30 August, 2006

Dealing with terror the right way

I would like to think that the San Francisco Police Department has a new and salutary practice for dealing with terrorists: arrest them and treat them as common criminals. Yesterday, an Afghani man, Omeed Aziz Popal, ran down at least 14 people on the streets of San Francisco, most of them in largely African-American and Jewish neighborhoods. Two of the victims were outside the Jewish Community Center. Neither the cops nor the media brought up his ethnicity or that of the victims' neighborhoods, though today's SF Chronicle update does describe the ethnicity of the victims. The only mention of terrorism was apparently on local TV Channel 2, which said the driver claimed to be a terrorist. The police denied his assertion.

This is brilliant. Deny the guy the attention he might have been seeking. And refuse to be terrorized. Hooray SFPD.

The sad part is that this probably isn't a new modus operandi. If Popal had used a gun or a poison instead of a car, the news worldwide would have covered this carnage and there's no doubt that the word "terrorism" would have been thrown around. The reason it wasn't, in this case, was most likely because people are so inured to car violence.

28 August, 2006

Cavalcade of exploding batteries!

It seems Apple is following suit in recalling Li-ion batteries due to overheating/EXPLOSION!!!! This prompts us to a new poll, courtesy of Hedgehog.*

* Specially since that old one actually reached statistical significance for the first time ever. I'm a bit disappointed with the results, actually - more public support for flying belts might actually spur investment dollars into researching them. I want to own a fucking flying belt before I die, damnit. Plus, there's only one damn Battle Cat, people, you're not all going to be able to ride him.

25 August, 2006

1-state solution

Jon's post this morning got me thinking about Israel again. I find much of the discussion about its conflicts to be irrelevant. I don't think the abrasion between Israel, Palestine and their neighbors can be solved by trying to assign blame for specific actions and wars. It's much more useful to look at the structural conflict and to seek ways to resolve it.

Maybe the problem is that Israel is an ethnically based state -- and one imposed on a region where its dominant ethnicity was a minority at the country's founding. Ethnic states are archaic. Ethnic states run by a minority fell out of fashion before I started humming "Free Nelson Mandela."

It's fashionable for peaceniks to push for a 2-state solution. I think this is doomed to fail. Who will be in which state? Who gets the airports, seaports, fresh water? Will the world keep dissecting into smaller units, each devoting its best and brightest to defending a border?

Why not a 1-state solution, with Israel accepting full human and civil rights for all those who live there? It's sad that even here in the U.S., which was the first country based on the notion of inalienable rights, this is a controversial view.

I believe such a state would be more stable and healthy for both Palestinians and Jews because of improved prosperity. More minds working on problems, less money spent on internal security, more food security for all, and if other prosperous but historically torn societies are any gauge (England vs. Ireland?) fewer people feeling the passion of a blood feud. Israel could live up to its moniker of being the only democracy in the Middle East.

There is a reason why there are more Jews in the U.S. than there are in Israel -- it's a more prosperous place. Our prosperity is largely because we have eschewed the 16th-century ideal of being an ethnic homeland (despite some people's efforts).

Many Jews and Zionists think full rights for Arabs would betray Israel's mission of being a Jewish homeland. The country could soon revert to being minority-Jew, and the Knesset could be dominated by people who oppose Israel's very existence.

This risk is real. On the other hand, being a more peaceful and prosperous place, perhaps more Jews would move there. And more importantly, making it a better country could help save the religion. I was born a Jew but if I'm supposed to identify with that homeland, I'll stick to atheism and stay out of shul. The U.S. is the Jewish homeland for now, and I think it will remain that way unless Israel backs off and figures out how to be a functioning part of the modern world, rather than, like its Islamic Republic neighbors, a relic of a more tribal time. As is, it is driving some of us away from the religion without creating paradise on earth for itself.

(Cross-posted from Tiny Revolution.)

24 August, 2006

Stuff you wish you didn't know

I'm only three years late discovering this - maybe I heard it before and it slipped my memory. Yes, yes, that will do nicely.

Anyway, it was a bit about Iran offering a fairly comprehensive negotiation with the U.S., including ending support for armed groups, recognizing the state of Israel, and accepting much tighter IAEA controls, in exchange for access to "peaceful nuclear technology", normalization of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, and a two-state solution for Palestine. Some more detail is here, including the incredible U.S. response:
But in 2003, Bush refused to allow any response to the Iranian offer to negotiate an agreement that would have accepted the existence of Israel. Flynt Leverett, then the senior specialist on the Middle East on the National Security Council staff, recalled in an interview with IPS that it was "literally a few days" between the receipt of the Iranian proposal and the dispatch of a message to the Swiss ambassador expressing displeasure that he had forwarded it to Washington.
Astounding. I think my blood is actually boiling - steam is coming out of my ears.

Bruce talks sense

It's always nice to hear from a security professional who cares about security more than he cares about getting on CNN. Bruce Schneier is such a person. His new column at Wired News is worth a read.
The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want....

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer.
I've been saying for years, the best response to terrorists is to treat them as particularly meddlesome criminals, not as threats to the basic essence of society. That gives them too much credit and our society too little. The only reason bin Laden and friends were able to destroy much of American democracy is because of their allies in high places.

I am irritated

At the local vegan cafe, the dishes are all named for positive affirmations. You can ask for the "live bruschetta" and the waiter will say, "One `I am bountiful,' coming up." You might want a pecan pie, but you will be served an "I am perfect." Yerba mate chai is "I am triumphant."

It's a bit like Starbucks, where you can order a medium coffee and hear the clerk -- who is either a barista or a partner, depending on the context -- call out, "Grande Americano!" But it's worse because at least "Venti Americano" has a single referent. Its cloud of meaning in the mind is concentrated and precise. It doesn't hijack perfectly good words and herniate their meanings. To me, Cafe Gratitude's menu is Operation Iraqi Freedom all over again.

It would be harmless except that I'm kind of dumb. Euphemism fogs my thoughts. The best thoughts come directly and unencumbered, like a great dancer leaping up, tapping her feet together a few times and returning silently to the stage. But my thoughts rarely do that. They are tied up with mental fascia that drag on my mind just as fascia tissues drag on my legs when I try to jump a high-hurdle. If the word "freedom" is tied in the mind to aerial bombardment, and the word "graceful" is tied to steamed quinoa with fresh basil-almond pesto, those words will flow less freely in my head, language will become more cumbersome, thoughts come more slowly and arrive laden with distracting and antisocial subtexts.

Worse yet is the lack of sincerity. A close pal of mine works at a school where the staff have routine 15-minute staff meetings where people can offer a shout-out, thank yous, apology or call-outs -- you know, a STAC. * If I'm happy with someone, I tell them face-to-face. I think public affirmations are a way of showing off. They are mainly about making the thanker look good, not the thankee. Formalizing and mandating thanks for other people replaces a beautiful feeling with an often-empty public display. People who do this too often can come to confuse the public display with the real feeling. I have known performers -- actors and other showoffs -- who become so good at ersatz feeling that they lose the capacity for the heartfelt variety.

* Even the name of the ritual is an offense against language. What does it have to do with any of the meanings of "stack"? A neat pile of flat objects, a bunch of speakers, a series of computer memory addresses, boobs -- doesn't this word carry enough meanings already? Why make an awkward, phonetically ridiculous acronym for a something people already know?

Tragedies of the Commons?

Over at UFO Breakfast, Cmdr. J. Alva Scruggs is complaining about leechers on BitTorrent downloads. This is a pretty classic kind of example of people defecting from a mutual aid scenario.

My own morning was beclouded by the discovery that my spam filter has been a mite too strict. Leaving aside the possibility of spam poetry and the fact that it led to my favorite post ever, we should consider spam a serious problem. A large study by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group concluded that something like 80-85% of incoming e-mails are spam messages. This is an alarmingly high number.

But spam isn't a tragedy of the commons scenario like the above; leechers damage the efficacy of torrents roughly proportionately - if there are few leechers, the system survives and isn't really bothered. On the other hand, according to Spamhaus, a mere 176 spammers are responsible for 80% of the spam generated worldwide. Your pardon for doing this, but the best analagous situation I can think of is terrorism in an open society - open structures demanded by a free society allow the possibility of massive harm by a few malicious individuals.*

At present a grand debate over how to properly treat such malicious individuals is being played out on the world stage, with on the one side those advocating "draining the swamp" and weakening the pins that hold up the philosophical edifice that drives many terrorists; and on the other those who advocate a muscular militarism as the appropriate response: kill them all and show others what will happen to terrorists.

This is extremely bad policy with regards to terrorism, but I'm not certain the same is true for spam. It's certainly impossible to drain the swamp - the simple motivating factor is profit, and there will always be enough gullible idiots who are interested in purchasing bulk quantities of Cialis that profit is irremovable. Technical solutions seem to be mostly ineffective. However, the judicious application of punitive measures (not necessarily catching one of them in a public restroom and administering a severe caning) might prove efficacious. Imagine the class action lawsuit that could be brought to bear, for example. That would certainly be intimidating to future spammers.

* This isn't quite appropriate, since spammers actually do cause widespread harm, as opposed to the mostly hypothetical harm caused by terrorists, who on average kill only a few thousand people a year.

22 August, 2006

Junk Science

An old girlfriend of mine is interning at a company that is looking for found materials to make their products out of - in this case, durable cloth-like materials.

This morning I removed some old keys from my keychain - some of them I can't even remember what they're for. I didn't know what to do with the old keys afterwards. They can't really be recut and they're more or less useless in other contexts. Hallowe'en costume, maybe - the Keymaker from The Matrix Reloaded.

A few weeks back I was reading an article in the Boston Globe about pollution in Morocco resulting from their prolific olive oil industry. Apparently they have tremendous problems from the remainder, the pulp produced in the olive oil production process, being dumped into waterways, where it produces an oily olive-oil slick and all sorts of other nasty problems.

One of my utopian schemes has been as follows: after the Revolution, garbage collectors ought to actually play the role of "sanitation engineer". That is, after they've picked up the trash, they go back and figure out what to do with it - categorize the kinds of trash received, which ones are problematic, which ones can be easily recycled and have amazingly useful second lives. This seems like it would actually be a fantastically entertaining and profitable line of work. I'm not entirely sure why it doesn't happen already...

16 August, 2006

Unsafe at any speed?

Egad! All this talk of exploding Dell laptops raises some fears in me: is my plan to make an Electric Mini actually a plan to create a 1200-pound death-box that might burst into flames at any moment? You see, it turns out that the lithium electrolyte solution in lithium-ion batteries is highly flammable. Some people allege that the acrylonitrile polymer solution in lithium-polymer batteries is less flammable, but this is not necessarily comforting.

What's a mad scientist to do? There's other possibilities; this guy claims to have invented a flywheel for use in electric cars. That's at least more intriguing - instead of exploding, you could send a spinning disk, hurtling through the air at several times the speed of sound, into a nearby crowd, decapitating dozens before it lodges itself in the "B" of a nearby Baskin Robbins sign.

15 August, 2006

When will I be allowed into the hive mind of Robo-Jesus?

You might want to check out this column in the Guardian lamenting a recent poll which found 30% of British school kids believe in Creationism or "intelligent" "design".* Personally, the response this evokes in me is a desire to run outside, find the nearest religious nut and sucker-punch him in the gut until he explains the workings of his mind to me.

The other day I met a born-again Christian who was willing to cop to the charge - but she refused to tell her audience why she became born-again, because she was afraid we would think it was hokey. This really blows my mind... if you, yourself find your beliefs hokey, why in the name of Christ do you hold them?

I'm also unable to appreciate the disconnect between the otherwise rational behavior of religious types, who as far as I am able to tell can operate can-openers, make their way through revolving doors and drive manual transmission automobiles, and their absurdist, counter-intuitive belief systems. I would honestly be much happier if the religious people in the world moved in constant trepidation, afraid that their dog might, without a moment's notice, change into a sofa (or vice-versa), that the fibers of their living room throw rug would spontaneously de-interlace and crawl worm-like into the corners of the room, or that the color of the sky is constantly cycling like someone is fiddling with its "hue" tuner. This, at least, would be consistent, and consistently crazy. As it is I have to believe one of two things:
  • They are all putting me on.

  • There is a "religious nuttery" mental faculty that I am missing that allows this dissonant state of mind to exist.
Perhaps it's better to gawk than to experience first-hand, but religious people seem to enjoy what seems to me to be an addled state. I can't help feeling I'm missing out.

* Yes, they're doing way, way, better than we are. I am crying in my soup as I write this.

I am not actually eating soup. I am eating chocolate s'mores!

No, not that either. But who wouldn't want to eat a nice chocolate s'more? Why, I remember in my youth, when I would go on camping outings with my Boy Scout troop§, we would roast s'mores over the campfire and enjoy their creamy, chocolatey goodness while we sang hymns in praise of Lord Baden-Powell. Ah, memory... tis enough to make a man cry into his soup.

§ Actually the only thing I remember being roasted at a Boy Scout outing was a live chipmunk some disgusting little puke had caught and thrown in the fire. What a travesty... I bet Lord Baden-Powell is looking down from Heaven right now, crying in his soups'mores.

We are a dying breed

You will be missed.
Meant to post this a while back, but it seems the West African Black rhino* is extinct. As a species we've managed to eliminate most of the amazing megafauna in the world - only a few left! Let's keep trying, people.

* So called to distinguish it from the White rhino, "White" being taken from the Afrikaans "weit" for "wide", to describe the latter's wide mouth.

13 August, 2006

Thin blue lines

This project is brilliant. We're already putting the tape up all around our burrow. An art installation about it is in the window of Artists Television Access in San Francisco and it looks like S.F. Critical Mass might try and follow a future waterline route this month. I can't think of a better way to commemorate Hurricane Katrina -- except, maybe, for listening to Fats Domino and eating a plate of my extra-savory vegan jambalaya.

12 August, 2006

Our ship has arrived

Apparently, someone decided to list us as a "Blog of Note" on the blogger.com front page. Undoubtedly this brief window of fame* will result in a meteoric rise, culminating in my being deluged by attractive women and buried alive in a mountain of money and precious jewels. Please send shovels.

In accordance with this elevation in status, we will immediately begin to implement the points of our ten-point program, which are as follows:
  • A federal Civilian Caprice Corps will be created to encourage the growth of spontaneity, eccentricity and public exhibitionism; corps members will patrol the streets undercover and reward exemplary spontaneous behavior with a shower of chocolate coins.
  • To Adam Peacock: I forgive you and your gang of cronies for teasing me in the third grade. You can keep your thumbs.
  • Our first major economics reform will be the imposition of the tyranny of the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO). This will apply at all levels: hot dog buns and hot dogs must both be packaged in compatible multiples; all laptops, cell phones, electric razors and other portable electronic devices will employ common plug interfaces; cameras, etc., will agree on a single freaking memory card format. To avoid confusion due to the newfound prominence of the ISO, the International Socialist Organisation will be disbanded. Sorry, college Marxists.
  • Federal dollars currently spent on nuclear stockpile maintenance will be diverted to a National Boondoggle Fund, which will require the construction of a city-wide jungley-gym, kite the size of a ten-story office building, giant mechanical rhinoceros or other frivolous item in every major metropolis in America. This will be a waste of money, but at least it won't be wasted on the means to destroy the planet.
  • To discourage currency speculation, the dollar will be de-floated and fixed against a standard again. This action will be tied to our conservation program by backing the dollar with infant pandas, ensuring that even in the event of a panda-rush and rapid devaluation, no one will be too upset.
  • "Local news" programs that report on the travails of neighborhood pets and how the corner drug store is "fleecing America" will be replaced with international news, so Americans know what countries they are bombing and can identify them on a map.
  • All politicians will be shot, or at the very least severely reprimanded.
  • Foreign aid will be directed towards actual progressive development goals, as opposed to bolstering our favorite gangsters or promoting trade partnerships with American businesses.
  • People will actually be made to learn something about how to build democratic institutions in this so-called democracy, starting with civics classes in elementary schools.
  • "Mild" and "Medium" salsas will no longer be sold. If you can't take the heat, eat some rice cakes instead.

Some of these goals may seem controversial However, we are confident that with enough good faith and the judicious application of suitable hallucinogenic compounds, you will come to agree with all of our positions. We've already printed up the t-shirts.

* I'm told I can expect this to last somewhere around fifteen minutes.

We have considered the possible catastrophic effects of panda extinction in a number of detailed scenarios. However, a small intrepid team could be sent back in time to Qin Dynasty-era China to save the species from total annihilation. We've already started our calculations for time warp.

The death of disappointment

Some super-smart and rather funny people wrote recently in dismayed tones about the conquest of irony over satire.* I worry more about the death of disappointment.

Talking to American baby boomers, I sense a national self-image that now seems naive, quaint, and maybe a bit foolish. They felt their country could offer freedom and democracy and hope for the world -- not just as a talking point but for real. I talked to one fellow in June who said that even after he turned against Vietnam, he still applied to the State Department -- not realizing that they didn't much hire Jews.

Who under 30 carries that kind of hope? Without hope, there is no disappointment. Without disappointment, no Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, no All the President's Men, no "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin-to-Die Rag" or "Ohio." Not even, and this is art that came out in the 80s but was produced by a boomer...

read the whole delicious post by clicking hereBloom County, a daily comic that openly discussed safe sex, had its characters go on a closed-shop union-led strike, and talked of impeaching Reagan.

I think that the detachment and indifference one finds in youth culture and even in protest culture about the fate of the USA -- and maybe of the developed world as a whole -- is based on despair. We've given up hope that Enlightenment-era Constitutional democracy is anything but a cover for the rapaciousness that's cataloged in the million-selling A People's History of the United States and, on weekdays, in the Wall Street Journal. It's like we feel it would be just as well to throw this draft out, ball it up and start over. And that would be great if any real revolutionary sentiment was flowing around, but it's not -- we're not throwing out, we're not starting over, and as we withdraw into negativity and hopelessness, real people are being killed in our wars and factories.

The most terrifying loss isn't comedy or cine verite. It's the loss of a wide-open youth culture in which people get together and commiserate and fix things -- a culture motivated, maybe, by hope and disappointment. I know the Web is nice but no, it's not the same. When veterans returned from Vietnam (forget the "spitting" myths, they are bullshit), the angriest and most alienated were welcomed by hippie and biker culture, each premised on love for different ideals of what America and humanity could be. Even while in Vietnam, they had open organized rebellions against the politicians who sent them to kill and die. (You are required to watch the extended 12-minute trailer.)

So, to draw the parallel, where do people go who return from Iraq? Almost half a million have served there. Many have been broken down. Being under fire for a year and taught to torture and having friends killed amid limited booze and unlimited ammo is not good for the mind.

The people I find on this blergh are, I think, still hopeful and put off by America's turn away from ideals. Many of us are immigrants or children of immigrants, but other than that, I see little unifying theme. Maybe African-Americans have kept this kind of hope more than "whites"; at least their vote turnout is higher and let's just say no European-American celebrities had the huevos to say the obvious about whether George Bush likes black people.

Why do some people continue to struggle for the deeper, more inspiring American dream, the one embodied in the best rhetoric of the Founding Fathers, while so many others seem willing to detach and watch, not even helping create an alternative but rather enjoying clever jokes about the chaos of the fall from Jon Stewart & Co.? Do they really feel so safe? Is it the deathwish of the privileged? What?

*OK, so I am reposting a barely rewritten comment I wrote for another blergh. That is because I have become functionally illiterate as a result of working for the Man. Enjoy this while you can, as I am regurgitating old prose, starting with the most recent, and before long I will have to start posting stories from my high-school literary magazine. At that time, the Internet can be expected to shrivel up in recoiling horror, unwilling to transmit such bad.

note: i moved this post down to make keep saurabh's manifesto up top longer.

11 August, 2006

Read between the lines!

I know we're not supposed to take Internet polls seriously, but the one on this Boston Herald article was too good to pass up:
Are you surprised by the N.H. poll that found such high negatives for Hillary Clinton?

9%Yes, she is a viable candidate

83%No, she is a self-serving politician

8%It's as irrelevent as N.H. is in the big picture
Total Votes: 3,034

10 August, 2006


My sis points me to this post about GM bentgrass designed for golf courses making its way into the wild. In the past I've been pretty heavily involved with anti-GM activism, including participation in some Greenpeace and Rainforst Action Network campaigns. Their focus has always annoyed me, especially as a biologist.

The fact of the matter is, the danger posed by GM crops is not really that substantial. It's possible that GM bentgrass will run wild and overrun the world, but in truth it's far LESS likely to do so than ordinary bentgrass. GM traits are maintained by selection - artificial selection. If they confer any fitness advantage, it is usually only in a narrow context. In the case of the above bentgrass, it's that it was engineered for increased glyphosate resistance (which is done by expressing an alternative version of the protein whose action glyphosate normally blocks). In fact it's likely that this would prove disadvantageous compared to normal bentgrass in the absence of maintenance and the application of RoundUp, since it's more or less wasting resources expressing a redundant protein, and probably under much more poorly-controlled gene regulation than normal bentgrass.

So if this bentgrass gets out into the wild, chances are it'll die out quickly, or at least that the offending GM segment of the genome will be bred out. All this talk of GM super-weeds taking over the world is therefore quite overblown and probably not something we need worry about. Sure, volunteer GM corn might occasionally turn up in a field downwind, and there'll be some degree of contamination in the wild, but no cataclysm will result.

Food safety issues are a bit more problematic, but still I think exaggerated. RoundUp-ready tomatoes probably aren't some sort of pestilence, and although some genetic modifications may produce unanticipated responses, especially allergenic responses (as has actually been observed), the stuff isn't poison. Not compared to, say, Twinkies, which is not a major environmental issue.

These are the issues that get pressed because this is what draws (or drew, rather, since these days the movement is somewhat muted) popular attention. The real issues, as I see them, however, are corporate control of agriculture and biodiversity.

Remember that this is cutting-edge technology, and farmers are beholden to the seed companies that produce this stuff; they must buy RoundUp-ready seed from them every year, not to mention RoundUp itself. GM technology is a powerful way for corporations to insinuate themselves deeper into the agricultural process; the infamous "terminator" technology developed to prevent farmers from saving seed at all is a prime example.*

And by far the greatest danger is the loss of diversity. GM crops are a very close monoculture; being engineered, they are completely lacking in genetic variation. Not only does this make for a remarkably boring and uniform food supply, it means that there is no standing genetic variation to serve as grist for breeding future strains. This is how agriculture is possible, after all: the selection of desired attributes from amongst a vast pool of available variation. The loss of this variation is a loss of accumulated wealth; we as a species worked hard to develop great varieties in our food crops. It decreases the security of our food supply to reduce it.

* Also a good example of ignorance of biology being used to foist arguments; many opponents of terminators complained of it wreaking havoc by spreading and creating a plant holocaust. But this is nuts; obviously, it would breed itself out of any population within a generation and cease to be a bother.

08 August, 2006

who could have predicted this?

aside from everyone?

Prize quote: "Although countries have talked about encrypting data that's stored on passport chips, this would require that a complicated infrastructure be built first, so currently the data is not encrypted." Good thing the countries of the world don't want their borders to have any complicated infrastructure. That would have made it much harder for me to sell my passport next time I needed money while traveling. Not that I would ever do such a thing.

07 August, 2006

06 August, 2006

Never understanding the race had long gone by

Plenty of people fear that the leaders of the U.S. are fired by apocalyptic fantasies.

And according to a 2002 Time/CNN poll, 59% of Americans think the events portrayed in Revelation will happen; 17% think the events will take place within their lifetimes.

I pity the fools.

They don't realize that the Rapture took place on September 4, 2005. I was burrowing across the country with my pal in a car. We saw first one vehicle, pulled over on the side of the road, with belongings but no person inside. Then another. A few miles later, yet another.

There it was -- these folks were Raptured up. I mean, all told, it's not like there were going to be very many taken into the Kingdom. 144,000 -- 12,000 from each of the tribes. Goodbye to them. I wonder if they've found what they're looking for.

Now as for the rest of y'all, quit your hopeless, unrequited carping at the toenails of your almighty and get down with your bad selves. We have Sodoming and Gomorrahing to do.

03 August, 2006

Electric Mini

Lately I've been fantasizing about constructing for myself an electric Mini Cooper. It's actually quite plausible; a number of hobbyist organisations facilitate the process, and financially it's not out of reach. A brand-new 2-door Mini convertible retails for a scant $24,000, and the conversion process, depending on the batteries you employ, comes to somewhere around $6,000. The sort of performance you get is highly variable, depending on weight of the car, aerodynamics, etc., and batteries.

These last are the critical component in electric vehicles and for alternative energy in general - fossil fuels can be burned to produce power on demand, but the same is not true of many renewable energy sources. Appropriate vectors are thus a critical technology (so you can store power for when you need it), and right now the focus seems to be on batteries, as the most easily achievable in the near-term.*

For cars, these range from simple lead-acid batteries, which might give you something like 50 mi of driving range, adequate for most people, to cutting-edge lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries, which have incredibly long lifetimes, almost no "memory" (that is, the battery does not degrade much over time, in contrast to say, NiCad batteries), and a much higher capacity than other types of batteries. Electric vehicles equipped with such batteries get ~300 mi of travel time before they must be recharged.

This is fine and wonderfully geeky, but it's not necessarily clear that an electric car is a good idea yet for the ideological purist. For one thing, this is not a zero-emission vehicle. It has the potential to be, certainly; if it's charged entirely by non-polluting, renewable energy sources, then it indeed can be considered as such. But most of the power in the grid comes from fossil fuels, and dirty ones at that (such as coal), especially on the Eastern seaboard, where I live. And the greater efficiency of electric motors relative to internal combustion engines means, if the power is oil-fueled, you're only reducing your pollution output by about half. This is good, but not great.

What it DOES do is push the problem back to a single point: non-polluting power generation is the only thing we need develop if we have an electric car fleet. This is appealing because it makes the task of regulation much easier, if only a single industry, especially a large-scale, extremely centralized one, is responsible. On the other hand, it pushes the problem out of sight, where it might actually be free to grow worse. There seems to be little action in the area of moving away from coal-burning power plants - except possibly retrograde action.

Thorny. Anyway, new poll on the right.

* Fuel cells, like the hydrogen-based ones much touted by George Bush, probably won't be feasible for another ten or twenty years, which some suspect is why Bush latched onto them - pie in the sky.

As an unfortunate coda to our last poll, you might read this story about polar bears resorting to cannibalism because of thin food supplies. Depressing. For further depression, read this review by Jim Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, probably the best-known climate change researcher in the world (link courtesy of my Bong doppleganger).

I have to wonder if they know they're not supposed to eat polar bear liver.

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