Wednesday, January 31, 2007

No more Molly Ivins
From the AP:
Best-selling author and columnist Molly Ivins, the sharp-witted liberal who skewered the political establishment and referred to President Bush as "Shrub," died Wednesday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 62....

In a column in mid-January, Ivins urged readers to stand up against Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

"We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war," Ivins wrote in the Jan. 11 column. "We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it, now!'"

Do it for Molly.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More names to watch
Today the Senate was finally able to end the Republican filibuster against raising the minimum wage. The Democratic leadership managed this by giving in on some of the demands, made by Republicans, to add a package of tax cuts aimed at small the businesses who hire many minimum-wage workers, and who are most susceptible to being hurt by even a small rise in their overhead.
The tax breaks in the Senate bill have divided the private sector, pitting small businesses and retailers that would benefit from them against the larger corporations and manufacturers that would have to pay for them. The package costs $8.3 billion in lost tax revenue over 10 years.

To help pay for the tax breaks, corporations no longer would be able to deduct the cost of jury verdicts or settlements in liability suits against them and their executives' tax-deferred pay packages would be capped at $1 million a year.

Although I hate giving any concessions to the Republicans on this issue, I am not unsympathetic to the financial position of small businesses. Ninety percent of the thirty-two jobs I've held have been for companies that were defined as small businesses. I know that the argument that some of the very smallest businesses, might have to lay off an employee if the minimum wage were to rise is true. I also know that most businesses in this position have fewer than six employees. Still, if the minimum wage bill helps those companies offset the cost of that increase in overhead, I'm all for it. Still, with that in mind, let's look at who opposed the current compromise.

First of all we have the institutional opposition.
"The permanent tax law changes here far outpace and outweigh the few benefits," said Bruce Josten, the chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill.

The Chambers of Commerce are an odd flock of ducks. The local chambers, in small communities, are widely varied. In my experience, most are very civically minded and responsive to local needs. But, the further up the food chain you go, the lees the care about such things. Until, at the level of the US Chamber of Commerce, it's nothing more than yet another lobby for major corporations. Here we have the Chamber lobbying against a tax break for small businesses. That should be all most people need to know about the US Chamber.

Of course, the other major opposition against this compromise, is that group of Republican Senators who voted against letting it go to a floor for--as they like to call it--an up or down vote. The ten who voted no are:
  • * Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • * Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
  • * Tom Coburn (R-OK)
  • * Jim DeMint (R-SC)
  • * John Ensign (R-NV)
  • * Judd Gregg (R-NH)
  • * James Inhofe (R-OK)
  • * Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
  • * Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
  • David Vitter (R-LA)

The nine marked with asterisks also voted to completely eliminate the minimum wage last week. As contemptible as we may find them; we can, at least, allow that they are voting for their convictions. They have disgusting, destructive convictions, but they are consistent in them. Some people find that admirable; so I will grant them that point. Personally, I think they should all be voted out at the first opportunity. But what about the other eighteen who voted to eliminate the minimum wage, but, when the wind is blowing against them, won't vote against raising the minimum wage? How much contempt do they deserve? Just to name three, Sens. McCain and Brownback are running for president and Sen. McConnell is regularly mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court.

Think Progress points out something that the ten who voted against the minimum wage have in common. They are all white males, all southern, except one and, combined, they are worth about thirty-five million dollars. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) alone accounts for more than half of that value.

Last year, Isakson gave a sppech in the Senate against raising the minimum wage. He began by misquoting an old Mills Brothers song ("You Always Hurt the One You Love", which he called an "old country song: 'You only hurt the ones you love'.”) He misrepresented the origin of the minimum wage:
One year after the first minimum wage was established, Franklin Roosevelt’s own Department of Labor made the following observation:

In a number of instances, there have been reports that workers who had been receiving less than [the new minimum wage] had been laid off, and replaced by more efficient workers.

In 1937, with unemployment still high, there were a great number of highly qualified workers available for employers to pick and choose from. Yet in the same speech, Isakson describes the current economy as the exact opposite of the 1937 situation.
In most of the years I worked, we were in the type of economy we are today. We were in full employment where you are competing for the best and the brightest.

I believe the minimum wage is appropriate, but I believe to take a time of full employment, a time of a vibrant economy, a time when study after study indicates the exact opposite of what the distinguished Senator said, would be sending the absolute worst signal.

Johnny Isakson's arguments are disjointed, illogical, and dishonest. Are any of those who oppose the minimum wage any better? Let's remember their names when they come up for reelection and send them home to live off their investments and not plague us with their retrogressive class warfare.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Simplistic models and dinner
Thesis sentence: Models are not reality; they are metaphors, which are useful in a specific context and that rapidly fail to be meaningful outside that context.

Anyone who thinks about politics in an academic way for any period of time will eventually discover that the ubiquitous left-right model of political belief is flawed. Certain anti-authoritarian or libertarian ideas are not well represented on that scale. The next step in thinking about politics is to add a second axis to the political belief chart, making it a grid rater than a line. The new (vertical) axis is authoritarian to anti-authoritarian. Once they have figured this out, a smaller group of thinkers try to figure out just what is meant by leftness or rightness on the original (horizontal) axis of the chart. The earliest version of the two-axis chart that I have seen was a book about the post-revolutionary struggles in the Soviet Politburo (that I can no longer locate) written in the late 1950s.

When I went through this exercise between 1977 and 1980, I decided the original axis went from collectivist to individualist. It worked fairly well. As I saw it then, contemporary communism sat in one corner as authoritarian and collectivist, fascism sat in another corner as authoritarian and individualist, classical European anarcho-syndicalism sat in the third corner as anti-authoritarian and collectivist, and the American Libertarian Party sat in the last corner as anti-authoritarian and individualist. At the time I was rather enamored by a vaguely understood Kropotkinist form of old-style anarchism.

At that time, the prevailing presentation of the left-right scale was based on the totalitarian theories of Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In their theory, left-wing extremism and right-wing extremism eventually came to resemble each other so much in tactics that the underlying justifications became meaningless. The popular bastardization of this theory was the idea of a virtuous golden mean, surrounded by bad extremists.

We see this concept all of the time in American politics, especially as presented by the inside the beltway pundit class (or strata or interest group, depending on your preferred sociological vocabulary). This idea is a favorite of Americans who believe that they are the exemplars of "common sense" moderation. Any idea that offends both extremes must be good. Of course, political marketers have long since figured this out and know that they can sell any idea, no matter how extreme, as long as they can find or create someone more extreme to condemn it and make it appear to be in the reasonable middle. Or, more commonly, they sell an extremist idea by condemning any criticism as extremist in the other direction and thereby claiming the middle ground for their policy. Notice how the White House and its allies always condemn any criticism of the President as "far left extremism."

That is how the ideal of a golden mean is exploited in the propaganda sphere. In the sphere of tactical politics, we have a good example of one group cynically exploiting this ideal in the tax cut policies of the early Bush administration. In 2001 they demanded a 700 billion dollar tax cut; the Democrats compromised and gave them half of that amount. Every year since then, they have returned and demanded another tax cut, and convinced the Democrats to compromise again until the total amount of Bush administration tax cuts has far exceeded their original barganing position of 700 billion. And they continue to ask for more.

The role model for this strategy was the "salami strategy" used by the Communist parties of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war era to seize power.

The best presentation that I ever saw of this idea, as it was taught in the mid- to late-seventies, appeared on the back cover of a political science book I had as an undergraduate. Rather that the traditional left-right scale, it showed poltical philosophy as a circle with actual national governments located on the scale. At the top, in the position of the moderate golden mean, was the United States. As the sides of the scale curved down to the left and right, the left went through the social democracies of western Europe, to Scandinavian welfare states, to Yugoslavia (a kinder, gentler communist dictatorship, to the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, to Soviet allies in the third world (Cuba, Angola), to Red China (as we called the mainland in those days), North Korea, and finally Albania. the right went to post Franco Spain and post Salazar Portugal, to Latin American military juntas, to Burma. Burma and Albania were shown as passing each other in opposite directions at the bottom of the loop.

It was contemplating this loop that made me think of my own two-axis scale. If all of the existing political practice led from a golden mean of American democracy as the privileged middle position, which decayed downward into indistinguishable totalitarian states, where did the ideal of a more libertarian society that mid-seventies America fit? I drew a second scale upward, decided the figure eight looked silly, and flattened the whole thing out into a two axis chart.

But this brings me back to the whole question of what is the correct measure of the rght-left scale. Collectivity? Religion? Some sort of economic activity? I was starting to suspect that the best descriptor would not based on a political philosophy; it would be based on an emotional or psychological state. It was at this point that I discovered the theories of Lakoff a few years ago. I still don't think his explanation is the only correct description of political philosophy, but I think it is a good metaphor for how Americans act in certain circumstances.

Lakoff uses the word "metaphor" to describe the way in which we organize our beliefs. By this, he means that certain language choices are more effective at convincing people at the gut level. I believe that "metaphor" is the right word to describe the way we organize ourselves. Lakoff created a scale that established a metaphor of a stern father on one end and a nurturing androgynous parent on the other. Those who want superior leaders to command and get results or issue punishment sit at one extreme. Those who want a loving figure to issue convincing arguments and deliver rewards sit at the other end. Most people believe in both ideals and the key to politics is to use a language that will appeal to the correct parental yearning at the right moment.

My current belief is that none of these schemes are a correct description of "reality." An accurate description of political realty would require a scale with more axes than it is possible to represent on a printed page, or even in any manner that our minds gan easily grasp. Who can really understand a six axis graph and visualize it in a way that they can emotionally embrace? No one. The only answer to distilling politics to a graphable system is to emphasize the aspects that are relevant to the current problem and dismiss the rest. This means that the system I use to describe the scale of belief systems related to environmental preservation might not resemble the system I use to describe the scale of belief systems related to abortion. Sometimes the line is best, sometimes the loop is best, sometimes the two-axis graph is best. None of these is reality; they are only tools we use to describe reality.

Someday I plan to expand on this, with a plethora of graphs and charts to illustrate my points. Today, the reason I'm bringing this up is that I have seen a few good examples of how different descriptive schemes are better for different problems. In particular, what set me off is this piece at Pandagon that was pointed out to me by Coturnix.

PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) is an extremist animal rights group. Their tactics involve a large amont of street theater and harassment to achieve their goals. In Lakoffian terms, the primary divide between left and right is that the right is more motivated by arguments that establish a rightful hierarchy and the left is more motivated by arguments that appeal to feelings of empathy and an egalitarian form of fainess. According to this schema, PETA should be firmly established as a member of the Left. In fact many on the Right are convinced that PETA's ideal of animal rights and vegitarianism should be articles of faith on the Left. But they are not. Many on the Left loathe PETA and would rather put as much distance between themselves and PETA as possible. I'm one of them, but I've never really thought about why I dislike them so much, except to say that I dislike their tactics far more than i disagree with their goals.

Amanda Marcotte has finally managed to describe just what it is that liberals, like I, dislike so much about PETA. PETA's tactics almost exactly mimic those of pro-life groups like Operation Rescue. She has a point by point list of their similarities. I can't disagree with a single one of her points.

To get back to the correct metaphor for political analysis, Amanda is not using the two axis scale that so many of us have painfully worked out. She is not using the psychological language of Lakoff. Amanda is deconstructing PETA with something very close to the half-century-old totalitarian theory. And it appears to be the right theory to describe PETA and why so many of us are uncomfortable with them. The usefulness of totalitarian theory, or of the moderate-extremist metaphor is that these schemae are still the best way to describe people whose driving ideology hs become nothing more than " the ends justify the means." The means always seem to be the same, violence, intimidation, and complete subjugation of the individual to the cause.

The problem with this theory, is there are far fewer extremists who really fit the mold than there are accusations of extremism. For every authentic extremist nut, there are ten garden variety demagogues ready to call anyone who disagrees with them an extremist nut. Take for example, today's exchange between John McCain and Arianna Huffington at Davos. McCain equated those who opposed the escalation in Iraq with "the far left." When Huffington asked whether he considered Sam Brownback part of the far left, McCain cut her off and said they could have a civil discussion if she'd only let him finish his answer instead of interrupting.

This sort of propaganda only works if the audience absorbs it without question. The more we are aware of the tactics, the less effective they are in fooling us. PETA is an extremist group and "straight talking" John McCain is a garden-variety demagogue. Although they might occasionally bring up a good point, both of them are so dishonest that they deserve only our contempt. It doesn't matter what method or theory you use to arrive at that point as long as you free yourself from their dishonest arguments. McCain and PETA are united in their contempt for the intelligence of the rest of us. Call their bluff. We deserve better.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Seasonal depression
According to someone named Phylameana lila Desy, who has a column on, and a little tiny icon of her smiling face that looks she's been hit with Joker gas, this been this has been a very depressing week for everyone involved. Let's look at he evidence.
Blue Monday is the Monday in January that begins the last full week of the month. For 2007 that would be today--January 22. The end of January is the time of year when:
  • New Year's Resolutions have lost their umphh!
  • Over-the-budget expenditures from the holidays show up on our credit card statements.
  • It is time to go back to school after the winter break.
  • It's cold outside, and you'd just as soon stay in bed all day.

  • Oh, and on Tuesday, you are given notice on the job you've faithful served in for the last four and a half years.
  • Did I mention, you're over educated, over fifty, and now subject to age descrimination.

Damn! She's good! This has been a bad week. I'm behind schedule on my new diet, it's cloudy outside, and I'm a funny looking old guy who's soon to be unemployed. Thank dog Phylameana lila Desy is here to help me with an Affirmation of the Day.
Arguments in favor of a revolution - part XXXVII
Republicans are the party of big business and big business these days seems dedicated to a short-sighted program of mindlessly looting any source of wealth they can and destroying the means of further wealth creation. At least, that seems to be the lesson of this:
After Ford Motor Co. posted the largest loss in its 103-year history Thursday, analysts questioned whether the struggling automaker can achieve its restructuring goal of reaching profitability by 2009.

Ford reported that it lost $12.7 billion in 2006. At least $6.1 billion of that was attributed to troubled North American operations, which continued to be hit hard by falling sales of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles.


Ford built 3 million vehicles in North America last year, 313,000 fewer than in 2005. It will build fewer this year. Thursday, it trimmed first-quarter production plans by another 10,000 vehicles, to 740,000--136,000 less than a year ago. That reduces revenue because automakers book vehicles as sold when they are shipped to dealers.

[Ford CEO Alan] Mulally also confirmed that Ford is considering giving performance bonuses to its top executives at the same time it is incurring massive losses, closing plants and cutting jobs.

"More of the compensation of senior leadership is tied to their performance," he said. "This team has made great progress. You have to keep the talented people you really need." (my emphases)

I'm not sure how much more of this kind of misrule we can survive.
A magnificent discovery in Rome
In the sort of announcement that should make ancient history nerd and archaeologists squeal like tiny children, Archaeologists from the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality announced on Tuesday that they believed that they have discovered the cave where, according to legend, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.
"We were drilling the ground near [Emperor Augustus' palace on the Palatine Hill] to survey the foundations of the building when we discovered the cave," said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the area.

"We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn't be far from the Emperor's palace, but we didn't expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise.

"We didn't enter the cave but took some photos with a probe," Iacopi added.

"They show a richly decorated vault encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too rich to be part of a home. That's why we think it could be the ancient sanctuary, but we can't be sure until we find the entrance to the chamber."

The legend of Romulus and Remus states that they were the twin sons of the god Mars and a mortal priestess, Rhea Silvia, who abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber River. They were rescued by a she-wolf who took the babies back to her den and raised them. Later, the brothers founded a town on the hill. The traditional date of the founding is April 21, 753 BC, which became the starting year of the Roman calendar. Traces of a fortified village that date to near that time have been found on the hill.

The cave, called the Lupercale, was a cult site to the inhabitants of the village of Rome. Founder's cults were fairly common in ancient Mediterranean religions. The Roman cult was celebrated each year on February 15 by an animal sacrifice from the early days of the village until 494 AD, when Pope Gelasius banned the pagan tradition. Finding the cave does not prove anything about the truth or falsity of the legend of Romulus and Remus; its main significance is in understanding the public religion of Rome as it was practiced for over a thousand years.

I, for one, can't wait for them to find the entrance and publish some pictures.

Ironically, the point of the conference on Tuesday, where the discovery was announced, was to discuss the poor state of the monuments on the Palatine Hill. Like many archaeological sites near urban areas, the monuments on the Palatine Hill are decaying quickly. Pollution destroys the carvings and murals on the surfaces of many buildings. Vibrations from traffic threaten to literally shake some buildings apart. Tourists carry off souvenirs. Construction threatens to destroy or make permanently inaccessible other sites. Knowledge is vanishing before our eyes. And, is the case with most science and history, there is never enough money to go around.

This discovery might be a blessing, at least to the antiquities of Rome. A find like this is sure to pique Roman civic pride, and possibly broader Italian nationalist interest, in a way that will get people to open their pocketbooks and shell out a few Euros to preserve the past. At least, that's how I hope it will work out.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Do it yourself cheap shot
Shelly at Retrospectacle found this story.
An investigation of suspected brain harvesting within Maine's medical examiner's office has ended without any criminal charges, state and federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

At least 99 brains were sent from the medical examiner's office to the Stanley Institute, which uses its brain bank for research on the causes of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, from 1999 to 2003. More than a dozen families have sued, alleging the brains were removed without their consent.

Take the quote. Next, convert the last line into a headline, live this: "Brains removed without consent." Now, attach a picture the politician or celebrity of your choice. Post the result on your blog.

It's fun. It's easy. It's bipartisan.
Remember these names
Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), One of the most conservative members of congress, announced earlier his month that he will not seek reelection in 2008. Colorado is tending blue these days and the presumed front-runner is Democratic Boulder Rep. Mark Udall. But that doesn't mean Allard has stopped being dangerous. He still has two years in office and can do quite a bit of harm in that time, as he showed yesterday.

Even as the Republican minority was successfully blocking what should be the first rause in the minimum wage in a decade, Allard went one step further and proposed completely eliminating the federal minimum wage. His tool was to be a tiny amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which would have forbidden the federal govenment from enacting a minimum wage higher than that set by a state. Kansas, for example, hasn't bothered to raise their minimum wage since it was $2.65. Five Southern states don't even have a minimum wage.

Such a retrogressive proposal should have been laughed out of the Senate, but it made to a vote. Even worse, 27 other Republicans voted for eliminating the minimum wage. The guilty are:
  • Alexander (R-TN)
  • Allard (R-CO)
  • Bennett (R-UT)
  • Bond (R-MO)
  • Brownback (R-KS)
  • Bunning (R-KY)
  • Burr (R-NC)
  • Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Coburn (R-OK)
  • Cochran (R-MS)
  • Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Craig (R-ID)
  • Crapo (R-ID)
  • DeMint (R-SC)
  • Ensign (R-NV)
  • Enzi (R-WY)
  • Graham (R-SC)
  • Gregg (R-NH)
  • Hagel (R-NE)
  • Hatch (R-UT)
  • Inhofe (R-OK)
  • Isakson (R-GA)
  • Kyl (R-AZ)
  • Lott (R-MS)
  • McCain (R-AZ)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
  • Thomas (R-WY)

For the record, those up for reelection in 2008 are Alexander, Bennett, Chambliss, Cochran, Cornyn, Craig, Enzi, Graham, Hagel, Inhofe, McConnell, and Sununu. McCain and Brownback are running for president. McConnell is regularly mentioned as a potential candidate for the Supreme Court. This vote should be made to come back and haunt all of them. They really do view the robber baron days of the late nineteenth century as the good old days.
Unintentional irony
There should be an award for this level of pompous ignorance.
New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz manages simultaneously demonstrate ignorance of widely known historical facts and achieve the impressive feat of making Tom Friedman look smart:
Poor Tom Friedman. He is looking for a Muslim Martin Luther King. There is none, Tom. If one were living on earth, they'd break his windows. Imprison him. Or kill him. Finished.

Imagine that! A society where a figure like King could be imprisoned or even killed! Those Muslims sure are vicious and evil.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Elephants under the sea
I ran across this news item while hunting for woolly mammoth news about two weeks ago.
A New Bedford-based boat dredging for scallops in Georges Bank off the coast of Maine may have pulled up something a little more interesting than shellfish. Tim Winchenbach hauled in a foot-long, curved, tusk-like object that scientists think may be a 13,000-year-old fossil from a prehistoric elephant.

Mammoth and mastodon bones are not rare in North America. We have identified parts of thousands of individuals. What makes a find interesting is if a skeleton is unusually well preserved or complete, if it has any soft tissue still preserved, if it is in an area where that species has not previously been found, or if it can be dated to a time--earlier or later--than that species has previously been found in that area. Naturally, any human association with the fossil adds immensely to its interest. At the top of the list is any human association that is absolute proof that humans killed the elephant and didn't just use the bones or ivory post-mortem. As you can see, we know what most extinct mammoths and mastodons looked like; only the very oldest bones, which might add to our knowledge of their evolution, are interesting just as bones. What makes a bone interesting nowadays is almost always the extra information we can gain from the context of the find.

In this case, the ivory was dredged out of the sea, almost completely destroying its context. It's just a fragment of a tusk, so we're not even sure which species it is. Why am I interested in this one?

Most significant to my scientific interests is the fact of the tusk's offshore discovery. The Georges Bank is not part of a river estuary or delta near the shore where the tusk might have washed down. It is a separate set of drowned hills larger than the state of Massachusetts. During the last ice age, the Georges Bank was dry land. This mammoth or mastodon most likely lived there. We are just beginning to reconstruct the flora and fauna of these submerged lands. This is a new field.

Northeast North America 12,000 years ago. At that time, so much water was locked up in the ice caps that the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today. However, the melting had begun and the coastlines were shifting rapidly. A: The Grand Banks B: Georges Bank C: The coast of Maine and New Brunswick. (Map source)

The other reason for my excitement, is that I'm sure we will be hearing more about this find from our friends in the realms of fringe history and science. Take a look at what Plato had to say about the resources of Atlantis in his Critias.
For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold. There was an abundance of wood for carpenter's work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all.

There were elephants on Atlantis. This is tusk from a type of elephant dredged up from the Atlantic seafloor. What could make them happier? Elephants were a recurring theme among Atlantis hunters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. History professors regularly had to deal with cranks who were sure they had discovered images of elephants in fuzzy reproductions of Mayan carvings, just as they now have deal with those who are sure they see astronauts and sophisticated hardware in those same carvings. Mayan and Aztec elephants attained the level of a painful cliché around the era of the First World War.

I'll have more to say about that in a future post. Meanwhile, I hope we can squeeze some good science out of this tusk before the bad science appropriates it.
How many people worked on this speech?
Apparently the leader of the free world forgot to take one thing into account yesterday when laying out his plan for energy independence. It can't be done. At least not the way he's planning to do it.
It won't be possible to produce enough corn in the United States to meet President George W. Bush's goal of a 35 billion gallon output of renewable fuels in ten years, analysts said on Wednesday.


"There was nothing new for us, a year ago it was kind of an innovative thing to talk about but not today," said Don Roose, president and analyst for U.S. Commodities, Des Moines, Iowa referring to Bush's remarks about renewable fuels.

"He's talking about renewable fuels coming from sources other than corn, like switch grass or wood chips, and there is no plan ahead on how to handle all of that," Roose said.


"There is no way 35 billion gallons of ethanol is going to come from corn. That would take 12.5 billion bushels of corn, that's more than the total supply of corn and takes away all of it from exports and livestock...and we aren't producing that much corn so it's a reality scenario that's not good," Gidel said.

Wait. Maybe there is a way out of this. We could import corn. Then we would no longer be at the mercy of foreign oil producing countries for our energy supplies. We would be at the mercy of foreign grain producing countries for our energy supplies and that's much better.

If it's true that people get the leaders that they deserve, we have been a very bad people.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A worthy contest
Karmen at A Chaotic Utopia wants to enter an essay contest. The prize is small, limited to students in the Colorado University system, and really should go to her so she can finish her degree, but it will bring unlimited glory and honor to all who contribute, so we should all contribute to her effort. The essay question is this:
What would you ask the next President of the United States to do in the first 100 days of the Administration to address climate change?

Karmen adds the following context to that question from the group sponsoring the contest:
Leading scientists estimate that the international community has approximately 10 years to make serious changes in its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if we wish to avoid the worst consequences of global climate change. By the time the next President assumes office in January 2009, one-third of that decade will be gone.

Notice the underlying assumptions of the question and of the group asking the question.* They assume that President Bush is only blowing smoke about energy and climate in his latest State of the Union Address and that by 2009 the new president will not only be concerned about working on the climate problem; they will be concerned about reversing a decade of neglect. To a lesser degree, the judges of this contest seem to be assuming that the answer lies in reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and not in addressing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by that date.

Karmen has a good shot at the prize, as she is already working on a book on the topic, but the topic of her book approaches the topic from an oblique angle to that of the contest. As she admits:
[I]f the book turns out according to the outline, it would only partly address the question at hand. See this stipulation in the rules:
Responses are encouraged that outline the most effective, innovative, and realistic actions that will provide credible and substantive approaches to addressing climate change. Focus is encouraged on solutions rather than the imperative or rationale for action.

I'll be the first one to admit... a good chunk of my book will be "the imperative or rational", mostly discussing the origins of complex global problems and their solutions. The solutions themselves should be there, as well... but probably crammed into one of the final chapters, and then be fairly ambiguous.

Karmen is not asking us to write her essay for her, she knows the correct answer--"Launch a massive PR campaign to dispel myths about humanity's relationship with nature."-- and I agree with her on this answer, but she needs our help putting this into terms that meet the requirements of the contest. As I see it, those requirements are that we present a 100 days policy blitz. That is, they want a policy campaign and she believes we need a propaganda campaign to pave the way for the meaningful policy campaign. What sort of simple policies can we offer that will be steps in the right direction, but that will also be educational tools for moving people to adopt attitudes that will lead them to accept the next policy steps.

Let's avoid utopianism behind us and think of the real objects of such a campaign. What policies could we adopt that would really make a difference, while at the same time convincing our most libertarian high school friends to support even more meaningful steps in a few months? Karmen doesn't want to dictate; she wants to convince. After all, a populace that believes in a policy won't vote to reverse that policy in the next election.

* Has anyone noticed a pattern of me analyzing questions in this manner? Yes, I not only try to answer the question that has been asked, but I always try to determine the question that the questioner really is interested in understanding before I write an essay. If you are in the Puget Sound area and desire an employee who asks the right questions, contact the e-mail address on the left and see if I'm the person you need. I probably am.
Why I'm growing to hate the SOTU
It actually has nothing to do with the person currently giving it or what a pointless exercise in spin that it is by nature. No, I'm growing to hate it because of bad personal associations.

Five years ago, when this guy was being inaugurated and there was no SOTU, I was in the hospital where my mother, who had just had a pulmonary embolism, was recovering. The embolism was probably an early symptom of the cancer that has dominated the last four years of her life. At the time we thought it was just a bad break and that it was something we would soon get over, much like the guy being sworn in as president. Both turned out to be far worse than I could have believed credible to fear at the time. Once is just bad luck, twice is a nasty coincidence, and three times is a pattern. I said associations--plural--and I am indeed up to two on this day. Two hours ago, I was laid off from my job.

Does anybody know of any jobs in the Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, or Redmond area for an over-educated, but flexible, person with experience as a tech writer, all purpose lackey, teacher, bureaucrat, retail clerk, blah, blah blah? I'm smart, loveable, cute--in a fuzzy and muppety way--full of interesting trivia, loyal to a fault, able to write my way out of a paper bag, creative, and devoted to all the right causes.
Lieberman sez: Give war a chance
Somewhere in the last few years, Joe Lieberman has gone from someone I disagreed with and found mildly annoying, to someone I heartily detest. In his Clinton era role as a moral scold, I found him annoying, but somewhat useful as a counterbalance to the media-generated perception of Democrats as the party of immorality. And I credited him with speaking from conviction. When he continued to support the war in Iraq, long after it went sour, though I strongly disagreed with him, I was still able to allow that he was speaking from conviction, though I also began to suspect that there was an element of inability to own up to his mistakes mixed in. His astounding display of open, narcissistic ego and embrace of dirty campaigning in the last election should have been the final straw in destroying the last vestiges of respect I had for him, except for one thing: I had already lost those last vestiges a few months earlier.

It was this sentence that ended an illusions I had that he was entitled to even the smallest degree of respect: "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." To say that any political leader should be above criticism is a betrayal of the most basic principles of American democracy. An office holder who is either so ignorant or opposed to what this country is about is unfit for office.

Again, that should be enough to end the book of Joe Lieberman, but it was the beginning of something weirder and genuinely pathological. More and more, Lieberman seem to think he has to shield the Bush administration from criticism on any issue. If it was just the war, we might be able to chalk his behavior up to base opportunism; he knows his own reputation is tied up with Bush's and this will be the only issue that matters. But it's not just the war. Lieberman has arranged for Bush to get any nominee he makes to any office. Lieberman wants to cancel oversight hearings into the disastrous Katrina response. And his defense of the war has taken on a truly pathetic tone.

Witness him today, actually begging his colleagues to let Bush have his way and not utter a breath of official criticism.
During Gen. David Petraeus' hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) took time out to "make a plea to [his] colleagues in the Senate" to "put the brakes" on the gathering bipartisan momentum for a nonbinding resolution condemning the president's plan to increase troops in Iraq.

The Senate should "step back for a moment and give you [Gen. Petraeus] a chance…. Perhaps a last chance, to succeed in Iraq," Lieberman said. "If God forbid, you are unable to succeed, then there will be plenty of time for the resolutions of disapproval or the other alternatives that have been contemplated."

Giving the plan a chance sounds so simple and fair that you almost forget that it involves giving Bush everything he wants and not even voicing a word of doubt. Giving the plan a chance means sending twenty-one thousand more young people into harm's way and assuring that many of them will die, while sticking those who survive with a few tens of billions of dollars extra debt for this disaster. Does "time for the resolutions of disapproval" include apologies to the families of the unnecessary dead and to the physically and mentally shattered?

I have a better plan that should be given a chance. Let's end Bush's war and bring the troops home as quickly as can be managed. Let's have oversight hearings into every aspect of this administration from the war to Katrina to granting contracts. Let's have robust confirmation hearings on every nominee he sends to the senate and assure the American people have civil servants who are competent, moderate and unbeholden to outside interests. Oh, and let's get the people of Connecticut to recall their independent senator and replace him with a Democrat.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Calling his bluff
Many left-wing bloggers have a favorite intemperate, right-wing extremist that go to when they can't think of anything else to blog about. These favorites can be depended on to say something so outrageous that the posts practically write themselves. Ed Brayton's favorite is a tough-talking, white guy who calls himself Gribbit the Bulldog.

The other day Gribbit had this to say:
Let’s take a look at just today’s news. In Massachusetts, a 16 year old high school student stabbed to death a 15 year old in the hallway. In Detroit, a female police officer was shot in the stomach. In Chicago, a Marine who served 2 tours in Iraq got shot and killed outside a nightclub. In Oklahoma, a 10 year old girl is missing. So tell me that this nation is any safer than Iraq. I dare you.

Having nothing better to say right now, I thought I would take Gribbit up on his challenge.
At least 90 people were dead and about 180 wounded in bombings targeting Shiite areas in and around Baghdad Monday, police and officials said....

At least 78 people were killed and more than 150 wounded earlier Monday after two nearly simultaneous bombs struck a predominantly Shiite commercial area in central Baghdad in the deadliest attack in two months, officials said.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of two Marines in a particularly bloody weekend for American forces in Iraq — a total of 27 dead in just two days.

That was easy, and grim. Keep in mind that the United States has twelve times the population of Iraq.

Gribbit also thinks the economy in Iraq is better than here. I think he should emigrate or, better yet, arrange for a temporary visit courtesy of Uncle Sam. I hear he's looking for a few good men. I'm sure he'd settle for Gribbit.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A competely selfish plea
It looks like the 2007 Science Blogging Conference was a big success. Our friend Coturnix, who was one of the primary organizers of this event, deserves major kudos for this event. Not only did Coturnix help put on this event, he's a graduate student with a dissertation to write, a TA with classes to teach, and a normal human with kids to raise, a spouse to keep happy, and a life to live. Okay, maybe that's not a normal human at all, but he still deserves kudos.

Now, since I'm sure many people are already talking about next year's conference, let me throw in my two cents worth. I hope it does not become the annual North Carolina Science Bloggers' Conference; I hope it becomes the annual North American Science Bloggers' Conference, alternating from East to West, as is traditional for most American professional associations. On the west side of the continent, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle are best set up to handle a world-class conference, though any large city or university town can handle a medium sized conference, including our Canadian bretheren in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary (of course, it would be really cool if it eventually included Mexico and Central America with tours of the great archaelogical sites of that region).

For my own selfish reasons, I hope next year's is held in Seattle, Portland, or Canadian Vancouver so I can attend and meet the big fish, cephalopods, or dawgs, as the case may be. If none of those are suitable, I'll root for the Denver-Boulder region so I can visit some long lost relatives along with attending the conference.

Readers with a science inclination should add their their preferences and justifications here so we can lobby Coturnix en-masse.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I don't think he should be doing that
Fundamentalist extremists say the the craziest things.
At a recent debate over the battle for Islamic ideals in England, a British-born Muslim stood before the crowd and said Prophet Mohammed's message to nonbelievers is: "I come to slaughter all of you."

"We are the Muslims," said Omar Brooks, an extremist also known as Abu Izzadeen. "We drink the blood of the enemy..."

I'm not an expert on Muslim dietary law, but I'm sure human blood is not halal.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sacrifice in wartime
Mike Dunford is a graduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Hawaii. He's also a military husband. In the beginning, he supported the war in Iraq. For five years he has tried to give the administration every benefit of the doubt for this adventure. Recently, he has lost that ability.
My wife missed our son's seventh birthday because she was in Iraq. She missed his sixth birthday because she was away training for the Iraq deployment. She missed his fifth birthday because she was in Afghanistan. She will probably be back in time for his eighth birthday, but that is far from certain. That is part - a small part - of the sacrifice that she has made. It is part - a small part - of the sacrifice that the rest of our family has made. Similar sacrifices have been made by tens of thousands of military families over the last few years, and those sacrifices are nothing, nothing compared to the sacrifices of the families of those who have lost their lives in this conflict.

Mike feels that the word "sacrifice" has been misused by the leaders of the free world.
It is rare that I find myself at a loss for words. Anyone who knows me can tell you that. Right now, though, I'm having a very, very hard time coming up with family-friendly language that covers the way I feel about President Bush right now. Why? Because I just saw that half-witted, sneering little lower primate say this:
MR. LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said - and you've said it many times - as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They're the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

Yes, they serve too, who watch TV then go get another beer.

Let me see if I can explain. Bush clearly sees a hierarchy here.

At the top are those who actually sacrifice their lives.
Then there are those at risk who haven't died.
Then there are those who have lost a child, parent, spouse, sibling, or friend.
Then there are those who have a child, parent, spouse, sibling, or friend at risk.
Then there are those who have seen an ugly image on teevee.
Then there are those who know there are ugly images on teevee, but choose to protect their beautiful minds.
Then there are the pro-war bloggers.
Then there are the clinically brain dead.

Somewhere in that list--fairly high--should be those who might make actual financial sacrifices for the war. Bush thinks they belong at the very bottom; they should be the last to feel the cost of this war. So far he has had his way.

That might seem like a shallow and cheap shot. Really, there is no way to explain Bush's decisions using traditional political analyses. His actions are not explained by economics, geopolitics, or ideology. He is an Oedipal-basket case and nothing except deep psychology can explain why he does what he does. Mike, and all of the other people in his position, deserve better than that, but I can't give it to them.

Mike further explains his frustration:
Sadly, though, that's not the worst part of this episode. Earlier in the day - the same day - the White House Press Secretary used "the troops" in an attempt to shield the president's ill-conceived "surge" "strategy" from congressional criticism:
Q: Okay. The sense in the Senate, this non-binding resolution, perhaps, that's going to move forward this week -- can you give a White House take on what that means, if the votes are there, that --

MR. SNOW: Well, look, they're claiming the votes are there. Again, the question you have to ask yourself is, do you understand what possible ramifications are? In an age of instant and global communication, what message does it send to the people who are fighting democracy in Iraq? And, also, what message does it send to the troops?

That's right. It's OK for the president to send the message that the sacrifice that the troops are making can be compared to the sacrifice that the TV-watching public is making, but it is A Bad Thing for the Senate to send, in a non-binding resolution, the message that they think that the president is out of what little there is of his mind to want to send more troops into the hellhole he has created in Iraq.

I can explain Tony Snow's message, but it is only by invoking one of the ugliest political metaphors of the past century.

After centuries of seesawing conflict, the Great Powers of Europe reached a position of stasis in the last quarter of the Nineteenth century. The Great Powers all saw growth and expansion as necessary to their survival, but they had reached a stalemate wherein all directions of growth were blocked by the ambitions of the other Powers. The small powers all correctly saw their future existences tied up in maintaining that stalemate by allying themselves with one or another of the alliances of Great Powers.

During this time of stasis the industrial revolution attained its maturity. The Great Powers all found themselves possessed of populations of surplus labor and the surplus wealth necessary to convert those labor surpluses into gigantic standing armies. Seeing this, the military thinkers of the age all realized that victory in a war among the Powers depended on being the first to move their armies into the position for a strategic victory. What they did not realize was that this meant that they would be predisposed to ignore diplomacy in favor of a military solution in the case of a major confrontation.

That confrontation came in the summer of 1914. A minor terrorist event on the periphery of the continent led to a chain reaction of states declaring war on each other. The major Powers all had confidence in their plans to move their enormous armies into position for a quick decisive victory before Christmas. Every Power was sure that they would reap vast rewards with a minimum of sacrifice; all that would be required would be a massive show of strength and, perhaps, a single decisive battle.

All of their plans failed. The logical course would have been to stop at that point and call a peace conference to negotiate their differences. That was not what they did. Every Power, and power, cited their sacrifices so far as a reason for not stopping or negotiating. A negotiated settlement would not gain great enough rewards to pay for the sacrifices thus far suffered. The war went on. As the sacrifices on each side rose, their demands rose faster, so as to justify those sacrifices. The war only ended when one side was unable to continue the escalation of goals.

This hideous game of escalation had two primary results: a massive and unnecessary level of casualties and a deep sense of bitterness over unredeemed losses among even the winners. The Bush administration--and Tony Snow is only the latest heir to this vile message--is trying to foist this murderous attitude off on the American people. They tell us we must stay in Iraq and continue to die or we betray those who have already died. We can't criticize the decision to send more to die or we betray those have answered their duty and faced death. The only answer to past sacrifice is more sacrifice, regardless of the possibilities of success.

The passage of ninety years has not made the lie more true. The idea that only more blood can redeem blood spent was a lie when my grandfather volunteered for the war in 1917. It was a lie before either George Bush was born. It is a lie now. I hope Mrs. Mike Dunford comes home with body and mind intact and I hope the people who took her away from her husband and son suffer nightmares for the rest of their days.

Politicians love to invoke the lessons of history. Those who really understand history should join me in that curse.
The return of Frosty
Remember Frosty Hardison from last week? He's the guy down in Federal Way, just south of Seattle, who objected to An Inconvenient Truth being shown in the schools his kids attend. Hardison objected to the film because it didn't give equal time to his religious view that global warming is the result of God's will that man's reign on Earth end in a fiery holocaust. Three school board members used Hardison's complaint to ram through a requirement for the schools to stop showing the film unless they balance it with equal coverage of the corporate climate skeptic stance. In an case, Hardison's views will remain unrepresented in the Federal Way schools disrict.

Hardison's story was picked up by the Associated Press and widely published and blogged about. The story had three things going in its favor. First, stories about censorship or attempted censorship by school boards usually involve both sides of one of the fundamental divisions in our society. Free speech is not the exclusive property of the Right or Left. Both sides claim to support free speech and both are willing to make an exception to protect people from certain types of speech. The Left's hypersensitivity about identity and politics is more than matched by the Right's hypersensitivity about sex and religion. Everyone has an opinion in these conflicts and their opinions are all the more inflamed when children are involved.

Second, the story involved a celebrity. Yes, the celebrity involved was Al Gore. But, for a man who is universally viewed as boring, Gore stirs amazingly strong feelings in people.

Third, Hardison provided reporters with a dynamite quote:
"Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher," said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old.

Bloggers, myself included, loved picking that statement apart. What does the Al Gore-condom equation mean? Are teachers really the only people who belong in schools? Assuming he really meant teachers and students, what about janitors and cafeteria workers? If former Vice Presidents of the United States have no place in our schools on film, do they have a place in textbooks? And where did he get the figure 14,000 for the age of the Earth? Great stuff.

Hardison is enjoying his moment in the sun and has wasted no time in taking advantage of his fame (or infamy). Last week, he posted a two-page manifesto of his opinions online, and has added to it so that it is now six pages in length. He's also engaged at least on blogger online (and I'm insanely jealous that it wasn't me). Over at The Greenbelt, Hardison introduced himself like this:
Hello all. Frosty E Hardison here. Yeah it’s really ME!

For those of you that have ever spoken to a reporter for and entire 45 minutes, only to have the most controversial things plucked out of the conversation to be published to sell papers? This is what you should expect.

From this introduction, you would think that Hardison's about to claim his ideas were misrepresented by the press. That's not the case at all. The Al Gore-condom equation is clearly something he thinks is clever and is proud of. He repeats it in his manifesto. He also defends the 14,000 year age of the Earth.

Those of us who questioned his figure of 14,000 did so because it is so far out of line with most young Earth creationists. The youngest figure bandied about by YECs is usually Bishop Ussher's date of 4004 BC, which became popular in English Protestant circles in the mid-seventeenth century. Ussher calculated that date by adding up the lives of the patriarchs in Genesis, working through the rest of the history from Jacob to David, and finally matching an event in the Davidic kingdom with a an event that has been dated through other sources.

Bishop Ussher's figure has been unfairly held up to ridicule over the years. As an act of Biblical scholarship, it was an impressive accomplishment. He made no guesses in his work; every year in his count was justified, given the assumption that the Bible was a true and accurate history. Unfortunately, even in Ussher's day, there was evidence that human history required more years than that to act out. In particular, it was known that Egyptian history went back further than the traditional date assigned to the flood.
Allowing that some extra centuries might have gone unmentioned in the Old Testament, some YECs take a safer track of saying the Earth is six to ten thousand years old and not committing themselves to a specific date. This brings us back to the question of Hardison's 14,000-year figure. In both his manifesto and in his comments at The Greenbelt he now appears to answer that question.
On something as simple as the age of the earth? I can do the math, the lineage provided in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 that give the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew recorded Joseph's lineage, while Luke gave the family tree of Mary) places us at what right about 12,000 years today?

Ahhh. He read the New Testament to get the date!! Of course, he's the first person in the history of the world to do that and that's why he is the only one using that figure. I'm a god-hating, liberal secularist, but I own eight Bibles and, what's more, as an intellectual egghead, I can look up a reference. Neither of the genealogies Hardison names mention actual years. They are both of the "Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob" style of genealogy. What's more, using the standard archaeological method of assuming an average of twenty-two years per generation (from birth of parent to birth of heir) the twenty-eight generations from Jesus to David in the Matthew genealogy total 616 years, which is four hundred years shorter than the date usually given in archeology and Biblical tradition. So, if Hardison's only Biblical evidence for his date comes up four hundred years shorter than tradition, where does he get his extra eight thousand years?

Hardison's theology is as bankrupt as his science (as taken on by The Ridger). Still I wish him no ill will. He's having fun with his moment in the sun--and he should. He sounds like a lot of socially conservative libertarians I knew in Alaska. As long as we avoided current events, we were generally able to be loyal friends and good drinking buddies. And we did avoid those things in the name of friendship.

For every god-hating, liberal secularist, like me, who has attacked Hardison, I'm sure an equal number of socially conservative libertarians have written their support. I hope that support doesn't go to his head and they don't convince him to run for office. When I was a bright young thing in Alaska, my political mentor said to me, "Don't run for office unless you are willing to have the entire press corps climb up your ass with a microscope." Even if there is nothing up there for them to find, it won't be comfortable having them look. Stay home with your wife and kids; be content writing cranky letters to the local paper and school board. To those of us who find meaning being gadflies to the powerful, you're already a hero.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I'm published
The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 goes on sale today. This anthology, edited by our friend Bora Zivkovic, AKA Coturnix, was planned to coincide with the first Science Blogging Conference to be held this weekend. It was a heroic undertaking. In the space of a mere three weeks, Bora solicited nominees, recruited judges, collated their results, and gathered edited, print ready copies from all fifty of the authors. He tells me I'm in there somewhere. I must get a copy for my mother. You should get one for yours, too. Coturnix should get some sleep.
Winning hearts and minds
Let's see, we blew Saddam's sons to bits and then displayed the bits on television in violation international law and common decency. We mocked the man himself during his execution and opened the trap door when he was in mid-prayer. Now we have decapitated his brother. Can't we* do anything right.
Iraq hanged two of Saddam Hussein's aides early Monday, and one of the men was decapitated in the process.

The official video of the hangings showed Hussein's half-brother lying headless below the gallows, his severed head several yards away, The Associated Press reported.

Iraqi authorities, eager to prove that the decapitation of Barzan Hassan was an accident, showed the video to a group of journalists, according to a government official.

Regardless of how bad a person he was or what he deserved, civilized states do not dismember their captives. The fact that it was an accident is not going to gain us many points in the hearts and minds of those we are trying to win over our side.


Update: Lovely. Now that I posted about it, I'm getting hits from people Googling around for the Barzan Hassan decapitation video.

* I dump the current US administration and it's best friend and ally, the completely and totally sovereign government of Iraq into the same kettle to form that "we."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Agendas and more agendas
PZ mentioned this story this morning and I made a quick joke in his comments and moved on. Now I've had more time to read the full article and the full silliness of the affair has soaked in.

Between Seattle and Tacoma is the town of Federal Way, a place I rarely think about, except to notice its roadsign as an almost-home marker when returning from Portland. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
This week in Federal Way schools, it got a lot more inconvenient to show one of the top-grossing documentaries in U.S. history, the global-warming alert "An Inconvenient Truth."

After a parent who supports the teaching of creationism and opposes sex education complained about the film, the Federal Way School Board on Tuesday placed what it labeled a moratorium on showing the film.

Let's stop right here. What do creationism and sex education have to do with a film on man-made climate change? Just in case we're tempted to dismiss the connection as something the P-I reporters, Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler, threw in for color, the grumpy parent himself makes the connection.
"Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher," said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old.*

Actually, Al Gore has taught, but let's assume he hasn't and grant Mr. Hardison his point. Only students and teachers have any business being in our schools; all non-teacher people must leave immediately. This group includes janitors, nurses, secretaries, coaches, lunchroom help, security guards, and parents. And, since Al Gore wasn't actually in the Federal Way schools, I suppose Mr. Hardison wants to purge all educational materials of non-teachers. This will get tricky with the history books. I was about to make an assumption that Mr. Hardison will allow an exception to his non-teacher rule for significant historical figures. But, since American vice-presidents aren't suitable, I think that would be an unfounded assumption.

Of course, it's also possible that the whole sex education and condoms thing was just an ill thought out analogy, which Mr. Hardison thought was clever, but which doesn't really have anything to do with his objections to showing the movie. That's not the case with his creationism. Hardison tells us that religion is at the core of his objection.
"The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. ... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD."

It appears that Mr. Hardison has no objection to the idea that we are undergoing a round of rapid climate change, specifically warming, he merely objects to the film's conclusion about the cause of the warming. In his view, the planet is warming up because it is God's will.

Seeing that the schools are selectively representing certain viewpoints and excluding others, the Federal Way school board leapt into action.
School Board members adopted a three-point policy that says teachers who want to show the movie must ensure that a "credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented," that they must get the OK of the principal and the superintendent, and that any teachers who have shown the film must now present an "opposing view."

The requirement to represent another side follows district policy to represent both sides of a controversial issue, board President Ed Barney said.

"What is purported in this movie is, 'This is what is happening. Period. That is fact,' " Barney said.

Students should hear the perspective of global-warming skeptics....

Mr. Hardison's religious viewpoint will still be un-represented, but the marketing message of the energy industry will be represented. It looks like the school board is just using Hardison's complaint to push through an agenda completely different from Hardison's. School board vice-president David Larson hints at that agenda when he suggests how to "balance" Gore and the vast majority of the Earth sciences community.
But Larson pointed out two articles presenting counter-views. One is by journalist and author John Stossel, who writes that many scientists laugh at doomsday predictions by Gore and other environmentalists. Some scientists, Stossel writes, say the result of global warming may be benign.

For those unfamiliar with John Stossel, he's a former consumer advocate turned extreme free-market libertarian. How extreme you may ask. He thinks we should do away with federal certification of drug safety and let the market determine which drugs are safe enough to give our families.

Board vice-president Larson also has an interesting view of the first amendment:
Hardison's e-mail to the School Board prompted board member David Larson to propose the moratorium Tuesday night.

"Somebody could say you're killing free speech, and my retort to them would be we're encouraging free speech," said Larson, a lawyer. "The beauty of our society is we allow debate."

The best way to encourage free speech is to suppress information. The best way allow debate is to require it on any point of view we disagree with. To defeat the enemy, we must become the enemy. We ahve always been at war with Oceania. This guy should get a job in the Bush administration. I wonder if NASA needs another science-illiterate spokesperson.

* The specific number 14,000 raised a few eyebrows over at PZ’s. Most of the young earth creationists we are familiar with choose six to ten thousand years as the age of the Earth. Where did fourteen come from? I have a suggestion.

Fourteen thousand years ago, the last ice age was in full retreat. Maybe Mr. Hardison dates the beginning of the world from the retreat of the ice. This would make sense if his bible is the Elder Edda of Snorri Sturluson. In the Eddic poem Voluspa, we learn that in the beginning the frost giant Ymir was formed in the gap between the realms of Niflheim and Muspelheim. The great cow Audumbla licked away the salty ice to create the first man, Buri. Later Buri and his sons killed Ymir and used his bones to create the Earth on which to live. At the end of time, the gods and giants will battle till each kills his counterpart. Then the Earth will be consumed by fire and sink into the sea, which is not a bad description of what we can expect from continued anthropomorphic climate change.

Update: Mr. Hardison has posted a manifesto of sorts online as a Word document. It's hard to pick just one paragraph to illustrate the flavor of the whole thing, so I recommend reading the entire document. It's only two pages and the best use of your entertainment dollars that you're likely to come across this lunch hour.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Are we losing this war?
Remember the days when we used to kill the number three guy in al Qayda very few weeks? It seems like months since we last killed him. Does this mean we're losing our edge?
I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing
It appears that the second week in January has been declared National Delurking Week*. "Lurkers" is old internet slang for folks who visit a site where commenting is encouraged, but who choose not to join in. They lurk in the background. Most of us are lurkers. Archy averages close to a hundred visits a day, but only about two stop to comment.

Think of this week as one big consumer preference survey. Go to the sites you like and let the proprietors know what you like and what you dislike about their fare (start here). Let us know who you are. What kind of posts do you want to see more? Which posts would you rather never see again? Do you think this whole internet thing is just a fad that has about run its course? What's on your mind?

Remember: if you don't comment, the terrorists win.

* No nation was specified in the declaration, so it must apply to everyone.
Science anthology update
I finished making my picks for the anthology that Coturnix is preparing for the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference. At the same time, the other judges chose one of my posts to be included in the anthology. If that sounds a little cronyish, what I have to say in my defense is that they didn't pick the one I would have. If you want a preview of the volume, the contents are all linked here.

Coturnix is knocking himself out to make the conference a success. I wish I could attend, but I live on the wrong side of the continent. Still, I'll be there in spirit and I'm looking forward to reports from those who do attend.

Friday, January 05, 2007

American justice
On a Thursday night in Ft. Lauderdale last January, three white, teenaged "men" decided to beat up some bums. During a four hour spree, they hospitalized three homeless men, one of whom, Norris Gaynor, a 45 year-old black man, died from his injuries. Fortunately for us, one of the non-fatal beatings was caught by a security camera and broadcast on the news, which resulted in over a hundred identifications of the three teens. The killers were William Ammons, 18, Brian Hooks, 18, and Thomas Daugherty, 17.

Unprovoked assaults of homeless people have been on the rise in recent years. The homeless are perfect bully targets. The essence of bullying is that a person exorcizes their feelings of powerlessness by exercising power over someone even more helpless than the bully. The homeless are near the bottom of the food chain for bullying. Hard or insecure times always bring an increase in bullying, whether in the form of spousal abuse, hate crimes, or plain public rudeness.

Some people, like homeless advocate Michael Stoops, blame the "Bum Fight" series of videos for inspiring a sort of copycat violence. I'll agree with him to a point. I don't think any type of media causes violence--not Goth music, not video games, and not even "Bum Fight" videos. What media can do, however, is suggest directions for the already violently inclined. With out a suggested outlet, these teenaged bullies might have taken their frustration out by pushing around nerds at the mall. The videos, and now word of mouth rumors of bum baiting, suggested a greater thrill, fully adrenalized violence with no fear of repercussion. The homeless don't go to the police and the police don't help them even when they do. In the Ft. Lauderdale killings, local advocates think these teens might have committed other assaults that went uninvestigated because they stopped short of killing someone.

I'll add another factor to videos and an insecure economy to explain why this sort of violence has been on the rise: the general atmosphere of privileged lawlessness that Republican Party has operated under for the last twelve years. The idea that wealth and power entitle one to be exempt from the rules is hardly unique to American Republican Party at this particular point in history. Everywhere and always, the ruling classes have operated under his assumption. But the behavior of the Republican Party over the last few years has been a departure from the general trend of American history, which has been toward greater equality of rights and some sense of shame over flaunting privilege.

The reversal began in the eighties, with the renewed glorification of naked greed and personal selfishness. With the Gingrich revolution, openly rigging the game and grasping power became accepted behavior. Finally, over the last five years, open criminality has been practiced by our "leaders." The Bush administration and the Republican congress didn't even feel they had to hide the fact that they were operating solely to enrich their friends and sell the government to the highest bidder. It's only a small step from unrestrained greed, a lack of consideration for the feelings or rights of others, and a "what are you going to do about it" attitude over financial crimes to literally believing one is entitled to get away with murder. Murder is the logical end result when acquiring and exercising power are seen as desirable ends in themselves.

And this brings us back to the killers of Norris Gaynor. Today the prosecutors in Ft. Lauderdale announced they would not seek the death penalty against any of three.
William Ammons and Brian Hooks, both 19, would have been eligible for the ultimate penalty, but the third defendant was only 17 at the time, so prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty against any of them.

"As a matter of proportion, it would have been improper for the death penalty to be sought," said Brian Cavanagh, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case.

I believe Cavanagh is saying that it wouldn't be fair to execute two of the killers while the third got away with merely rotting in jail for his part in the thrill killing. I'm an unwavering opponent of the death penalty, so I have no desire to see Thomas Daugherty executed along with his confederates. However, I have to wonder about the prosecutors' delicate concern for what's fair to a couple of white, suburban sociopaths. If the tables had been turned, if it had been a couple of black, homeless teenagers who killed a white, suburban man, with no other motive than the thrill of violence, would the prosecutor be as concerned about "proportion?"

Justice, it seems, is an entitlement that varies according to our access to power. Not that that's new.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Slow posting and housekeeping
I tried to keep posting over the holidays, even though no one was around to read it. I figured those who took a break from having an actual life to check on me deserved something to read. Now that people are back, I have to slow down because Coturnix has dragooned me into judging a writing contest. In the meantime, I urge you to read some of the fine bloggers over to the left.

Next week, I'll post the first part of three part mini-series on elephants and pareidolia. I'll also be updating the list on the left (so if you notice any out of date links, I'd be happy to hear of their current homes). And, I have a shiny new nickel for anyone who can help me make my RSS feed work.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Interesting idea
This bears watching.
After more than 200 years of paying taxes, fighting in the nation's wars and abiding by sometimes arbitrary acts of Congress, Washington residents are close to getting a full-fledged representative in the House.

The turning point in this long battle for enfranchisement may be an unlikely partnership with the people of Utah.

The new Democratic majority, in the first months of the new Congress, is expected to take up a bill that would increase the voting membership of the House from 435 to 437, giving new vote each to Utah, a Republican stronghold, and the District of Columbia, dominated by Democrats.


Republicans, after capturing the majority in 1995, were naturally cool to the idea of giving Democrats another sure vote in the House, but it was a Republican, Rep. Tom Davis of Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, who several years ago came up with the link between Utah and the District.

Utah insists that the 2000 census undercounted the state's population because so many of the state's young Mormon men were out of state or out of the country doing missionary work. Utahans said a proper count would have entitled the state to an additional representative, up from the current three.


Earlier this month the Utah legislature, to comply with the Davis-Norton bill, approved a redistricting plan creating three largely Republican districts and one more urban district where Democrats might have a better chance.

I would rather the other Washington became a full-fledged state and also gained two seats in the Senate (Democrats, giving us a Lieberman-proof majority). But this a compromise worth looking at. If I read this right, it should increase the number of electors by one from 538 to 539 eliminating the possibility of a tie in presidential elections. Considering no one seems eager to do anything about finally getting rid of the Electoral College, this would at least constitute a real reform.

If if did become a state, I wonder what they'd call it. A third Columbia in the hemisphere (after British and Shakira's) seems a bit excessive. Besides, do DC'ers call themselves Washingtonians or Columbians? Washington is already taken, but they could call it East Washington. If civic groups get involved, you know they'll come up with inoffensive geographic names like Potomac or Anacostia.

I'm less sure whether or not the plan serious. Is congress really ready to pass something like this, or is this just a futile gesture to appease a valuable constituency, like the culture war amendments that the Republicans regularly propose to stoke the fires of the far right? Let's keep an eye on this one.
We need a new name
On this morning's edition of NBC's Today Show, new host Meredith Vieira and veteran weather reporter Willard Scott demonstrated that neither one of them understands what "global warming" means.
SCOTT: Well, listen are you a globing -- a global-warming fan? Do you believe in global warming?

VIEIRA: I'm not a fan. No. No, sir.

SCOTT: Well --

VIEIRA: But I -- something's going on, 'cause it's warm here.

SCOTT: Well, now, wait a minute -- that's it; it's warm here. From Savannah [Georgia] all the way up to Boston, we're having unheard-of warm weather, but ask the folks out in Denver and Colorado --

VIEIRA: That's so.

SCOTT: -- the coldest winter they've had in years. So it all depends on which side of the Mississippi you're hanging your hat.

This is a perfect example of the problem with the phrase "global warming." People expect the world to get warmer. They expect every day in every place to be little warmer than the same day in the same place last year. That's not how it works.

Weather and climate are very complex systems that accomplish a very simple task: they redistribute air and moisture around the globe. Some moisture evaporates off the ocean and moves inland to create wind and precipitation. Everything else is details.

The power to keep this system going comes from two sources: the rotation of the Earth and energy from the Sun*. The rotation of the Earth doesn't change enough from year to year to matter much and nether does the amount of energy coming from the Sun. But the amount of energy (heat) from the Sun that we keep does change. We do this two ways: by changing the color of the Earth's surface and by changing the composition of the atmosphere. We change the color of the Earth by cutting down forests and building or paving over soil. By making the Earth darker or lighter we change the amount of energy that is absorbed or reflected away. We change the composition of the atmosphere by causing certain gasses to be emitted into the air from power plants, automobiles, and cow butts. Finally, those forests we cut down played an important role in maintaining the composition of the atmosphere; by cutting them down we change that composition. The sum total of all of these changes is that the Earth is keeping more of the energy from the sun than it used to.

While most of this energy is converted into heat, its effect isn't to simply make every spot on the Earth a little warmer than that spot used to be. Remember, weather and climate are nothing more than the redistribution of air and moisture around the globe. If you feed more energy to a car's drive train, it will go faster. If you pack more energy into a stick of explosive, it will explode bigger. If you store more energy in a battery, your pink bunny will play its drum longer. Faster, bigger, longer lasting: that's what all of that extra energy does to our weather.

A system with more energy in it will operate differently than one with less energy. In systems as big and complicated as our weather and climate, the changes could show a great deal of variety. In one place it might be colder. In another place, there might be bigger or more frequent storms. Still other places might become drier, cloudier, or even hotter. The weather might do one thing this year and something completely different next year. We don't know.

The important point is not that we're making the weather warmer; the important point is that we are making it unstable. We don't know what direction it will change for any given point. Over the last 150 years, in historical terms, the weather was unusually stable. During that time, our numbers grew six-fold and we developed a global agricultural system based on a few crops specially bred for high productivity. Those crops can only be grown in very narrowly defined environments. As long as the weather stays within predictable bounds, we can feed the world**. If it changes too quickly, we run the risk of our food supply failing***.

Last August, Pat Robertson announced that the "blistering summer" had overcome his greenhouse skepticism and made a convert out of him. What happens if he gets a little chilly this winter? Will he change his mind back? Vieira and Scott showed that they think global warming is entirely a matter of how warm they are right now. If they're hot; it's real. If they're cold; it's bogus.

This why we need to wean people off the phrase "global warming." It was a useful phrase to get people's attention and to simplify a hard concept, but it was short-sighted. It has become a liability to the ongoing project of educating the public. "Climate change" or "weather instability" are less graphic but more realistic. They're also fairly boring. Any suggestions?

* There's also a tiny bit of heat from inside the Earth and that chaos theory butterfly in Brazil that causes hurricanes, but they fall into the detail category. I'm dealing with the big picture here.

** Global hunger is not caused by a shortage of food; it is caused by poverty and interruptions to the distribution system.

*** There are a lot of things we can do to alleviate that risk, but that's a post for another day.