29 September, 2005

Hey you! Where do you think you're going with that goalpost?

When I was a kid, using computers made you a dweeb, and especially dweebie activities included playing computer games, participating in online discussion boards and having dweebie conversations on the Internet about books, movies, etc. This was a thing of shame, a lesson which eventually I internalized.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line society seems to have pulled a classic bait-and-switch and run away snickering, leaving me confused and holding a damp banana.* Suddenly, it's perfectly normal to participate in discussion groups on the Internet. Now everyone uses little chat-gadgets to communicate with friends long-distant, and having Internet buddies does not pigeonhole you as some greasy-forehead Lord of the Rings fanboy. Suddenly, LIKING THE LORD OF THE RINGS IS COOL.

What remains consistent is that I am socially maladjusted.

* You know this old favorite gag, I'm sure.

28 September, 2005

...party at Dennis Perrin's house!

Though at this one, we'll drink vermouth and make wry, incisive comments about why the world is crumbling. Anyway, read his post about the Sept. 24 anti-war rally in D.C., where he does some ANSWER-bashing. The performance seems to have been about what I expected: every damn issue thrown together and blended at high velocity into a rather unappetizing frappe of Left-ish causes.

Party at Jon Schwarz's house!

A Tiny Revolution is having a slogan contest for the Democratic Party. Go to it!

In bituminous tar sands we trust

Lately I've been getting annoyed by bituminous tar sands. This, I'll grant, makes me "not normal", but it seems like every time someone mentions peak oil, some Doubting Thomas trots out the vast, relatively untapped deposits of oil sands that will save us from our bleak future. I think this is bollocks, and that optimism is wholly misplaced.

There's a whole host of reasons why this is true. There's essentially two mega-fantastico deposits of oil sands in the world, in Alberta, Canada (the Athabasca sands) and Venezuela (the Orinoco belt). These are huge deposits: the figures quoted are on the order of trillions of barrels for each. That's enough oil to last us for centuries. But I don't think it will ever be produced.

A few years ago Canada decided to include oil sands in their reserve estimates, and ever since then there's been growing excitement about the coming boom, with Canada being compared favorably to Saudi Arabia. Despite that, relatively little oil is actually forthcoming so far: only about a million barrels per day. The Kingdom, meanwhile, produces 9 Mbd, and claims to be able to produce 11.5 Mbd.

There's two ways of getting oil from oil sands: The "easy" method, the one mostly employed now, is essentially a mining operation. You mine the oil sands out of the ground, just like you would mine coal or bauxite or whatever. Then you cart it away in trucks to your processing facility, wash the oil out from the sand, do some post-processing, and send it off to market. The harder method is "in-situ" production, which works basically like a lot of modern late-stage conventional crude operations: you pump hot steam into the ground, which displaces and loosens up bitumen, which you suck up out of the ground and process, etc.

This latter method will be more critical in the future, as the vast majority of the oil sands in Canada are not accessible via mining methods: they're too deep underground. Mining operations require a lot of water, but it can be recycled (mostly - the untreatable water is put into a holding lake. Syncrude's is currently 4.5 miles in diameter). In-situ methods mean losing the water, at about a one-to-one ratio with recovered oil. In other words, if you want to produce 9 Mbd of oil, you have to pump 9 Mbd of water into the ground. By comparison, the flow rate of the Athabasca river varies between 2.5 Bbd and 40 Mbd. That water is permanently removed from the hydrological cycle.

Let's pretend we don't care about that, or the other horrendous environmental effects associated with this operation, as with any other mining operation: let's pretend we're willing to dessicate the aquifer and it won't end up being prohibitive to production. We're still stuck with the problem of natural gas. In order to get bitumen up to snuff, it's necessary to add hydrogen, to get the higher grade of fuel needed for jets, automobiles, etc. This requires gas inputs (as do other parts of the process e.g. heating water for steam injection). Right now, gas inputs for hydrogen upgrading alone amount to 400 cubic feet; some day, in order to produce high quality fuel this may reach as high as 1700 cubic feet. 5487 cubic feet of gas is considered to be one barrel of oil equivalent. That's a significant energy input, merely to upgrade bitumen to the standard necessary for high quality fuels.

Let me quote Alan Greenspan from his testimony before the House in 2003:
Because gas is particularly challenging to transport in its cryogenic form as a liquid, imports of LNG have been negligible. Environmental and safety concerns and cost have limited the number of LNG terminals and imports of LNG. In 2001, LNG imports accounted for only 1 percent of U.S. gas supply. Canada, which has recently supplied a sixth of our consumption, has little capacity to significantly expand its exports, in part because of the role that Canadian gas plays in supporting growing oil production from tar sands.
I.e., Canada (like everyone else) is strapped for gas. It's going to be difficult for them to match the demands of their burgeoning oil sands industry. Especially when you consider that Canadian gas production is due to peak in only a few short years - after that, oil sands will very quickly (in on the order of ten years from now) become completely unsustainable if they continue to rely on natural gas.

So - gas requirements, water requirements, general environmental devastation. What else can we add to the mix? How about - CO2? Since producing tar sands is so fuel-intensive, there's a much higher burden on the production of greenhouse gases. This is the last thing the world needs right now, and this is certainly going to become difficult for Canada as things like Kyoto actually start to get some teeth.

The most optimistic scenarios for Canadian oil sands project them being able to produce 5 Mbd by 2030. The National Energy Board of Canada has a more conservative 3 Mbd. I think this is reasonable, and underscores what Colin Campbell has to say about the subject: "The key point about tar sands is that the resource is huge but the extraction rate is very low."

So don't hold your breath.

What are the chances

that Delay would have been indicted if Houston hadn't just become one of the poster children of Republican mismanagement? Poor guy might be a victim of nature's fury. Awwww.

Walk or die

Billmon asks what a rational energy and transportation policy would look like.

About 90% of oil goes to transportation; about 40% of primary energy in the U.S. So energy and transportation are largely one and the same. For both, start with land use. It's the huge, easy-to-pick fruit that is just hanging there, waiting for hands to pluck it.

That is: We need dense, walkable neighborhoods in every city and town. New development should be in the form of walkable neighborhoods clustered around existing intersections and roads. We should cease all road expansion and put all dediated transportation funds into reviving or creating a rail and bus infrastructure. But mostly, our transportation problems are not the result of too little transportation, but too much. We need to create communities where people can live without cars, or with fewer cars, and where they can choose to drive but can also choose not to drive.

The example of the Rita and Katrina "evacuations" -- compared to the smooth, successful, and incredibly speedy NYC evacuation by transit, foot, and private vessel on 9/11/01 -- should show that a new development paradigm is not just a matter of efficiency, but also safety.

So how does this play out in policy? Transportation dollars should be handed over to local jurisdictions, who should be allowed to use them to subsidize transit operations as they see fit. Current rules governing "level of service" (aka vehicle delay) and "planning" (aka project current trends in a straight line into the future) should be abandoned. Bicycle and pedestrian safety should be the paramount concern on every path, road, and highway, far above vehicle driver safety. These are all no-cost policy changes.

Meanwhile, it's time to start taxing imports to monetize the destruction they wreak on local manufacturing and on generations of folk wisdom about such necessities as how to make shoes. This is the kind of stuff we need if we are to survive the end of oil -- we need to subsidize our cobblers or tax imports to the point that going to a local cobbler makes sense.

And no, this is not bad for the exporting countries. The last thing they need is to go into debt turning their countries into sweatshops. Vietnam will gradually become a ghost town as oil gets pricey enough to make domestic production more profitable than shipping goods 10,000 miles. Better for them to develop an economy of domestic production for domestic consumption, the post-WW II India model. It's that or a catastrophic future collapse.

Insecure much?

Why does this remind me of those guys who want so badly to convince you they're straight, lifting weights all the time and keeping their hair trimmed all cute-like?
Red state newspaper looking for like-minded
Location: Greensboro, North Carolina
Job Status: Full-time
Website: http://rhinotimes.com
The Rhinoceros Times, a family-owned conservative weekly in Greensboro, NC, is looking for a full-time reporter. We expect reporters to write lengthy, well-researched stories.
Funny how you never see liberals applying this sort of political litmus test. Go figure.

27 September, 2005

Oh bother

New poll, per Hedgehog's question below. Previous results..

Red Cross facing heat

With everything from Major League Baseball to my neighborhood dance parties all sporting the scarlet plus sign, I have suddenly seen more contrarians starting to pick up the idea that the Red Cross is not all it's cracked up to be.
"they're encouraging federal taxpayer handouts to religious groups."

LA Times op-ed:
... asking where all the privately collected money will go and how much Red Cross is billing FEMA and the affected states is a legitimate question.... Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice.
As a former volunteer for the organization and as someone who has read over their tax filings more carefully than most members of the public, I'd like to scribble down a few of the ways in which the organization is dysfunctional.

Deceptive marketing: The Red Cross is no longer much of a first-response disaster organization. It is mostly a monopolistic biomedical supplier. Of its $2.3 billion budget, $2.1 billion are for its biomedical division. (Another $147 million was for ongoing 9/11 work, because Congress made them promise to spend all 9/11 donations on 9/11, even long after the money was no longer needed.) They are in large part a seller of donated body parts. But when it comes time to fundraise, they always show firefighters carrying children, as though they had anything to do with firefighting or injured children.

In fact, they don't. They do almost no direct medical care anymore. When I was a volunteer in the early 1990s, I was an EMT and was in a region that still let us treat minor wounds. But even then, because of liability concerns, most geographic units of the Red Cross wouldn't let their staff touch an injured person.

Nor do they fight fires.

What they do is after a disaster, they try to restore people to the lifestyle they had before. Which leads to:

Unjust distribution of donations: They group's goal of restoring people to pre-disaster conditions means they provide millionaires with pallet-loads of donated furniture, books, food, whatever comes in the door. And for the destitute homeless guy whose gutter got closed by fire? He's lucky to leave the shelter with a new refrigerator box to sleep in. OK it's not quite that bad. He will receive a toiletry kit.

The worst was revealed after 9/11. The New Yorker reported SoHo loft-dwellers using their Red Cross checks to redo their kitchens -- at last, a chance to get that Wolf Range and SubZero fridge I've been wanting.

But that's the kind of class-consciousness you'd expect from a group that in 2002, gave its departing chief executive a $242,000 severance check, a $130,500 performance bonus, and $794,000 in deferred compensation. Which brings us to:

Executive pay: In both 2003 and 2004, according the group's tax return, they had several employees making more than $300,000. I can understand that in the medical field you need to pay well to get talent. But aren't there a lot of people in the field who would take a bit of a pay cut in return for the good feeling of working for the Red Cross? That's what you'd think, but you wouldn't know it to look at the tables of top-paid employees.

Marsha Evans, CEO$468,599, including $18,000+ in pension contributions
Ramesh Thadani, Exec VP & CEO, Biomedical Services$467,008 for 2 months' work, including $260,000+ in severance
John D Campbell, SVP, Disaster and Chapter Services Finance$397,168 for 6 months work, including a $99,009 severance and over $60,000 in pension contributions
Mary Elcano, Corporate Secretary and General Counsel$296,403 including $6,000+ in pension contributions
John F McGuire, Exec VP & CEO, Biomedical Services$131,440 for 3 months' work, including $36,000+ in relocation expenses
Robert P Campbell, CFO$370,581, including $38,000+ in relocation expenses
James Krueger, Exec VP Chapter Services Network$354,811 for less than 5 months' work, including $191,000+ in severance
Alan McCurry, Chief Operating Officer$356,618, including $21,000 in pension contributions
John Seitz, SVP, Growth and Integrated Development$319,332 including $19,000+ in pension contributions
Allan Ross, VP, Technical Operations$308,957 including $16,000+ in pension contributions
Donald Dudley Jr., SVP, External Affairs and Biomedical Services$344,760 (includes a $43,000+ expense account and over $21,000 in pension contributions)
Thomas Schwaninger, SVP & CIO, Information Systems$325,389, including $13,000+ in pension contributions
Terri Sicilia, Exec VP Disaster Services$260,395, including pension contributions

So in fiscal 2004, the group paid out a total of $4.4 million in executive pay to its top 13 suits. It's not a dreadful number for a $2.3 billion biomedical company, but it's something to keep in mind as they hold up photos of bedraggled New Orleaneans in their appeals for cash.

And finally: There's the little matter of homophobia.

Suggestions of alternative charities are welcome.

26 September, 2005

What is this?

Orange ice. Worms. Why bother with Mars when we have the strange and wonderful world of methane hydrite?

25 September, 2005


Yesterday, as peace rallies raged in many cities and here in San Francisco, sexy booties started to shake at the Love Parade, I went swimming in the Bay. At my club, which is one of the last bastions of old-school Irish San Francisco, I was in the sauna with an old Navy veteran and an old cop, both of them some of the more conservative people I know, and I think both Bush voters.

They were ripshit about the war on terror. They don't see it going anywhere. The immediate incitementof their anger was that today is their annual Golden Gate Bridge swim. An annual event for 74 years in which a bunch of local San Franciscans who love their city go out and celebrate a landmark -- incidentally, protecting it with their presence. But since 9/11, they have had to get a special permit; the feds require a federal cop to be stationed under the bridge during the swim. These clubmates of mine find it infuriating that the war on terror is costing everybody money and freedom -- and New Orleans has showed them clearly that the sacrifices have been for nothing.

I didn't go to the peace rally. I think rallies are great when you have an underdog position that you need to share however you can, but I don't see the point once 65% of the country agrees with you. When the old Irish guys at the rowing club are against Bush, you've won -- that's when it's time to move to Phase II.

What the hell is our Phase II? We accuse Bush of mishandling the occupation of Iraq, but we're mishandling the occupation of America. I'm worried that as peak oil drags the economy into a permanent gutter, and mistrust is rightly high against the feds, we've opened the door for demagogues.

Here's a goofy, un-hashed-out idea that I think could get some legs. Why not a shadow government? Taxes in this country are uniquely low, and public services are as well. I'd like to see a group of us start to pay taxes into an alternative government where we hash out a more democratic constitution, overtly protect all the rights we think need protecting, and then start electing leaders with free and fair elections. The taxes can go toward public services, maybe starting with education and criminal justice. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to call a cop without feeling like you're just feeding the beast? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to send kids to a public school that got decent funding and public support?

I realize that this idea might sound elitist, but I don't see it that way. I think anyone should be able to join, and pay truly progressive taxes -- poor folks should be able to join for almost no money. Rich folks can pay into this system rather than paying private school tuition.

Of course, it would be suicide to call it a government, or taxes. It would just be a voluntary association of democratic-minded people, paying dues.

I don't think the infrastructure exists yet to make such an ambition happen across class, language, race, and geographic lines. Any thoughts?

PS: Right after posting this, I see that the feds have already put out the call for private philanthropy to fund the Iraq adventure. Unsurprisingly, nobody's kickin down nothing. And yet people routinely toss down donations to environmental groups, to private school tuition, and to other private groups that pick up the public good when government drops the ball. This makes me think even more that a replacement government would be inherently more peaceful -- people don't want to pay for war.

24 September, 2005

$30 million

Dear Secretary Bodman,

I couldn't help but notice that you plan to pay $30 million to cover the application fee for a consortium of electric utilities that want to apply for a license for a new nuke plant in Misssissippi. I know you have the money available, as you just last spring requested a cut of $30 million from your department's energy efficiency budget.

So as long as you have that money to blow, I have a couple ideas. On the very pro-business, conservative end, you might consider undergrounding all the big utility wires in the Gulf region, as that will probably do more for grid reliability than adding a new nuke plant.

But since you seem determined to fill your shiny new hole at Yucca Mountain (how yonic!), I have a better idea. Why don't you take those $30 million to the Republic of Georgia and try to buy up some loose nukes?

If you absolutely have to use the money for an energy supply project, how about this. Buy a bunch of Euros. Convert them back to dollars after the currency collapses. Then you can give out paper greenbacks on street corners for people to burn in their cook stoves.


PS: as an appendix to all the hopelessness and despair of the week (is winter coming or something?) I give you the Rocky Mountain Institute's hopeful vision for a post-oil future. I promise not to lay into it too hard before Monday. Happy Folsom Street Fair. Happy Love Parade. Happy beginning of fall. As this guy likes to say, "Happy, happy, happy."

23 September, 2005

I meant to do that

Dangerous Mix: Oil, Saltwater Mar Louisiana Coast, Threaten Future
Katrina Dumps 193,000 Barrels Over Damaged Marshlands; Fishing Areas Are Polluted Hurricane Rita Delays Work

September 23, 2005; Page A1

NAIRN, La. -- More than three weeks after Katrina came ashore in Louisiana, the Coast Guard says the storm's surges and winds unleashed at least 40 oil spills -- 10 of which are major -- from ruptured pipelines and battered oil-storage facilities. In total, at least 193,000 barrels of oil and other petrochemicals were blown or driven by tides across the fragile marshy ecosystems and populated areas of the Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, southeast of New Orleans.

The spills, the largest ever loss of oil in the state, approach the scale of the famous 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 240,000 barrels of crude oil in the fish-rich waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Katrina simultaneously set in motion another toxic event along the battered coast of Louisiana. A monumental surge of saltwater flooded tens of thousands of acres of vulnerable freshwater marsh. Much of the water has been trapped for three weeks by the levees designed to keep it out and has become a stew mixed with other effluent from ruined houses, businesses, cars and sewage-treatment plants. Large swaths of salt-burned wetlands may take years to recover....

Scopes Monkey Trial redux

Awesome! Some folks in Dover, the town where they teach "intelligent" "design" "theory" alongside the modern synthesis ("Darwinian") theory, where the "textbook" Of Pandas and People is employed in classes, are suing the school board with the assistance of the ACLU. Trial starts Monday! This should be entertaining. It's enough to make a boy jump up and down shouting "Ooo! Ooo! Eeee! Eeee! Eeeee!" and fling his feces across the room.

22 September, 2005

If this is the only answer, we're truly fucked

Last night I had the pleasure* of attending a lecture by Richard Heinberg, a professor at New College of California who has spent the past couple decades figuring out how to transition the world off of oil addiction. He has watched opportunities come and go.÷
  • In the early 1980s, the United States could have taken up conservation as a national mission, which would have leveled out the "peak" in peak oil. It would have taken about 25 years — that is, until about now — for the changes to percolate through the economy, with cities growing ever more walkable, vehicles ever more efficient, our economy ever less dependent on far-off suppliers, and our buildings ever more comfortable even without compressor air-conditioning. Instead, according to Heinberg, Reagan and Bush convinced the Saudis to flood the world market with oil so as to cut out the Soviets' primary source of foreign exchange. And in every way possible, we made our lives more dependent on oil, rather than less.
  • In 1991, after Iraq took over Kuwait, the U.S. could have taken the opportunity to support energy conservation and tell the spooky Saudi royals to deal with their border problems on their own. Instead, we took the opportunity to establish semi-permanent bases in a country that is also the capital of a religion our leaders pointedly misunderstood.
  • In the 1990s, Al Gore suggested a carbon tax. If it had gradually driven oil prices up to their current levels, the result would have been more conservation, a more gradual and bearable oil peak, and plenty of money for public investment in the transition. Instead, we got Newt Gingrich, followed quickly by a five-year investigation of a $100,000 land deal in Arkansas and an impeachment trial. Which was, at least, more entertaining than a carbon tax.
  • In 2000, Al Gore ran for president. Sort of.
  • In 2001, after right-wing religious nuts decided to avenge the permanent bases in Saudi Arabia and the ongoing bombing of Iraq by blowing shit up in the USA, and everyone in the U.S. was asking, what can I do to help, the president could have taken the opportunity to ask for shared sacrifice and encourage people to conserve energy. Hell, he could have asked people to all move to communes in Tibet and they would have. He said to give blood and suddenly the Red Cross was turning people away. So he seized the moment to push for, you know, repeal of the estate tax, the endangered species act, and Social Security. In any case, it sure is shared sacrifice!

Following a history like this, a weaker man might have grown discouraged and taken to more fruitful pursuits — like attempting to punch holes through a brick wall with his forehead -- but Prof. Heinberg is an eternal hope machine. He has come up with an idea called the oil depletion protocol. It's a bit complicated and to tell the truth I wasn't paying much attention by the time he got to it, but the short version is that countries that currently import oil all need to get together and agree to import 2% less every year from now on. That could even out the peak, prevent developing nations from developing in an oil-dependent manner, and prevent perpetual oil war. Kind of like the Montreal Protocol, only instead of air-conditioner refrigerant, we'd be phasing out the lifeblood of the global economy.

It's a nice idea until you think about it. An astute audience member asked, "So this protocol requires that countries all give an accurate assessment of their current reserves. And an accurate portrayal of their current imports. And then to reduce their imports in the name of some international common good." "Right," said Heinman. She looked as convinced as if she had just been told that most Americans worship a flying spaghetti monster. "What are the chances of that happening?" she asked. "I don't know," he said. "But it's the only way out that I can see."

I agree. It's the only way out that I've heard, other than this rather gloomy collection of thoughts. And at this point, we are so deep in the cave that the only way out appears way too high overhead. I feel like we as a civilization are about to be in the position of the injured climber in IntoTouching the Void. We are about to cut our own rope and go down into the crevasse of darkness and misery because it is the only direction left.

Or at least that's the conclusion if we are indeed near peak oil and the U.S. Dept. of Energy report on transitioning off oil is correct. Here's their report, yet to be officially released, but somehow leaked out onto the web. I hope it's for real, though we can't be sure. In any case, check out the pdf of The Hirsch Report:
...Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:
  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period. The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship. There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.

*The pleasure mostly came from my conversation with the lovely and brilliant Saheli*, whose musings occasionally grace our comments. Hooray for meeting a blogmate in person! It's a first for me. And no wonder, since I'm not a person, but a burrowing creature who lives under the earth.

÷I made up this list of missed opportunities. His is probably much, much longer.

Lovely Rita

Now that God has sent another righteous hurricane to wipe out all those faggots and communists in Houston, Texas, we can all relax. For a moment I was a little worried that all that faggot communism would start spreading like an evil cancer, and I would soon be forced to have egalitarian butt-sex with another man, but no longer. Now I can worry about OTHER scary things.

For example, U.S. refining capacity. Most oil refining is done just-in-time and physically proximal to market. This is because gas laws differ all over the place, and it simply makes sense to produce gasoline of a certain kind where it's going to be used. It also makes sense not to have 50% spare capacity just sitting around unused all the time - why waste all that money running factories when you don't have to?

Let's consult our friends at the EIA. According to them, U.S. refining capacity utilization runs at about 90%. That is, we refine about 15 Mbd of crude, and we're capable of refining just under 17 Mbd. That's peachy! Good thing nothing bad is about to happen.

Also, you'll be delighted to read this:
As with most aspects of the U.S. oil industry, the Gulf Coast is by far the leader in refinery capacity, with more than twice the crude oil distillation capacity as any other United States region. (The difference is even greater for downstream processing capacity, because the Gulf Coast has the highest concentration of sophisticated facilities in the world.) As discussed in the section on Trade, the Gulf Coast is the nation's leading supplier in refined products as in crude oil. It ships refined product to both the East Coast (supplying more than half of that region's needs for light products like gasoline, heating oil, diesel, and jet fuel) and to the Midwest (supplying more than 20 percent of the region's light product consumption.)
Fuck, yeah! Say, you don't think this could have anything to do with the several recent airline bankruptcies, do you?

Let's do some quick, bad math: U.S. gasoline stocks usually run at about 90 million barrels. Consumption is 9 million barrels a day. Let's say that the Gulf Coast has 45% of the refining capacity in the U.S., which normally fills 9 Mbd of gasoline. This means that if the Gulf Coast refining is knocked out for 22 days as a result of Hurricane Rita, U.S. gasoline stocks will be totally depleted.

This is obviously hyperbolic, of course, since we can actually import gas, and consumption is probably going to drop like a stone over the next month. But $5 for a gallon of gas doesn't seem that hyperbolic at all.

Lurker Day

Apparently, it's Lurker Day, where all you readers who never leave comments must announce yourselves and EXPLAIN WHY YOU NEVER LEAVE COMMENTS. I mean - explain what keeps you reading this blog. Hole in the head? Secret crush? Some sort of compulsive disorder? You live with one of the authors? That sort of thing.

UPDATE: Ah, crap. Apparently YESTERDAY was Lurker Day. So, I guess I should add to that list: you like to feel ahead of the game, comparatively.

21 September, 2005

War on Eroticism

So, those of you who are over thirty (anyone? anyone?) might remember the war on pornography prosecuted under the Reagan Administration, under the stern eye of Attorney General Edwin Meese III and his famous Commission. I don't remember this, but that's okay, since I can just watch it play out again today. Via 100 monkeys typing, we learn that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is fashioning an anti-obscenity squad composed of FBI agents.*

Even if you do NOT recall, I trust most of you are familiar with the reaction of feminists to the Meese commission. That is, many feminists chose to side with the conservative Christian right and their censoriousness in decrying pornography, on the grounds that pornography was chauvinist and hateful towards women. The Meese commission, in fact, concluded that pornography promotes rape and sexual abuse. Many parties concluded that the Meese commission was full of shit and would have said just about any sort of lie in order to prove its point, and the fact that, you know, they didn't actually perform any studies, and in fact brought in experts to contradict actual studies that had been performed. However, many radical feminists of the Andrea Dworkin school of thought apparently didn't attend those parties and continued to quote Meese's bogus "research" favorably.

Andrea Dworkin is now dead, however, and hopefully others of her ilk are as well. This time, if a war flares up, I'm hoping feminists will ally themselves in favor of free speech and, well, sex. I happen to think being pro-sex is actually quite feminist, for reasons I think I've sketched out before. Women should be taking firmer control over their own sexuality (ideally with both hands). There's certainly more room for this in a sexually liberal society than there is in a conservative one. On the other hand, the idea that women can't have sex without being victimized (which is essentially what an anti-porn stance amounts to) seems decidedly non-feminist to me.

* We are late, as usual, on this observation, but the appeal of this blog has never been its timeliness. Or its trenchant insights, its wit or even its prolificacy. In fact, this blog has no appeal whatsoever.

Sexperts? How often do you actually get to use that term? Okay, I know it's not a real term. I already told you this blog lacks wit.


Apropos of nothing, check out this video of a guy doing push-ups with a raw egg under each hand. Holy cannoli.

Incidentally, this reminds me of things you should NOT do:

Once I was at a party with a very good friend of mine. I told him how great the integrity of an egg is, and how it was essentially impossible to crush it in one's hand. He expressed skepticism, so we went to the fridge and got an egg. He held it over the sink while I watched him try and crush it.

Now, the reason an egg cannot be crushed by human hands is because of its dome shape. This distributes pressure efficiently across the surface, so that only by a very, very great force or by concentration of force on a single point can you crack the egg. The normal human hand cannot do this, simply because of the way the fingers wrap around it. However, if you have long fingers with oddly-shaped knuckles, it's possible to apply enough force at a single point to crack the egg. Continued application will result in catastrophic collapse, sending yolk and egg whites squirting out across any bystanding friend's kurta-payjama.

This now goes on the list of Really Stupid Things I Will Never Live Down, along with that time I tipped over my kayak in the Charles River ("It's nearly impossible to tip a kayak," I told my brother. "Watch!"), and that time I took the bus the wrong way home from Arsenal Mall.

16 September, 2005

There is ample matter for a legitimate "Wanker of the Day" award

For example, here are two likely candidates appearing in one press conference:
President Bush on Friday ruled out raising taxes to pay for Gulf Coast reconstruction, saying other government spending must be cut. "You bet it will cost money, but I'm confident we can handle it," he said.


[Later he said] "As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality."
So, let me get this straight: we're going to cut taxes for the rich, increasing inequality, then cut social service programs to rebuild the shattered New Orleans. Which legacy is he talking about?

But don't cast your vote yet, people. Vladimir Putin was at the same press conference, and HE said:
"The old Soviet Union had lived by the rule that money should not be taken from the pockets of future generations, Putin said. "But we never thought about the existing, current, present generations. And at the end of the day, we have destroyed the country not thinking about the people living today," he said.

"Therefore, of course, yes, we need to spend money," the Russian leader said. "There is no two ways about it."
Chee! And here I thought you destroyed the country by privatizing every damn public industry into the hands of irresponsible gangsters and running away with wheelbarrows full of money (thank you, Jeffrey Sachs).

Meanwhile, does anyone want to mention the corpulent, ruling-class-shaped* elephant in the living room? Egad! We couldn't possibly address inequality by, err, addressing inequality, could we?

* Roughly the shape of any pinniped.

Anyone mocking my Marxist wealth-redistribution schemes, even in their heads, will be condemned to the hell where you have to peel onions for all eternity, with a really dull peeler. And no goggles.

I am fully aware of the contradictions of having a pinniped-shaped elephant. Pretend it's an elephant seal.

15 September, 2005

Remote control terrorism

A little late, I see my friend Ben has posted his anecdote about some bad stuff he once did. Perfectly told, and absolutely hilarious. You should read it. Have I ever steered you wrong?

Completely deadpan non-tabloid issue

Senator Durbin Looks Out For Paris Hilton
We could not make this up if we wanted to.

President Requests a Two-Minute Recess
We really DID want to make this one up. O tempora, o mores!

Oily irony

According to the New York Times, the oil industry is freaked out because climate change is destroying their oil platforms and refineries. The story obliquely mentions the greenhouse effect in the second-to-last paragraph.

On the other hand, the industry can benefit from climate change. At a lecture yesterday in Berkeley, Calif., long-time exploration insider Greg Croft said the industry's best prospects for future oil are off the coasts of Greenland, Canada and Russia in the Arctic. These areas have never been exploited because of ice. With a hint of an ironic smile, he noted that ice is becoming less of an obstacle.

Croft also responded to a question about why the oil industry has built no new refineries in so long in North America. An audience member asked whether the industry was concerned that they wouldn't recoup their investment because we might not be able to pump any more oil than we are now. "They don't think that," Croft said. "They know that." The oil companies have known since about 1992, he said, that no matter how hard you squeeze the earth, you're not going to get much more oil than we're getting right now.

This gives the lie to the recent U.S. energy bill, which offers all sorts of incentives to get industry to build refineries. The situation is the reverse of 1979, he said. Then, the oil problem was political, but the government responded with technical fixes to improve efficiency. Now, the problem is technical -- there is little new oil to be found -- and the government is responding with political incentives.

Croft also said there is no one oil peak. There was a peak in 1979, he said, after which the world grew more efficient and went into recession, dropping consumption by 10 million barrels per day (about 4 supertankers). The next peak, he said, will be this decade, and possibly this year. Then some time in the future, the oil sands of Canada and Venezuela -- by far the biggest hydrocarbon deposits in the world -- will peak.

13 September, 2005


John Roberts has precious little experience on the bench. A scant eighteen months, bare qualification for the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And scant basis for anyone to decide what his beliefs are.

The press has focused on his likely stance on Roe v. Wade, but this seems to me to be a misdirection from a more pertinent question, and the one I think he was likely nominated for, that of illegal combatants.

Most of the "judicial activism" that's been occurring over the past few years has been directed towards building up a very frightening sort of executive authority. Hundreds of individuals have been held without trial, in two notable instances American citizens.* One of the few significant cases Roberts ruled on was Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, tried in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hamdan, the personal driver of Osama bin Laden, sued to be tried by a court-martial rather than by the tribunals created by the executive branch. In the end, the court ruled that Congress had authorized the creation of such tribunals and thus that they had sufficient jurisdiction to try Hamdan.

Roberts' presence in this business raises several issues. Foremost is the fact that he did not recuse himself from the case upon learning he was in consideration for a Supreme Court position. Here's Russ Feingold (delightfully feisty in these hearings) interviewing him on the subject:
FEINGOLD: Let me talk to an aspect of the case that I think you can speak to. Many people were surprised to learn in your questionnaire submitted to the committee that you were interviewed by the attorney general in connection with a possible vacancy on the Supreme Court on April 1st of this year. Just six years (sic) before, you sat in the panel that heard oral arguments in the Hamdan case. While the case was still pending, before a decision was issued, you had additional interviews in May with the vice president, the White House counsel, Mr. Karl Rove and other top officials. I'm going to give you an opportunity to explain why you think it was not necessary for you to recuse yourself from this case, but first I'd like to know: Did the possibility of recusal, because you were under serious consideration for Supreme Court, occur to you or was it raised with you at any point prior to the oral argument in the case?
Take note of this circumstance, because it might shortly come up again. Not two days past another significant ruling came out on the detention of Jose Padilla (Eric Muller on that case), again in Bush's favor. Again one of the judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Michael Luttig, is in consideration for a Supreme Court position.

Conflicts of interest and ethics aside, there's the alarming fact that the Supreme Court is going to be stacked with people who apparently have little regard for civil liberties and are willing to make rulings (hanging on the barest of legal threads) sacrificing those liberties to executive authority. The Court itself hasn't been entirely friendly to that purpose to date, ruling to check executive power in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (another American citizen) and Rasul v. Bush. If that changes, a very basic right of Americans is in danger of being eroded away.

* I'll point out that in the single instance of a white American having been detained in the War on Terror, he was quite speedily tried and convicted in normal fashion. I doubt this was an accident.

This is a questionable ruling, since Congress did not explicitly authorize the president to create the tribunals, and previous precedent has been to be extremely conservative with regards to questions of civil liberties. Interpreting Congressional silence in favor of executive authority rather than in favor of civil liberties is dubious; the same logic is applied in the Padilla case by Luttig (see comments by Eric Muller, linked above).

12 September, 2005

Wanker of the day

Colin Powell, for this gem:
"It wasn't a racial thing … poverty disproportionately affects African-Americans in this country. And it happened because they were poor."

Change is good

RAFAH, Gaza Strip
Palestinian teenagers Mahmoud Barbakh and Mohammed Jaroun grew up just a few minutes from the Mediterranean, but had never been to the beach.

On Monday, they waded into the waves with their jeans rolled up, then abandoned all caution and threw themselves into the surf. "It was the sweetest thing in the whole world," said 15-year-old Mahmoud.

08 September, 2005

The day the sun stood still

Apparently, some fundamentalists have managed to sneak it into school curriculums in Texas that NASA research supports the Biblical account of the sun standing still in the sky (Joshua 10:11-14) at the behest of Hebrew ass-whupper Joshua. NASA actually has a page about this.*

Anyway, Majikthise was on this shit fully a month ago. I just caught up via Hedwig, who had a panel of the comic "Slowpoke" posted mentioning this travesty. Jen, creator of Slowpoke spells it out in detail.

Since I'm clearly in the dust on this one, I'll employ this opportunity to point out that not just Christian fundamentalists spout such hooey. My mom does, too!

My parents publish a newsletter that goes out to the New England Hindu community, and I've drawn a small one-panel comic for this for many years, usually religiously-themed, often inspired by Hindu mythology. One particular comic was based on a story about Hanuman, the son of the wind ("monkey god" to you uneducated rubes). In his youth, the young Hanuman looked up one day and saw the orb of the sun in the sky. Imagining it to be a ball that he might use as a plaything, he leapt up and took it in his mouth, plunging the world into darkness. The various demi-gods, alarmed, intervened and encouraged the boy to cough up the sun. Then they cursed him to forget his powers for good measure, perhaps telling him he was a very naughty monkey.

Anywho, being the humorless empiricist that I am, I lampooned this story by depicting Hanuman looking up at the sun and telling a bystander, "Well, I was going to swallow it, but then I realized that my mouth wasn't wide enough by 870,000 miles." Ha ha!

Later I discovered that the official censors (my parents) had edited my comic and replaced my punch-line with the limpid "What a nice ball! Why don't I find you a different one?" (voiced by the bystander). I was about as outraged as I could be about something so ridiculous and unimportant, but since my name didn't ever actually appear on the comic I couldn't demand to be divorced from it. So instead I argued it out with my parents, who told me that my comic had been "wrong", because Hanuman had, in fact, swallowed the sun. All my best efforts to point out how absurd this was, including the likely catastrophic effects on the Earth ecosystem of even a momentary blip in solar input, the concomitant change in mass required by Hanuman and its disruption of gravitation in the solar system, etc., were met with patient insistence that I was wrong. My parents are smart folks, but their adherence to dogma (in this case, the notion that the Ramayana is absolutely historically accurate) sometimes leads them to espouse ideas that are not so smart at all.

* Rotational energy of the Earth, incidentally, is 2 x 1029 J. What happened to all that energy in the intervening hours while the Earth wasn't rotating is a mystery. Also a mystery is why Joshua says, "Sun, stand still," instead of "Earth, stop rotating." It's almost like he believed the Sun traveled around the Earth! Fortunately, it's called Biblical inerrancy, not Joshuaic inerrancy.

Poll change

Sorry it took so long. Old results. Although I'd like to point out that some of your fears are misplaced: the moon's orbit is actually decaying AWAY from Earth, not towards it. So unless some meddling Kryptonians show up, we should be okay.

Further light reading

I talked to a friend in Baton Rouge yesterday, who had some fairly disgusting stories to share. Not of official incompetence (although there was that, too), but of active malfeasance: cops looting goods in the vacated city, lounging around at their ease with their stolen largesse, stealing ("commandeering") from evacuating residents, keeping people from taking what they need to survive. There's other ugly stories: opportunists running around buying up property to rent out to refugees, housing prices rising, landlords forbidding tenants to take in guests.

And then there's some gorgeous ones. This one, via Bitch PhD is buoyant. It's a long saga, and it's written the way an anarcho-communist like myself would love: the Man is the villain, the working people are the noble heroes.
We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute the arrived to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

Go read.

If you've found this obscure corner of blogland, you're probably used to spending too long staring at computer screens. So go read these. They will grow hair on your chest and make your children grow fat and happy.

Tom Englehardt wrote a few days ago all too well about what has happened in New Orleans. Depressing and beautiful. Go read.

James Wolcott makes a good case that we are at the end of our financial rope in the USA, and about to see even worse times.

In better news, I just watched a golden lab and a pointer stare in fascination at the stuffed lamb in the window of a store on Valencia Street in San Francisco. They kept sniffing the window, trying to learn more. These were dogs who had never seen a lamb before, but they knew, somehow, that it was something they should know more about. I love that.

05 September, 2005

A solid foundation

Of all the awful images of bodies floating in the streets and child rapists being beat to death by mobs, the single image I can't get out of my head is Tom Delay condemning the victims to hell some months ago.

03 September, 2005

Abstinence ed goes global

If I were in Uganda this week, I'd certainly be asking what influence Christian missionaries had on the government's decision to warehouse 30 million condoms while people caught AIDS.

Not that the "health and Aids campaigners" quoted would be entirely wrong in blaming the choice on the USA:
Health and Aids campaigners in Uganda are threatening legal action against the government unless it releases 30m condoms which they say are in storage.

They say government policy on Aids has changed to reflect an American demand for a greater emphasis on abstinence.

01 September, 2005

Hurricane-related despair

Oh, god.

I don't want to be cynical about this. There's so many ways I could be - talk about the incredibly poor way our government is handling this disaster, how our leaders are shopping and flirting with celebs while the dead litter the streets of New Orleans, how this is going to ravage the American economy because of the effect on Gulf oil production and Mississippi river exports - but it's so ghoulish. And here I am wracked with guilt because I'm sitting in an office working on evolutionary biology while people sit in their own excrement in the Superdome, and water logs the timbers of the buildings of New Orleans and slowly reduces the city to flotsam.

I'm reading "Good Omens", by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It's about the Apocalypse. A funny book, but I can't help thinking that Famine, Death and Pestilence are stalking through the wreckage of New Orleans right now (War is on holiday in Iraq). I think these End Times metaphors are strangely comforting for me, because there's really no other way to consider this rationally. If this isn't the end, what happens after this?

The usual "charitable aid" links seem worthless. You can figure out how to send money yourself.

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