shake hands with a liberal!" and "No wonder Lance Armstrong dumped her!" Classy crowd over there. Almost nobody has the simple sense to wonder if maybe Crow wasn't being entirely serious[1].

No, Crow must think she's come up with a powerful, world-saving idea all by herself, utter nitwit that she is. Amazingly, one guy marvelled at how oblivious she must be to not notice that her own brother was poking fun at the idea.

All this raises the question of why so many failed to notice the tongue in the cheek. My theory is that the proposal fits the right-wing mythos of out-of-touch, wealthy, emptyheaded eco-nuts telling other people how to live. It's a useful stereotype to distract people away from serious proposals like mine:

  1. Before eating potatos or lemons, wire them into your house's electrical system until they're fully discharged.
  2. Compost things rather than throwing them out. Compostable items include dryer lint, newspaper, copies of Ann Coulter's Treason, your neighbor's SUV, and surplus children. This population problem isn't going to just solve itself.
  3. Solar powered helicopters!


Best. Coverage. Ever.

Surgery went well, but until I get these braces off, I can only hunt 'n peck. It's frustrating.


[1] The one guy who brought up the possibility then spent a couple of paragraphs detailing why a TP-rationing law would be difficult to enforce. So he's still a bit thick.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I do tend to ramble.

I wrote yet another I-can't-believe-you-can-believe-it's-not-global-warming rant in response to Paglia's latest article. It's the longest letter I saw in the comments section, and it probably got starred for that reason alone. But hey, a star is a star.

Mainly it was in response to her overall attitude that, hey, it's a big universe, and we're all tiny-puny. It's the attitude I was trying to dispute in my WWJD post. So if you like one of the rants, you might like the other.

On an equally self-involved note, I started a personal blog called Banned Sorcery. That's where I'll be stashing the non-environmental stuff.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

We want a free ride

UTA is planning a massive redesign of Salt Lake's bus system, eliminating lots of routes and apparently reducing the number of buses traveling to and from the University of Utah. Then they're going to raise rates just as my school transit pass expires. Nicole over at Where's my bus, UTA has been working hard to raise public awareness. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to attend most of the public events UTA has scheduled, but I did manage to fire off a public comment taking them to task for the poor job they're doing engaging the public.

It's been more than a little disillusioning to see our public servants in action. They didn't bring the public into the process until they had decided on most of the details of the service cut, and at best they seem interested in minor tweaks to their awful plan, not comprehensive critiques. I asked how we'd know that our comments had been taken seriously, and their representatives basically said to look at the differences between the current proposal and the final proposal. That advice is only a bit more helpful than telling us to consulting an Ouiji board.

UTA has also dragged their feet in providing information that should have been made public from the beginning (ridership statistics, facts about the overall changes in bus capacity, surveys of bus drivers, etc.). They seem to believe that the less the public knows, the more easily they can ram the proposal through. That's never a good sign.

So I'm here to suggest a disruptive alternative to the current fare structure. It's a much simpler structure, and it's sure to promote the primary goal of increasing ridership: everything is free. Let's call it the FreeUTA plan.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

There are several key advantages to free service. The first and most obvious is that you no longer have to collect fares. If ten people get on at a stop, and they each spend six seconds just putting change into the machine, that's a full minute delay. As a frequent bus rider, I've seen people fumble for change, drop change (sometimes straight out the bus doors), miscount change, argue over change, beg other riders for change, and get thrown off for having insufficient change. All that sturm and drang takes time, time that could be better spent moving people from place to place. Free service is faster service.

Other people use tokens, which are much faster. I use an EdPass, which is the fastest because I just flash the card at the driver as I amble on. TRAX riders buy their tickets before the train shows up, and fares are (occasionally) checked as the train is moving. The downside of that is that you end up paying police officers to ride TRAX all day, checking for fares and issuing citations.

The current fare structure effectively penalizes short trips. If you can hop a bus to get yourself four blocks, but to do so you have to pay as much as if you'd ridden it all the way downtown, you probably feel like you've gotten less service for your money than you should have. But four blocks is still further than most people want to walk[1], so most likely people will hop in their cars. Any time a person is weighing the decision of how to get somewhere, and their solution is "the car", it should be seen as a small transit system failure.

It should go without saying that the FreeUTA plan is a huge incentive for riders. But the disincentives in the current structure need to be pointed out. If you double the cost of a bus ride (as the current proposal does), you're getting into territory where there is little reason for car owners to take the bus. A trip downtown, including all-day parking, might cost the driver five bucks. For the bus rider, it would cost four bucks. That's hardly worth the hassle, and for new customers who haven't mastered the whole mass transit experience, there isn't much of an incentive to learn.

UTA is trying more and more to run the transit system like a business. But the simple fact is, it's not a business, it's a public service. Transit users are heavily subsidized -- fares only account for about 20% of UTA's operating budget -- which only makes sense, since many of the benefits being purchased fall on people who aren't paying fares. Drivers benefit from decreased congestion. Everyone in the Salt Lake Valley benefits from better air quality. Everyone everywhere benefits from reduced CO2 emissions. Employers benefit from increased access to employees who might not be able to afford or drive a car, and businesses get a similar benefit from greater access to customers. Downtown Salt Lake and the University of Utah both benefit from less demand for parking spaces[2]. It's only right that riders -- who don't reap all the benefits of the system -- shouldn't pay all the costs. In fact, if the public benefits alone are enough to justify a given mass transit plan, then charging fares seems counterproductive at best.

I don't have hard numbers to back up my intuition that a 100% subsidy would be a net gain (even without the other benefits I mentioned). But I do know it is pure insanity to see riders as "customers" who we should extract as much money from as possible. That's just the approach UTA seems to be taking.

Instead, the goal should be to get as many people out of their cars as possible. In the long term, that's going to require a major rethinking of our current land use policies. Sprawl makes effective mass transit virtually impossible. And walking. And biking. And pretty much every conceivable not-car solution. In the near term, however, we should be making mass transit as attractive as possible to riders. The FreeUTA program is going to take a good deal more money than UTA's budget has. I'd always figured that such a change would have to go through the state legislature (unlikely, given that the legislature is filled with road-happy chimpmonkeys), but I've heard a couple of proposals floated where the Salt Lake City government would pay UTA to maintain the service the city needs.

Update: I've just received a copy of the market research on which UTA based the redesign. I'm only a few pages in, but it's giving me a better understanding of what the people at UTA are thinking.


[1] I'm a bit of an exception in that regard. I don't really consider walking a burden for the first six blocks or so, and I'm willing to walk as much as ten blocks if I've got the time.

[2] As Nicole points out in this post, service to the University will be effectively reduced under the proposed changes. Parking space is already at a premium up at the U, and many of the roads up there are already heavily congested during peak hours. If we don't stop the current plans, and begin improving transit service to the University, we'll be forced to pay anyways, for wider roads and more parking.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Deep Economy

KQED San Francisco had an outstanding interview with ecology author Bill McKibben [here]. Available as an MP3 or audio stream. The high points:

  1. To avoid nasty, pointy death, we need to start consuming far, far less.
  2. That sounds scary, but it's really not. All our excess consumption isn't making us happier.
  3. In fact, it's done a lot to erode our sense of community, which significantly harms our quality of life.
  4. Part of the solution involves rebuilding local, small-scale economies (farmers markets being a good example).
  5. The McKibben family is facing a Beanie Baby overpopulation crisis.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The silver bullet is aimed at us.

Silver bullets are great things. When a big, slobbering werewolf crashes through your door and gives you that look that says, "Yay! I won't have to raid the chicken coop tonight!" the availability of a silver bullet can mean the difference between survival and a scene of blood and gore that your nearest and dearest won't be eager to clean up after.

We relish the idea of having that sort of decisive, 30-caliber effectiveness in real life. It's an especially compelling hope when the problems you're faced with seem overwhelming. But when it comes to technological solutions to environmental problems, all too often the ideal is the enemy of the good.

Why invest in improved mass transit when the "antimatter economy" is just forty years off? Why build wind farm capacity today, when by 2107 roving bands of nanobots will be hunting down carbon dioxide molecules and beating them up in back alleys? Why eat a responsible diet today if you figure that tomorrow holds a cheap pharmaceutical cure for your every ill?

Some solutions really would make a huge difference, like nuclear fusion. It's clean, it's fueled by one of the most abundant substances on Earth, and it's been just-a-couple-of-decades-away since 1950. While I think that is partly due to chronic underfunding, the truth is that we can't base our future on the assumption that it will pan out in time.

Other solutions, like the much-touted "Hydrogen Economy" strike me as overhyped and impractical. Why would auto makers be excited to build a hydrogen car in 2020 when they claim they can't survive even moderatly increased fuel-economy standards today? I believe that the Hydrogen Economy exists primarily for the purpose of siphoning interest away from alternatives that are viable right now.

There is one last category of silver bullets, which are highly worrying to greenies like me, but excite the business world. Genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology hold tremendous promise, but also the potential for huge -- some would say "disastrous"[1] -- consequences if handled improperly. Now, some will tell us that Our Corporate Masters(TM) are going to be careful about what technologies they introduce and mindful of the potential consequences. It's safe to say that these people are on crack. Given our current corporate structures and incentives, it's perfectly reasonable for a corporation to look at a memo from one of their research teams entitled "If We Release This Product, Saber-Toothed Cows May Overrun New York" and delay the rollout only until their legal team assures them that they won't have to foot the bill for the cleanup.

Potential negative effects don't matter as much to corporations as they ought to, because the decision-makers and investors are shielded from most of the consequences. Nothing short of outright fraud can put a CEO in jail, and the worst that can happen to investors is that the value of their stock drops to zero.

Okay, I'm headed off on a big fat ranty tangent here. Instead of continuing down this path, I'll simply recommend that you read William Grieder's The Soul of Capitalism. It should explain why I don't believe corporations -- as presently constituted -- have the necessary incentives to properly weigh the broader consequences of their actions.

Without heavy (perhaps even stifling) standards for proving the safety of these new products, we're faced with a situation where each problem we try to solve may end up causing three new ones. Of course, biotech has enormous potential applications for creating new medicines, cleaning up toxic chemicals, sequestering carbon, and making agriculture more productive. But we need to tread very cautiously. Look at the problems we caused ourselves with ordinary pollution, and then imagine how much worse it would be if the toxic agent was no mere molecule, but a self-reproducing organism.

For most people, it's easy and comforting to believe that technological progress will step in to preserve our current way of life. The alternative -- contemplating major reductions in our consumption -- is downright scary. But I think it's absolutely necessary, and probably healthier for us in the long run.

I'm absolutely not implying that we shouldn't be pursuing new technologies. Instead, I'm saying that true silver bullets don't exist. When cars were introduced, they seemed like a perfect solution to our transportation needs. We didn't predict the side-effects of global warming, sprawl, urban flight, or social fragmentation. But they still occurred, and we're dealing with the consequences. When we finally figure out nuclear fusion, what will be the consequences? Will our energy problems be solved, or simply magnified by the subsequent reliance on new industrial processes with high energy inputs? It depends primarily on what we choose to do with it.

Maybe in twenty years, we'll discover some tremendous, completely unintended consequence of a new technology, but -- as with automobiles today -- we'll be so dependent on it that we can't possibly turn it off again. Unexpected problems will arise because we're so eager to let new technologies transform our society over and over again. The attitude is, once we've gained some new capability (such as those provided by cars, or the Internet) we tend to use it to the hilt, heedless of the dangers. Why not grow all our food in Iowa, produce a city's energy five hundred miles away, get all our manufactured goods from China and have all our critical documents stored on a server in Palo Alto [3]? There's no chance these systems could be disrupted, leaving us stranded, right?


[1] Upgrade that to "cataclysmic," and a Hugo-winning sci-fi story can practically write itself.

[2] There is no two.

[3] I'm lookin' at you, Google Docs.

What Would Jesus Drive?

As an environmentalist living in a state where "liberal" is a dirty word, I think I've come to recognize -- and maybe even understand -- the patterns of thought that hinder our progress.

  1. The world is very big, while humanity and its needs are tiny by comparison.
  2. Environmental restrictions are an onerous restriction on personal freedom.
  3. Technological progress and human ingenuity will save us from any environmental excesses.

I believe that -- at least to a first approximation -- the first idea has its origins in a very specific conception of God. According to this conception, God had a plan to establish humanity as the dominant species on the planet, and [preferred deity gender pronoun] created the Earth to fulfill the needs of the species. Environmentalism is therefore seen as a repudiation of the commandment to use the Earth as we see fit, and the sustainability movement seems to imply that God screwed up by not anticipating our current needs.

Maybe this is a shamefully misleading caricature of my opponents. But my reason for suspecting that is that it's so easy to refute this depiction, that it hurts my brain to think that anyone could actually believe it. The words of actual anti-environmentalists only lend support to the idea. Here's Rush Limbaugh's take:

In fact, that passage [by Michael Crichton] is one of the things that helped form my whole thinking on the concept of the complexity of all of this that is our planet and the impotence that we really have to do anything about it. The idea that by improving our standards of living, that those characteristics of our existence will destroy us, is, frankly, just absurd. I contend you cannot believe in God and believe what the global warming crowd believes. You can't. The two do not go hand in hand. You have to actively not believe in God and believe in something else as a replacement, in order to hold this catastrophic climate crisis view that they all have. [source]
Of course, I do believe in global warming, and I don't believe in God. But it's not necessary to be an atheist; you simply have to not believe in the same conception of God that Rush does.

Well, I promised that this viewpoint was pretty easy to take apart, and I guess it would be rather anticlimatic if I didn't demonstrate the fact. It seems to me that their conception of God is a right-wing, consumerist convenience not derived from any scriptural source. This god could not have merely provided us an inheritance that could bring us happiness if used responsibly. No, sir. The only logical course of action was for the Creator to provide a canvas big enough to support all the desires and cravings of as many descendants as humanity could ever want to bear.

Why should we believe that, though? Understand that this is the same God who promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey, then stuck them in the one spot in the parched, sandy Middle East that doesn't have significant oil reserves[1]. Okay, cheap shot. But I can't recall any scriptural support for the idea that God will protect us from the consequences of our own stupid actions. A quick glance through the annals of history would similarly reveal a God who often steps aside and lets humanity reap what it has sown. So why this loophole that protects our environment from the consequences of the pursuit of material gain? Why don't the anti-environmentalists say what they really think: God loves us and wants us to have SUVs?

There is some evidence, of course, that any Creator would want and even expect some level of economic development for our own benefit. How else to explain the digestive tract? We need "stuff" to survive, and that stuff invariably comes from nature. But one solitary verse about "replenishing" and "subduing" [2] can hardly be bootstrapped into a comprehensive environmental and economic policy. If the Lord Almighty didn't specify One True Global Carrying Capacity, we should assume that we're supposed to figure out the limits of creation for ourselves, rather than assume that no such limits exist.

This conception of God also ignores ample evidence that our happiness in this life isn't supposed to come from ever-expanding material consumption. It's supposed to come from things like loving your neighbor, doing good works, and smiting the enemies of the Most High.[3] I disagree with quite a few religious ideas about how to live happily, but there are some valuable ideas to be mined, ideas which some self-proclaimed religious people seem to have rejected in favor of "The Cult of More".

The Cult of More is the fundamental idea, lodged deep in the American psyche, that the solution to all our problems, from the environment to poverty to that deep, abiding sense of purposelessness that infects the lives of so many. It also considers American-style, cutthroat capitalism to be the ideal means of achieving economic growth. Environmentalism, anti-corporatism, and anti-consumerism all threaten the tenets of The Cult of More, and therefore constitute a grave threat to the happiness of every American.

The Cult of More offers false promises of salvation, and provides the first line of defense for the greediest and most socially damaging practices of modern corporations. The truth is, there simply isn't enough planet to raise everyone's standard of living to that of the average American. That standard of living is even less attainable when we start trying to figure out how to achieve it for future generations, and it falls pathetically short of the lavish lifestyle that our society promotes as ideal.

If you're like most religious people, you must have been taught somewhere along the lines that values like service, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion would bring more happiness than material wealth. As we live our lives in a world that risks being drowned in the sea of our wants, we need to settle on a new set of priorities that will let us achieve greater happiness at less ecological cost.

I'll be covering the other two articles of faith (Regulation as Anti-Freedom and Technology as Savior) in separate posts.


[1] According to Wikipedia, Israel produces about 2700 barrels of oil a day, or enough fuel to power three Hummers. They also note that the population of African elephants has tripled in the last six months.

[2] Genesis 1:28

[3] We seem to have the smiting bit down pat. In fact, our government spends $400B a year on smiting-related expenditures. Can we please work on the other two for a while?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Paean to the 'lectric cars

My letter to, in response to someone complaining that a switch to electric cars would make us even more dependent on coal. My main point was that, if built properly, electric cars could act as grid storage devices, making wind power far more reliable as an alternative. But, as usual, I got all long-winded about it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Soylent green is people!

That's all I could think when I read this story about Ventria's new genetically modified rice with human genes.

Of course, the joke doesn't quite work, because the rice is intended solely for manufacturing medicine, not consumption. But I'm convinced that the ultimate goal here isn't to make medicine for third world countries, as the article suggests. Had that been the true goal, they would have put the genes in crabgrass or plankton or sardines. You know, things nobody would consider eating.

No, this is a shot directly across the vegetarians' bow. Put enough human genes in your vegetables, and you end up with carrots that scream when you try to eat them.

Meanwhile, PETA is trying to shame Al Gore into adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. That makes all kinds of sense to me. There are billions of cows on this planet, each belching out methane (a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) at a prodigious rate. Also, vast swaths of land are being deforested to create grazing land in South America, so they can ship beef northward to feed our already chubby butts. A worldwide shift to a vegetarian diet would probably reduce the amount of economic activity needed to feed humanity by an order of magnitude. Plus, rodeo clown unemployment would skyrocket. So really, there are no downsides!

Mister Gore, as one of the most influential people in the environmental movement, you could do great good by drawing attention to the environmental effects of the meat industry. Also, it would be a great personal favor, as I'm currently heavily invested in tofurkey futures. Put down the burger and back away slowly!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Attention, scientist type persons!

My uncles would like to have a word with your sorry, liberal, treehugging asses. You see, it seems you haven't been doing your jobs properly. Sure, you may have gotten the liberal media all atwitter with your carefully executed global warming conspiracy. They like being atwitter. Sells papers. But when you're trying to use your scientific credentials to force our country to turn its legislative authority over to the U.N., you have to expect that somebody is going to see through your little shell game.

See, Mister and Miss Climatological Expert, in your calculations and pontifications, in your rush to pin this so-called "global warming" on this so-called "carbon dioxide", you forgot to take into account this thing called The Sun. It sits up in the sky, where everybody and their dogs can see it, and if you're looking for something that warms the globe, you need look no further. Honestly, we expect a bit better from our best and brightest than to overlook something like this. We thought you lived in ivory towers, not dank, unlighted ivory cellars.

So, yeah, we're all kind of snickering at you. What do you have to say for yourself?

[...] researchers at the MPS have shown that the Sun can be responsible for, at most, only a small part of the warming over the last 20-30 years. [...] Although the changes in [global temperature and solar output] tend to follow each other for roughly the first 120 years, the Earth's temperature has risen dramatically in the last 30 years while the solar brightness has not appreciably increased in this time. [source]

Is that all?

All reconstructions indicate that the direct effect of variations in solar forcing over the 20th century was about 20 to 25% of the change in forcing due to increases in the well-mixed greenhouse gases. [source]

Gee, that sounds really science-y. And it's got the word "solar" in it. What else have you got?

In summary, although solar forcing is real, the implications of that are often rather overstated. Since there has been a clear history of people fooling themselves about the importance of solar-climate links, any new studies in the field need to be considered very carefully before conclusions are drawn, especially with respect the warming over recent decades, which despite all of this discussion about solar activity, is almost all related to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. [source]

But the sun is as hot as it's ever been, just in time to explain the current string of record-breaking years, right?

According to PMOD at the World Radiation Center there has been no increase in solar irradiance since at least 1978, when satellite observations began. This means that for the last thirty years, while the temperature has been rising fastest, the sun has not changed. [source]

I notice that the URL for that page contains a 666. Is that meaningful?

No. [source]

Sorry to have bothered you. I'll let you get back to your... beakers? Microscopes? Mass spectrometers? Whatever the hell you people use.

As the most leftist person in my family and an intolerant political nutjob, I often get tempted to lock horns with relatives, especially the most outspoken, political ones. The aforementioned uncles, for example. Last night, at a family gathering, I kept hearing the words "carbon dioxide" coming from the dining room. It seemed a rather unlikely molecule for dinner conversation, so I wandered out to see what was up. Deep down, I already knew; surrounded by a good portion of my extended family, my uncles were engaged in the standard right-wing denunciation of global warming, firing off fact after error-laden fact.

Global warming is a myth.

The scientific consensus about global warming is a myth.

Solar output is the primary driver of climate change, both
historically and today.

Out-of-touch Hollywood liberals rigged the Oscars; "An Inconvenient Truth"
isn't even a documentary.

All this within the space of one minute. I had to retreat back to my fortress of solitude, because I knew what would happen if I tried to engage them. I'd end up losing my temper, saying something to indicate that I was the only sane person in the room, and storming off leaving the family even more convinced that Al Gore is using the effete Hollywood liberals and the New York Times and Al Franken to turn our government into a subsidiary of the U.N., in a diabolical
plan to turn our children gay and corrupt the vitality of their precious bodily fluids.

Or something like that. I haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh for years, so the details of the Evil Liberal Conspiracy are getting a bit fuzzy in my mind.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The fortress of solitude.

As much as I would have loved to stand up and say, "Silence, ye fiends of the eternal pit!"[1] and deliver a stirring rebuke to the entire right-wing disinformation apparatus, I knew what would happen if I tried. I'd get beaten back with a litany of "facts" that sounded just barely plausible enough that it would be bad form to dismiss them outright. It doesn't help that I don't trust my own brain, to the point that I almost never quote a fact or statistic without checking with my emergency backup brain (henceforth referred to by its more common name, "Google").

I'm not used to boisterous, freewheeling debate on verbal timescales. Sometimes I enjoy it, but mostly it feels like I've just popped a near-lethal dose of caffeine. It's heart pounding, head swimming vertigo, occasionally mixed with moments of blind outrage. So it's not a good forum for getting out a single coherent thought, much less winning over hearts and minds.

I'm pretty much your standard, shy-yet-excitable computer geek who longs for love and respect and is terror-stricken by the idea of interpersonal conflict. Sitting here behind my computer, with time to sift the contents of my own brains, able to formulate, refine, revise and discard an idea without committing it to public record, is much more relaxing. Sure, I can still get worked up, but I know I can vent my spleen for a half hour, then go clear my head and return to rewrite, "You're a pathetic, ill-informed moron," into "With all due respect, you're a pathetic, ill-informed moron." Even when my head is clear, it's not exactly a happy place to live.

Here is how I would have liked to reframe the debate:

It is untenable to claim that fossil fuel use isn't changing our climate. Such a conclusion flies in the face of basic science. We've known about the heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gases for over a hundred fifty years, and we've known that atmospheric CO2 has been on the rise for decades (even before the media-driven "global cooling" hype). We currently pump about seven billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, which raises atmospheric CO2 by about 2PPM/year. We know that CO2 concentrations are higher than they have been in the last 650,000 years. You can't say that carbon dioxide doesn't trap heat, or that we're not producing sizeable amounts of it.

It also flies in the face of a broad scientific consensus among researchers. Certainly there is "controversy" of the boring, "this historical reconstruction is more accurate than that one" and "exactly how much warming should we expect" variety. However, there is little disagreement over the broad picture of rising temperatures and increasingly fragile ecosystems, with human activity being the driving force behind it.

The perception of controversy in the mind of the public is encouraged by a small network of outspoken conservative think tanks, dozens of which receive substantial funding by Exxon-Mobil (by far the most recalcitrant of the major oil companies). The current situation--with a large body of scientific research being opposed by a small, insistent disinformation campaign--bears an eerie resemblance to the fight over the science behind tobacco use.

Even if this non-controversy did have merit, there is no excuse for inaction. Many of the suggested initial steps for combatting climate change would be good ideas even if global warming was a "hoax" as Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) suggests. Using CFL lightbulbs, putting more research into LED lighting, increasing fuel economy standards, and more energy efficient building codes are simple, sensible steps that would increase our energy security, save consumers money, and wouldn't harm the economy a whit. Reforestation efforts would not only sequester carbon, but also improve the scenery and increase our overall supply of lumber and paper products. Solar and wind power are far less polluting than fossil fuel alternatives, they're plummeting in cost, and they provide energy independence at all scales.[2] Electric cars could make much of our transportation requirements both more efficient and agnostic as to the source of the energy. In fact, most of the options on the table have incredible environmental benefits.

So stop whining about how the only good regulation is a dead regulation, and let's start building a world that will actually be able to support your vast army of offspring.

See, that's why I shouldn't actually instigate family arguments. Even on quiet reflection, with ample opportunity to decide if I really want to say something, I can still be a judgmental bastard. Trust me, nothing loses the good will of a conservative than pointing to their children and saying, "Too many. Pick the two you love the most, because the rest have to go." It's not an easy thing to reconcile my love for my nieces and nephews (both actual and expected) with my outrage that we're dropping more and more people onto this planet with no consideration given to our ability to provide for their health and comfort.

We have huge, almost insurmountable responsibilities towards the future. Too many people are arguing that we should ignore those responsibilities until they become easier and more convenient to tackle. But most frustrating are the vast majority of people, too caught up in their own troubles and pursuits to recognize the responsibilities, or understand their own potential as agents of a better world.

I guess that's why I've started this blog. Sometimes it feels like, without an outlet for my frustration and anguish towards the whole world, I'd just pop open, the anger spilling out like toxic sludge, requiring the evacuation of a three block radius and an expensive HAZMAT team. I can't let that happen. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing you can do to get anger goop out of the carpets.

[1] Mormon in-joke. Don't worry about it.
[2] By that, I mean that solar panels can be deployed by a nation to break their dependence on foreign energy, by a municipality to break their dependence on an outside provider, or by an individual or small group, to make them more self-sufficient. Unless you have your own backyard coal mine, alternatives aren't nearly as liberating.