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Rhinocrisy

31 August, 2005

Katrina

(17:36:36) BuckyFull: dude
(17:36:41) BuckyFull: tell me something good
(17:36:47) Pld Kng: i have a bellybutton
(17:36:52) BuckyFull: um
(17:37:00) Pld Kng: that's honestly all i have anymore
(17:37:09) BuckyFull: where you at?
(17:37:14) Pld Kng: surreal doesn't even touch it anymore
(17:37:20) Pld Kng: i'm at my place
(17:37:28) BuckyFull: which is not in new orleans, obviously
(17:37:43) Pld Kng: baton rouge
(17:37:58) BuckyFull: ahoo
(17:38:08) Pld Kng: my parents house is pretty much gone.. no confirmation, but i don't need it
(17:38:15) Pld Kng: the hospital i was born at is completely gone..
(17:38:21) Pld Kng: so my history has been erased
(17:38:29) BuckyFull: you don't exist
(17:38:42) BuckyFull: everyone else okay?
(17:38:52) Pld Kng: i haven't heard from my sister since sunday
(17:39:02) Pld Kng: my brother since yesterday-ish
(17:39:06) Pld Kng: he's a pirate though
(17:39:10) Pld Kng: he'll be alright
(17:39:14) BuckyFull: pirate?
(17:39:21) Pld Kng: my parents are alright they're in alabama now
(17:39:32) Pld Kng: yarrr style
(17:40:13) Pld Kng: he rode out the storm in gulfport
(17:40:19) BuckyFull: this is some serious heavy shit
(17:40:25) Pld Kng: you don't have to tell me
(17:40:26) Pld Kng: honestly
(17:40:28) Pld Kng: you don't
(17:40:34) BuckyFull: i'm sure
(17:40:39) BuckyFull: i'm trying to get you to tell me
(17:40:48) Pld Kng: there's just nothing man
(17:40:57) Pld Kng: shell shocked would be a step forward
(17:41:14) Pld Kng: denial might be a survival trait
(17:41:20) Pld Kng: none of which i have
(17:41:42) BuckyFull: this is like something out of the Bible
(17:42:02) Pld Kng: soddom was a fairytale
(17:42:46) Pld Kng: erm sodom
(17:43:00) BuckyFull: so what's going to happen now?
(17:43:19) BuckyFull: i can't even comprehend
(17:43:26) Pld Kng: nothing for a long time
(17:43:39) BuckyFull: the whole city is gone... all those people, nothing to do, nowhere to go
(17:44:23) Pld Kng: well it's not totally gone, but it's certainly not there I'll give you that
(17:44:42) BuckyFull: looks pretty damn fucked from the pictures here
(17:44:47) BuckyFull: maybe they're sensationalizing it
(17:44:55) Pld Kng: they're downplaying it
(17:45:02) Pld Kng: that's the irony of it

30 August, 2005

This blogging stuff is hard work!

It's been a slow week here at Ranch Rhinocrisy, somewhat because of scattered depression, partially because of doing some actual work. But mostly it's because I think I've run dry of material. See, there's only so much stuff worth writing about. And I only know a tiny fraction of that stuff. Plus whenever I want to be witty and urbane, I have to go look 'urbane' up in the dictionary to make sure that's what I actually want to be.

I feel this is an unreasonably high standard I'm holding myself to. After all, the rest of the euphemism is full of trash, pretty much. I mean, check out this gibberish I found on someone else's bleg: "Hoy solo me levanté de mi cama sin ningun otro motivo que el seguir viviendo lo ke me a tocado vivir..." Just some nonsense words strung together! And this guy wrote pages and pages of that. If that person is allowed to get away with such nonsense, I feel I should be able to lower the level of my own disquisition* without impugning my own honor.

That said, on to the meaty prose:

Zeppelin rules!



* Don't worry, I looked it up first.

27 August, 2005

Another problem with creationism

People who believes in creationism should use Microsoft rather than Unix and should insist that their baggage be carried on this thing rather than transported by the system that has evolved over the past century or two in train stations and airports worldwide. The thing is, stuff that's created new doesn't work.

For all the talk about a divine watchmaker, watch design has itself evolved in response to environmental pressures. Early timepieces looked nothing like today's: the most common, worldwide, was a weir of water that dripped through a hole at a controlled rate, gradually filling a tank. Each time the tank filled to a certain level, it tipped over and either rang a bell or caused a ratchet to click one "tick" forward. If you knew how many bells there were per day, you could tell time. Then, thanks to a profusion of "offspring" with slight differences, followed by their adoption in the "environment" (aka marketplace), eventually the water-bucket principle was applied to metal springs with controlled tension that ticked the tock one carefully calibrated second forward each, you know, second.

Not that I need to convince you or anything. Just another way of thinking about this stuff.

And don't give me that "god is the perfect watchmaker" crap because if he's so perfect, how come I don't have a job?

25 August, 2005

(insert Bageant pun here)

I've just discovered Joe Bageant, thanks to some commenter on Scratchings. He seems to be a cranky alcoholic who writes dystopian non-fiction with his mouth stuffed full of Sour Patch Kids. Chow down.

24 August, 2005

CAFE update

So, today, the NHTSA announced that it was pushing up CAFE standards for light trucks (for 2008-2011). This is good, especially since it's been a full decade without any substantial tweaks in standards. The bad news: they're creating SIX new categories of light trucks (based on their "footprint" size in square feet), each with their own average fuel economy requirement. So while the Ford Excursion and the Toyota RAV4 will have to become slightly more fuel-efficient by 2011, this also means that more Americans can start buying heavier cars without affecting manufacturer's bottom line. While previously Ford had to sell an Escape (average 24 mpg for a 5-speed 4WD) for every Expedition (average 16 mpg for a 4WD) it sold, now it can sell as many as it wants of each. Meaning Ford is free to discontinue the Escape and sell only Expeditions without fear of penalties. And the U.S. fleet can migrate towards becoming even gassier.

The strength of selection

PZ is lambasting Deepak Chopra today. Not for his New Age pseudo-Vedic/quantum mechanics mysticism spooge, but for his apparent anti-evolutionary stance. It's worth pointing out something that I think goes little appreciated by anyone, especially those idiots arguing against selection all the time, which is how powerful natural selection really is.

Here's some elementary population genetics: The basic meat of evolution is mutation followed by change in frequency of alleles. Let's say we're examining a particular position in the genome. Everyone in our species of interest has the same nucleotide at this position. Now, suppose one individual acquires a mutation here. If we have a breeding population of Ne diploid individuals, this means that mutation has a frequency of 1/2Ne. The probability of this mutation "fixing" in the population (that is, reaching 100% frequency) is:
Here s is the "selective coefficient", a measure of the deviation of the fitness of the individual with respect to the average fitness of the population. If the average individual produces n offspring, our mutant will produce n(1 + s) offspring. (Note that if s is zero, the mutation is selectively neutral and the fitness is the same.) For small s and large N, the above equation can be approximated as π = s.

What does this mean? Well, take our human population. We have a genome of about 3 billion bases. Typically this means about 100 new mutations per generation per individual. That is, your offspring will have a hundred completely novel changes to their genome. Most of the time this will mean nothing. Occasionally this will result in positively selected mutations. In a breeding population of 10,000 individuals (a relatively small population size, as our ancestors had), this provides millions of novel mutations every generation.

In other words, a novel mutation with even a small selective coefficient has a significant chance of being fixed. In the human population this means even mutations that produce marginal changes in fitness - a differential of 1001 to 1000 births per individual - will be fixed 0.1% of the time. A selective coefficient of 10-2 is powerfully strong selection. And it occurs completely invisibly to us. We would never note its effects; we produce far fewer than 100 offspring, and this tiny differential would never be observed without a complex, rigorous survey. But by the time a mere 10 individuals have acquired this mutation, its fixation probability has already climbed to 10%.

So remember this: natural selection is a powerful, efficient method for sculpting species, much stronger than our intuition suggests.

23 August, 2005

Tastes like ass

This Le Nature's Water story is a true American tale of grit, moxie, deception and bottled ass water. (Via scrofulous.)

Potato chip miracles and public health insurance

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us" Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usTo experience a food science miracle, go to Canada. Buy a 5.5-ounce bag of Family’s Best brand sour cream and onion (crème sur et oignon) potato chips. Bring them back. Watch closely as a belly-bloating 250-calorie serving drops to 150 calories. Total fats slim down from 16 grams to 9 and sodium lightens by 150 mg per serving.

It’s not all such good news. The chips that offered 20 percent of your daily needs of vitamin C in the Great White North provide only 10 percent in the Land of the Free. And fiber drops from 2 grams to 1.

Most of the changes result from differences in official serving sizes. In the States, a serving of chips is just 1 ounce, “about 12 chips,” according to the nutrition label. In Canada, it is 1.8 ounces. (Mysteriously, their label says that is “approximately 30 chips.” Go figure.) In any case, the Canadians come closer to the 5 ounces I can easily eat in a 15-minute car trip.

But one miraculous trans-border transmogrification can not be explained so easily. It involves trans-fats. In Canada, a serving provides a third of a gram of trans-fats. That little number might convince health-conscious parents to put the bag back on the store shelf, perhaps next to the insecticide.

But why bother? They could turn those toxic tasties into harmless indulgences by carrying them just a few kilometers south. Pass through customs and look again — the bag of chips is trans-fat free. “0g,” says the label.

American consumers, who see Canadian nutrition labels about as often as they play hockey, have no way to know that their label is lying. Zero grams is not the same as .2 grams or even .1 grams.

How can it make sense to punish responsible, label-reading consumers (all 3 of us!) by hiding the truth?

As it turns out, plenty of sense. In the words of President Herbert Hoover, the business of the “American people” is business. And the “American people” includes Mr. Cape Cod, Ms. Granny Goose and their uncle, Mr. Frito Lay.

Thanks to the miracles of monocultures, genetic engineering, and industrial irrigation, there are way too many potatoes. If the Food and Drug Administration needs to tell a little white lie to get you to eat your vegetables, who are you to complain?

Think about it in terms of who benefits. You buy some chips — the growers and chip companies make a buck and you get the satisfying crunch of a salty snack between your jaws. Win-win. Later, you come down with heart disease. The cardiologist makes a buck and the gross domestic product gets the satisfying crunch of your life savings between its jaws. Win-win!

The reason this beautiful synergy fails in Canada is that that country’s government has, despite the best efforts of its homegrown conservatives, aligned itself with public health. This alliance even holds up against the power of agribusiness, which is no weaker on the vast prairies of Saskatchewan than it is on the great plains of our Dakotas.

The difference arises from Canada’s single-payer health insurance system. Americans like to argue that their insurance system is better even though we pay 5 times as much for overhead, our infant mortality is off the industrialized world’s charts, and our insurers think it’s their job to put the “prevent” into preventive care. At least we can get an MRI on 2 days’ notice, if we have a few grand to spare, right?

Americans don’t realize how public health insurance scheme helps put Canada’s government on the same side as its people when it comes to public health. In Canada, there is no question as to whether seatbelt laws are a good idea. Taxpayer money covers everyone’s health care. I have an obvious financial stake in keeping my neighbor’s forehead away from his windshield. If he ends up like Humpty Dumpty, I will have to pay the king’s horses and men for their hopeless efforts.

Sure, the same is true in the States. We also pay for our neighbors’ mistakes. But here, the cost is broken up among individual insurance plans, various types of taxes, and even the workers comp insurance paid by our employers. The system in Canada makes the connection between neighbors much more obvious.

Which brings us back to the magic potato chips. The Canadian half of the shiny label reflects a somewhat more realistic version of the real world because the Canadian government pays for every case of heart disease. It has every reason to tell consumers the truth about their food.

This might also explain why Canadian cigarette packages have for years carried the world’s most disturbing full-color warnings.

A government by, of, and for the people — the one in Washington, D.C. — should do everything it can to at least help its citizens learn about the health consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, so long as “the people” includes such citizens as Mr. Cod, Ms. Goose, and Mr. Lay, government will need a little nudge in order to do right by those of us with a pulse. Single-payer health care installs that nudge into the political system.

Alas, the result could be a less wonderful world. No longer will Canadian parents be able to spare their childrens’ health simply by carrying junk food south of the border. Is the health of all Americans worth the loss of this miracle?

19 August, 2005

Bring that beast back

Some idiots at Cornell* proposed in Nature this week to "re-wild" the American Great Plains with mega-fauna. Their argument is "justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds," they say. So they're going to bring in creatures from around the world, including Bolson tortoises, Asian wild horses, bactrian camels, elephants, lions and cheetahs. The authors say, "[H]umans were probably at least partly responsible for the Late Pleistocene extinctions in North America, and our subsequent activities have curtailed the evolutionary potential of most remaining large vertebrates. We therefore bear an ethical responsibility to redress these problems."

But why stop there? After all, the real victims are the animals we drove out and replaced. I have a better proposal, similarly justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds. Let's truly atone for our crimes; let's bring back the mammoth. This isn't ridiculous, after all. There's probably plenty of available mammoth DNA. They only were wiped out 10,000 years ago, and plenty of nearly intact carcasses have been preserved in ice. Now that the Siberian permafrost is thawing and massive numbers of mammoth carcasses are unfreezing, there should be ample opportunity to recover mammoth DNA and to reconstruct the mammoth genome. Actually, given the sample of DNA likely available, we should be able to recover a substantial fraction of mammoth genetic diversity. Thus we should be able to reconstruct a very robust mammoth population, and if we continue seeding it with individuals for several generations we should maintain a healthy amount of variation. Such a population would already be well-adapted to the North American climate. Providing, of course, that they aren't killed off by global warming in the first few decades.

In fact, this scenario provides for even better ethical opportunities, viz., poetic justice. Hopefully, after we resurrect the mammoth, we ourselves will be wiped out by plague, drought, or some other type of holocaust. Somewhere down the line, mammoths will then develop intelligence and civilization. Eventually, when faced with their strange history, and that of their destroyers/re-creators, they'll have to ponder the conundrum of whether they should resurrect us (using DNA from bodies preserved under layers of snack-food-cake wrappers). And when they ultimately decide, "No, they're better off dead," a big bell will ring somewhere to signify how beautifully ironic this really is.

...


Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of conservation efforts, and I think human beings should indeed keep an eye out for the health of other species' populations. But there's some hard realities we just have to acknowledge. Foremost is that we ARE a cancer on this planet. We are a scourge that MUST destroy other species. It's simply impossible for us to consume the level of resources we consume and not affect the balance of life. Especially for megafauna, which require elaborate webs of creatures spreading beneath them to sustain their bulk. For all their size, they're delicate, and our voraciousness means they cannot survive. Period.

The other is that the past is past. Justice does not mean merely undoing the mistakes of the past. Time only flows in one direction; it can't be made to turn around. What's justice is learning from the past and living better now and in the future because of it.

Life WILL survive on this planet. And whenever we happen to die off - whether in a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand or a million years - life will continue. Living things will continue to evolve, and grow. And grow larger. That's inevitable. That's happened many times in the past - massive extinction events followed by regrowth. Of a different flavor, to be sure, always fresh-faced. But that's the way life works. Death, rebirth, growth.

If, on the other hand, we want to be around to see it, the way to do that is not to attempt to unravel the skein of history. It's simply to be less voracious.



* Specifically, one graduate student Josh Donlan, who I predict will have one hell of a time trying to get a faculty position anywhere better than Seton Hall University.

18 August, 2005

The fleet

As we've pointed out before here, average fuel economy in this country has been slipping for quite a while. This is not the result of any technological backsliding; in fact, cars have been getting more fuel-efficient over time, and trucks have remained relatively constant in their fuel-efficiency. So why has fuel efficiency been backsliding? Easy: the fleet has been transitioning towards a greater percentage of SUVs. In 1980 cars made up 80% of the U.S. fleet; in 2004 they make up 50%, with SUVs having taken up most of the difference. Why did this happen?

For years many conservative economists (and conservatives more generally) have been pushing the line that CAFE standards themselves are to blame: by exacting a heavier penalty on the light-duty fleet, consumers were encouraged to transition to SUVs, classified as light trucks and subject to lower standards.

But this is nuts. It's absurd to suggest that consumers would be swayed to move to vehicles that cost on average between $31,000 and $48,000, far more than they would be paying for a passenger car. Especially when you hear what the actual CAFE penalty is: $5.50 for each tenth of a mile a manufacturer is over the standard, times the number of units sold. In other words, even if the manufacturer's fleet average is a full 5 mpg above the standard, they need only increase the sticker price by $275 - not nearly enough to make SUVs competitive. And of course, this example is absurdly hyperbolic. Domestic manufacturers have never failed to meet CAFE standards, and the total penalties collected since 1983 amount to only $475 million - which amounts to a few tenths of a point on average.

Then there's cars like the Hummer H2, entirely exempt from CAFE standards because it weighs more than 8,500 pounds. This is what's known as "rewarding bad behavior".

CAFE standards are applied separately to a manufacturer's passenger and light-truck fleets. That is, a manufacturer must meet an average of 27.5 mpg for its passenger car fleet, and 20.5 mpg for its light-truck fleet in order to avoid penalties. So regardless of how many people move from one to the other, it's the average efficiency of each fleet by itself that determines whether CAFE standards are met. Thus, even if fuel efficiency is improving in the passenger car fleet, overall fuel efficiency can drop. This encourages auto manufacturers to transmogrify their cars into light trucks by packing on weight and giving them removable seats so they can be defined as such. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still lets manufacturers be the ultimate arbiter of this classification.

And within a fleet there's reasonable evidence that CAFE is pretty good at distorting the market. Most manufacturers stick pretty close to CAFE standards despite market demands. Why should they do so when the penalty is so slight? A Congressional Budget Office study says:
while in theory manufacturers are free to pay a penalty in lieu of complying with CAFE standards, in fact, U.S. manufacturers invariably choose to comply. They do so, according to an automobile industry representative, to avoid or reduce the possibility of legal or public relations ramifications.
So actually, given the two-fleet rule, CAFE should push in the opposite direction and encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient passenger cars: say that consumers prefer gas-guzzling cars. In a normal market, these would be more plentiful, and thus cheaper. But a CAFE standard requires that manufacturers restrict the number of gas-guzzlers sold and push more efficient cars, in order to meet the required fleet average. This would make the undesired efficient cars even cheaper (less demand, more supply), and up the cost of gas-guzzlers (more demand, less supply).

So why did the fleet migrate towards SUVs? My preferred explanation is hubris, but there are other possible market-distorting explanations. For example, since 1997 there's been a "tax loophole" allowing small businesses to deduct $25,000 of the cost of vehicles weighing over 6,000 pounds as a "business expense". This loophole was upped to cover $75,000 of the cost in 2003 and extended for three years in October of 2004. That might have done a little bit to encourage sales of SUVs.

Creating a uniform standard would prevent this possibility. This was one of the recommendations of an NAS study that almost resulted in a uniform standard (27.5 mpg) for both fleets in 2001... but was overwhelmingly defeated.

There's a whole host of other improvements to be made. For one, the "Gas Guzzler" tax, which penalizes cars with lower average assessed fuel efficiency, only applies to passenger cars; this could be extended to light trucks. CAFE credits - when manufacturers exceed standards for a year - could be traded and sold, encouraging companies to improve their efficiency. And, most straightforward, fuel economy standards could simply be raised (e.g. to 37.5 mpg for passenger cars and 29 mpg for light trucks, as proposed by Ed Markey of Massachusetts a few years ago). Between 1974 and 1985, fleet average fuel economy nearly doubled, from 12.9 mpg to 27 mpg. This was largely driven by technological improvements; there's no reason this couldn't be done again. All indications suggest we're poised to do so. We just need a little nudge.

Time to move?

At some point in the past I became a free-speech absolutist. I think this stems somehow from my attitude towards interpersonal relationships and the observations I've made there. When you don't talk about things, even if it means suppressing the bitter, hateful words you want to say, issues don't get resolved. Bad feelings don't go away, they curdle into resentment and anger. Speaking, on the other hand, is like surgery: momentarily painful, but ultimately vital for resolving misunderstandings or making clear irreconcilable differences. But even the latter is better, in the end; if there's an uncomfortable knot digging into your side, why pretend it isn't there?

So I've never been a fan of "hate speech" rules. I don't see any value in criminalizing speech, especially when that comes so dangerously close to political speech. Observe the ADL and its casual use of the label "anti-Semitic" to describe a broad range of anti-Israeli rhetoric. There's a slippery slope here.

And in general I don't think this country has done well by burying its hate. We maintain our prejudices, but we've sewn our lips together so that any hint of it can't sneak out. Prejudice doesn't wax because master rhetoricians are cajoling us with their serpent's tongues; it's because there are spaces for it to grow into and fear for it to feed on. We gain nothing by forcing those spaces to be empty; they must be filled with speech (other kinds of speech) in order to destroy the loam in which prejudice grows. Making speech more difficult, making people leery of saying the wrong thing, is absolutely the wrong way to encourage and allow that speech.

Why I'm ranting about this: you'll note up top that the Blogger toolbar contains a "Flag" icon. This is, according to Google, to report "hate speech". Flight might be a good response to this policy.

Mostly, though, I'm annoyed that their awful coding is spoiling my layout.

17 August, 2005

Breaking news: government lied!

I register absolutely no surprise at all at this story, about the hapless Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man shot dead by British cops in the days after the July 7 bombings in London. It seems that everything the British cops and eyewitnesses said - he was wearing a heavy jacket, he ran from the cops into the station, he jumped a turnstyle, he did not respond to police calls to stop - was a total fabrication. Classic CYA. +3 cynicism points for me. I'll be waiting for the retractions from the chorus of complete jerks.

Woah

I'm not usually one for mindless gossip and Nelson Muntz-style ha-ha-ing, but this is deeply fucked up. Somehow I missed this. SOMEHOW THIS MAN IS STILL A SENATOR OF THE UNITED STATES. Fucking Pennacchio now.

It occurs to me that this sort of thing is now actually pretty prosaic. The political sphere is such a parade of the bizarre that someone who is not deeply neurotic and borderline schizoid is the frightening oddball. "What the hell is wrong with you? You have no deep character flaws! No hideous deformed skeletons in your closet! No eating disorders or morally scandalous secret pastimes! No idiosyncratic, alienating political or religious views! You, sir, are not fit to be a Congressman!"

16 August, 2005

Giving it back to the people

As penance for my unforgivable advertising-related rant of yesterday, I present this eulogy of a bit of viral marketing.

You see, the Saab Corporation has decided that the corporate world has subsumed the individual, and we are in grave danger of being drowned in a big wide sea of Same. Thus, they urge you to Maintain Your Identity. Because, "You are different. So is Saab."

You'd imagine that most people would respond to this sort of nonsense by flying into a violent rage and rushing to their nearest Saab dealership to bludgeon the hapless automobiles into their component parts with a heavy metal crowbar. I, however, respond with gratitude that they provide a space where we can learn how other people express their individual natures. Isn't that great? Now evil fucking corporate ad execs can tell us how to be DIFFERENT, as well as how to conform! I'm also startled to see that all these individualists live lives remarkably free of profanity, drug use, public nudity and anti-establishment rhetoric. And none of them want to take the piss out of Saab, either! Awww.

Shampoo diary

I swear to god the following is true.

I found a new bottle of shampoo in my shower this morning, even wierder than the last one. It's "Giovanni magnetic hair care" shampoo. It promises "Magnetically charged hair care for naturally beautiful hair".

The blurb on the back says:
This dynamic shampoo's cleansing power comes from deep within the earth. Magnetite, a polarizing mineral that infuses positive energy while repelling negative charges, combines with special cleansing and conditioning forces. Proteins fill in ravaged hair to smooth and soothe. With each shampoo, hair feels stronger, looks better. Micro-magnets expel oils and residues. Damage is repaired. Shine is an absolute blast. This is the positron effect of Energizing Shampoo.
On the front is one of Maxwell's equations (only not):


And, yes, in the list of ingredients, they do indeed include "Magnetite (Fe3O4)".

I really don't know what to say.

Thermodynamics

Something that gets too little attention in our society is how much work we put into unnecessarily moving things around. I have been reminded of this recently as I lost 10 lbs unexpectedly upon departing grad school, becoming addicted to coffee, and leaving the food mecca of the Bay Area for the less nutritious and higher-stress life of Washington. Now, when I run, my knees hurt less and I go faster -- because I have stopped carrying an extra 10-lb weight around.

To put it another way: When I see a bottle of Evian, I always see the bottle filled with ounces of golden, fragrant petroleum, with a thin film of delicious spring water lining the base of the bottle, and tiny figures inside, toiling over nothing. That is what $2.00 a liter buys. Transportation, refrigeration, and the labor of many people doing dull, unnecessary work. Unnecessary because anywhere that you can find Evian, you can probably find piped water. Pipelines are the most efficient conveyance known. They require no unskilled labor. Many operate on gravity. You get the point.

The latest Harpers' Index does the math on obesity and points out that the net excess weight of people in the United States is more than equal to the weight of everyone in Los Angeles. So as we drive around, in cars, planes, bicycles, or whatever, we are using all this extra energy to transport lipids that would be better stored as preserved food than in our bodies.

Of course this amount pales beside the work we put into moving our conveyances. That is, the amount of energy we spend moving the machines that exist to move us. Miles per gallon in the American passenger vehicle fleet has dropped from 21.5 to 20.6 in the past 20 years.

Driving on an Interstate, I have to be extra-careful because I find myself routinely lost in reverie, staring at all the metal in motion. How much mass is moving! How much energy is being spent! How miraculous. It is beautiful if you don't think too much about the peat bogs of Siberia.

What an important avenue of research

Overcoming skepticism. Thank God the University of Washington is researching this. I've been noticing a serious excess of skepticism lately.

15 August, 2005

Well, that should help

Concerned that the American public was at risk of using less gasoline than absolutely possible, the Bush Administration has taken decisive action to continue the shitstorm.
The Bush administration is expected to abandon a proposal to extend fuel economy regulations to include Hummer H2's and other huge sport utility vehicles, auto industry and other officials say.

Nausea

I went kayaking on the Charles River yesterday, which entailed passing through Park Street subway station. Presently it is tastefully decorated with a series of Dove soap advertisements. This precipitated a conversation about the effect of advertisement on public space, and some anecdotes from me about ways in which people have "encouraged" advertisers not to shit all over every vertical surface.

Culminated with one friend's comment (seconded) that such was the price to pay for living in a capitalist society (couched in the odious "if you don't like it then leave" syntax).

This crushes my heart.

I've long felt that advertising is one of the most awful things our society has produced, aesthetically and spiritually. If we had eyes that saw in other ways, we'd see ads as pitted and covered in mildew, oozing pestilential slime. Their minimal justification - that they inform society about important, desirable new products - is outweighed by their other properties. An advertisement is an article specifically crafted by an agent to manipulate the desires of the viewer. This goes beyond the mere suggestion that one purchase their products. Advertisers quite consciously instruct us as to who we are, what we want, and why we want it. This IS the linchpin of modern capitalism. Base human urges do not suffice. They must be built up; the consumer must be manipulated to propel the market beyond its normal bounds.

As an iconoclast, anarchist, free spirit, destroyer and creator, I'm unhappy that we so readily acquiesce to this sort of mind control. Are these the ideals of our society, that we should surrender our will to wealthy men, so they might reshape us into fitter instruments for their benefit? Shall we be pleased by the paltry knick-knacks we are rewarded with in return, the pablum that we've been taught to love?

Never mind that it's physically ugly, to boot.

I fear I'm going to end in a bad way. One day my mind will snap, and then I'll be, running, running for miles until I collapse, gasping for breath and clawing at the ground, trying desperately to escape what's all around me.

Iran/Iraq war?

Some rumor is going around that Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with weapons. Rumsfeld made a big stink about this. This follows in a long trail of absurdist rumors (like Iran was helping al-Qaeda out and allowed them safe passage through their territory).

I'm on the downward slope this week, and the world is looking very black. So I must resist the urge to call the people spreading these incredible rumors brainless cock-knobs. Instead, Juan Cole on the subject. It makes no kind of sense for Iran to be supporting a Sunni insurgency directed primarily against other Shi'a Muslims and a friendly government. It makes no sense when their goons are comfortably in command of the situation. And yet the stories persist. Makes you wonder if they might be leading up to something...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go find something to strangle.

Everything...is under...control

So you remember that one time when your mom made, what was it, German sausages with home-pickled sauerkraut or halibut cheek crepes or some such inedible dinner and we in a teenage frenzy of carb-craving hormones snuck down to the kitchen even as she and your pop watched television and how we cooked up that pot of spaghetti? And how I needed to get it to the sink and strain it and that worked and then we were going to mix it with sauce and somehow I knocked something into somewhat and the ensuing crash could be heard across town lines? Do you remember what you said as you ran on tip-toes to your folks sitting in the parlor? Yes, you do: "Everything...is under...control."

Which is exactly what I thought when I read this.

12 August, 2005

Friday obscure mammal blogging

Jesus, this blog has been dark lately. But rather than go kill myself out of despair, I'm going to lighten the mood with some cute animal pictures.

Observe this weirdo, the colugo. She's native to Malaysia (or thereabouts - they cover a broad range in that whole Oceania region) and is otherwise known as the flying lemur.* Colugos are arboreal and have a membranous flap of skin that allows them to glide astonishing distances between trees. Upwards of 50 meters! For some reason, this isn't considered "flight".

Taxonomically they're difficult to place. According to some mitochondrial evidence, they're actually close to higher primates, making them near relatives to humans just after the apes. However, this evidence is disputed, and other studies show that colugos should be an outgroup to primates. Meanwhile, morphological studies suggest they're related to bats. Aggravating, isn't it?



* Contrary to the name, colugos are not lemurs at all. Actual lemurs only exist in Madagascar, even though everyone in India insists on translating langur (a kind of lanky monkey there) as "lemur".

Time to go

I am about to be ungainfully unemployed and flailing for interesting projects. (I guess I'm not qualified to work in a growth industry. I am thinking seriously about pawning my books and CDs and climbing gear and burrowing to a more overt dictatorship like Indonesia where you at least know the fricking rules.

Why would a hedgehog abandon the nation-ship that has nurtured him through his adult life? Because it is being run into the rocks. A few items of recent horror:
  • A TV network devoted to abusing religious sentiment in order to manufacture new Republicans. (Their broadcast of this pornography is just one of their absurdities. Note that their top-billed station is this pack of lies.
  • Fascism on the rise.
  • My growing sense that everyone I know with a modicum of conscience is on psychiatric meds, perhaps to keep themselves from committing acts that are illegal to so much as write or link to on the Internet.
  • My own gradually disintegrating sense of humor. What's that? "What sense of humor?" Good question.

11 August, 2005

NOPEC redux

Some Congresscritter needs to read this.
JIM:   It’s incredible, because every energy supply model starts with the assumption that Saudi oil is plentiful. It’s inexpensive to produce and supply can expand to meet demand. I mean, whether you’re looking at the IEA or the USGS, that’s not necessarily the case.

MATT:  Yes. What’s interesting is that we’ve based all of this assumption on no data.

The "real" Big One

About 55 million years ago, after a long period of slowly warming global temperatures, a major jolt in the global temperature occurred over the period of a few thousand years. Why? Methane hydrates in the ocean warmed, releasing their trapped methane, which rose to the atmosphere, becoming a greenhouse gas, resulting in warmer temperatures and more released methane. Many species, in the ocean and on land became extinct; those that remained became dwarfs of their ancestors. (Earth's residents at the previous super-massive extinction event which might have been caused by released methane weren't so lucky.)

Why am I telling you this? Because methane is now leaking from the melting Siberian no-longer-a-permafrost. Not as much as when the methane hydrates melted, but then, we're still releasing greenhouse gases of our own volition, enough to cover the difference. Oil is $66/barrel tonight and rising fast. If only this could have happened 30 years ago, it might have been in time.
Link

Energy research ideas

A friend of mine has a chance to participate in a discussion with MIT faculty on what sort of energy-related research MIT should be doing. What helpful ideas from the bleg-o-spore?

09 August, 2005

Economics 101

Saurav points out this soothing Economist article which suggests that we need not necessarily fear for the future because of high oil prices. They say:
Nonetheless, relief may be on the horizon, though perhaps not as near as consumers would like. America’s Department of Energy predicts that growth in Chinese oil demand—one of the main factors driving current price levels—will moderate, increasing by 600,000 bpd in 2005 and 2006, down from 1m bpd in 2004. And there remains the possibility of a delayed reaction to current price levels, as consumers, particularly profligate Americans, turn to less thirsty cars and appliances.
Nuts to that. Check out the EIA projections, including the figure to the right. Petroleum consumption essentially means "driving" - 60% of crude goes into transportation of one sort or another (planes, trucks, automobiles). We've showed a pretty consistent trend since 1980; in order to reverse the natural tendency, either (a) technological innovation or (b) economic contraction has to take place. There WAS a huge round of conservation in the late 70s that produced a drop in consumption. But it followed on the heels of a terrible recession. And we happened to have people in power who were willing to make the necessary sacrifices (like impose more exacting standards on industry). It was not a purely market-imposed correction.

Also note that the Economist suggests moderation as a result of decrease in Chinese demand growth, not demand. This is just plain stupid. If demand continues growing and supply does not (which it cannot), then, obviously, price will increase. Even I know this.

08 August, 2005

The Big One?

This could be it.

Light, sweet crude is trading at $64 today, on speculation that a terrorist attack might happen in Saudi Arabia (based on "credible reports" by UK intelligence agencies). If one actually takes place, one can imagine that the price of oil will easily cross $70. If it resulted in a moderate disruption of the supply chain... we'll get to see how the U.S. economy reacts to a hard punch to the gut.

In the beginning...

Genesis is my favorite Biblical text, and within it the story of the Garden of Eden comprises my favorite chapters. It confronts the most fundamental issues of being a human: our relationship to nature, to God, and to our own mind. And, best of all, like a clever piece of steganography, this meditation is hidden in plain sight, in Motel-6 drawers and left-breast-pockets around the country.

Christians get Genesis startlingly wrong. This is understandable. A Christian does not read Genesis. A Christian knows what Genesis should teach him; he reads that.

These days, we all know that God is good, and just, and man is wicked. But when humanity was younger, we knew otherwise. God was awful and terrible and capricious, and viewed Man less as a beloved child and more as a dangerous rival, who might one day grow up to challenge the position of the elder. Greek mythology is rife with this theme, and the treatment of humans by those gods is probably familiar: persecuted by plagues, refused the gift of fire, drowned by deluge.

When we read Genesis with this sort of God in mind, it reads much more smoothly:
Genesis 2:9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

...

15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.


The modern reading of this myth is "the wages of sin is death". Man paid the price for defying God with his life. But in fact, this is impossible to reconcile with the actual contents of the text. Later we read:
Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
When the man and woman do eat thereof, the word of the serpent is confirmed. They do NOT die. Their eyes are opened, and they "know good and evil". Meanwhile, God is sweating nervously:
Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
The text tells us directly why God ejected man and woman: not to punish them for sin, but because he feared them as equals. In fact, God lied to the humans when he told them they would die. He put them out to prevent their ascension.*

The other player in this drama is the serpent, the most wise and subtle of beasts. In this myth, the serpent is the archetypical trickster/culture hero. He confounds God to steal gifts for mankind - and in so doing invites the wrath and retribution of the angry deity. The trickster is a familiar character - Bugs Bunny, in essence. Disdainful of authority, too clever by half, making and unmaking by habit, driven by sheer curiosity. Trickster appears in thousands of stories in every culture. These stories are often astonishingly similar, and the coherence of their central character (and often his evolution into the culture hero) suggests that Trickster is something close and familiar to us. I believe the trickster represents the human mind.

Now the myth becomes beautiful: mind produces insight; insight results in discrimination, which produces knowledge. From thence flows civilization. A mixed blessing, to be sure, one which brings with it hardship and toil. But we are no longer one of many dumb beasts, content and placid in the Garden, living by the will of God. We have become as Gods: we think for ourselves. We act according to our own volition.

This is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: agency. We became thinking creatures and so gained free will, driven by something other than the rough passions imbued in us by the Creator. Eve is a hero, a liberator; God is almost villainous, a petty tyrant who treats slyly with his slaves.

There are older myths than this, in which the gods befriend humanity and instruct them in agriculture, teach them to wear clothes, etc. Genesis is a deliberate reconstruction of such myths, a purposeful statement of the notion that humans stand erect because we lifted ourselves up.

It should be obvious why such a myth, celebrating the human intellect, should appeal to me, the scientist. And bizarre, again, that we read it in reverse, with the roles and message reversed. The Garden is the prison we escaped, God the warden who kept us. The Fall was not a moment of shame, for which we must seek atonement; it was the moment of our birth.



* This theme of God's jealousy of humanity turns up later in the Babel myth, when he destroys the tower and scatters human language:
Genesis 11:4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

07 August, 2005

Faith without fear

Clap for George Coyne*, the Vatican's chief astronomer, who cuts through the screen that the timorous are attempting to raise to protect themselves from science. In response to a letter by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in the New York Times, where Schönborn says:
Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.
Coyne rejoinders in the Tablet:
There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe, which science has established as evolving for 13.7 x 1 billion years since the Big Bang and in which life, beginning in its most primitive forms at about 12 x 1 billion years from the Big Bang, evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God’s dominion. That fear is groundless. Science is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions. Those conclusions are always subject to improvement. That is why science is such an interesting adventure and scientists curiously interesting creatures. But for someone to deny the best of today’s science on religious grounds is to live in that groundless fear just mentioned.
Both essays are well worth reading; Schönborn's viewpoints are not to be taken lightly. He quotes John Paul II:
To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems.
In other words, faith demands that we see the evidence of purpose in creation. Since we know of God, we must find the imprint of his fingertips on the world. Coyne replies:
For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell. But we should not close off the dialogue and darken the already murky waters by fearing that God will be abandoned if we embrace the best of modern science.




* No relation to jerry.

04 August, 2005

George Galloway dust-up

Read this CT post, where some liberals get irate at GG for some recent remarks. Most of the comments are worth reading. I have nothing more to add.

It's baaaaaack!


Some things are too good to give up. Specifically, the phrase "War on Terror". It made a reappearance today, when George W. Bush used it to bitchslap Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose latest single says the U.S. should get out of Iraq.

He also said, and I swear to god, I couldn't make this up, "We are defeating the terrorists in a place like Iraq so we don't have to face them here at home." After this, he was NOT strangled by an irate Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, etc. In fact, there were no attacks on his person by any outraged Britons. Weird, that.

There's something rather desperate and pathetic about this, but what really irritates me is that the leader of the Free World feels such little constraint that he can continue to shovel the same shit, no matter how ripe it gets. No one is in a position to force Bush to justify himself. Meaning we've got a megalomaniacal, omnipotent monkey on our hands. All of which underscores the fundamental value of resisting concentrations of power.

03 August, 2005

Our President continues to suck

So, yes, our president came out and said he's in favor of teaching "intelligent" design "theory" in our schools, so that kids can "understand what the debate is about." You'd think this would make me angry, frothing at the mouth so intensely that you might think I had accidently squeezed an entire tube of Crest onto my toothbrush and then run out of the bathroom en brushant to answer the phone.

But, no. In fact, this does not surprise me. Why should it? Did we ever really doubt that this particular bit of idiocy was one our President would subscribe to? Not hardly. As evidence, I submit the picture above. I had not a moment of doubt that my Google Image Search for "bush dunce" would turn up scads of hits. Inconceivable that it could be otherwise. But boy are we outraged.

02 August, 2005

Tabloid issue 2

JESUS RETURNS!
APPEARS ON "O'REILLY FACTOR"


FINANCE NEWS:
Mustache-comb manufacturer shares rally on U.N. appointment

NOPEC

I asked my bro (who is now 1/3 of a lawyer) about that NOPEC Act. His response is interesting, but I'm mostly posting it here because I think it's cool that my younger brother "knows shit":
As I'm sure you've read already read, NOPEC claims that OPEC is not a governmental agency or action, but a commercial one. It's a pretty clever attack actually. The government can regulate a commercial body, but the government of a foreign nation is a sovereign entity--there's nothing they can legally do agains them. But a commercial body that's engaged in business in the US, that's a different matter. As far as their business within the US goes, the federal government can regulate it.

This is analogous to the case two years ago involving Microsoft in the EU. Microsoft is a US company, as is Sun. Yet Sun was able to bring a claim in the EU against Microsoft for anti-trust. Since both were availing themselves of the market in Europe, both could be regulated by the EU market. This is what the US federal government is essentially doing to OPEC. Their argument, as far as I can see, is that because OPEC is availing themselves of the US oil market, and in essence competing with US oil producers (however small and insignificant they are--that may even buttress their argument further: "our oil producers are bullied out by OPEC, they're doubly bad!")--they can be regulated.

It's an interstate commerce question. Congress can regulate interstate commerce--it's one of the few enumerated areas that Congress IS allowed to regulate (that's why you keep getting Congress skewing all these things as interstate commerce questions...for a great example of this, check out this case called U.S. v. Lopez. You may not understand it, but it's the standard commerce clause case out there today. You can also ask me if you have any questions about commerce clause.

But that is one area Congress can regulate. Whether or not a Court upholds it, that's a different issue. A Federal Court can very easily step in and say that NOPEC exceeds Congress' authority (as they did in the Lopez case). It's a likely scenario. However, someone has to first bring an action into court.

That's what i've been able to discern from the limited amount I read about it. I'm sure you have already read Senator DeWine's speech introducing NOPEC. If not, here's the link.

Cheers!

Samoor

01 August, 2005

US out of Uzbekistan!

I'm a day late on it - the U.S. is being evicted from Uzbekistan in 180 days by the Karimov government, possibly over recent aid in transferring Andijan 'fugees, possibly over a desire to be closer to Russia and China.

The place to be is this thread on Harry's Place, which is positively salubrious, and features comments by Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan. OMG!!! can u believe it?!? I <3 the internet!

Commuting, leering.

I took the train this morning through the heart of Boston during the morning commute, which was an interesting experience in itself. It's always amazing and alarming to be surrounded by people (in fact, all those typical analogies - packed in like cattle, sardines in a can, socks in a sock drawer - seem perfectly apropos) and to feel utterly isolated. It's the juxtaposition, I think - like Tantalus, whose lust for the grapes increases because they are so very near, I'm frustrated by the notion that this person I'm standing next to (possibly fascinating, probably genial) resolutely refuses to acknowledge anyone else. My half-mumbled quips and comments, fishing for conversation, seem gauche, and though no one reacts to them visibly, the air feels suddenly permeated with discomfiture.

But never mind that; what I want to write about is stunningly attractive random strangers (SARS?). I'm sure you're familiar with the sentiment, if not the specific article, and of course it's a futile project for me to attempt to construct an archetype anyway.

I ran into one on the train, you've guessed by now. I won't attempt to describe her; it would just annoy me. Manufacture your own fantasy and use that in her place (change gender to match your tastes). I've been puzzling out how to deal with this sort of person for the past couple of weeks. Naturally the first instinct, namely, to grovel at their feet, propose marriage and sign over the deed to your house, is wrong. Also the second instinct, to translucently attempt conversation, is wrong as well. And there's something not quite right about simply observing them from afar and thinking to yourself, "God. That is one fine-looking human being."

In other words, there's simply NO CORRECT WAY to interact with these people in a manner that isn't somehow offensive or disrespectful of their right to commute unmolested. Good Lord, if I were stunningly attractive (praise Jah, I am not), I would absolutely detest having a whole cattle-car full of sleep-addled ungulates ogling me furtively out of the corners of their eyes as if I were some sort of prize heifer. Daily. Jesus.

I'm somewhat loathe to conclude that what happens in the privacy of my own mind is not sacrosanct and immanently allowed, prone as I am to random, brutal psychotic fantasies. (Which, I will repeat, occur within the PRIVACY OF MY OWN MIND. Don't ask.) But human beings are astonishingly good at reading subtle social signals, and thus just as good at unconsciously giving them off. Especially with regards to attraction. I can't help feeling that making some individual into the subject of my flight of fancy is therefore wrong.

Ironically, this brings us full-circle: we're all so certain that no one wants to be ruffled, that everyone wants privacy rather than contact, that we behave as if we're traveling in hermetically sealed cocoons. Someday I'll figure out what the healthy balance between these monkish proscriptions and lecherous leering is. Maybe then I'll be able to exercise (or exorcize) my natural flirtiness.

Err... what?

Sorry to keep blogging incessantly about this energy bill, but... I'm coo-coo for energy stuffs.

Anywho... taking my own suggestion, I was reading through the bill text, and I came across what is called the 'No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act of 2005' or 'NOPEC'.*

This act essentially says OPEC is illegal, apparently under the rubric of the Sherman anti-trust act.

[Music scratches to a stop. Everyone's heads jerk around to face me.]

Now... I was under the impression that the legislative authority of Congress didn't quite extend as far as OTHER COUNTRIES, but apparently I was wrong. Blurgh?



* Title III, Subtitle B, Section 328.

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