Monday, April 30, 2007

Who is responsible for Global Warming?

The idea of "carbon offsets" irks me. The idea that creating a market in pollution allowances will have much impact on pollution is a snow job and an escape hatch for industries and consumers who just don't want to do their share. We have had the money to buy oil and burn coal. Now, to repair that, we are going to, (guess what!), yep, buy the oil and the coal and the "credits" invented out of thin air and assigned to someone who pollutes less than we do? In spirit, it appeals to me about as much as the idea that some poor schnook has volunteered to be my carbon whipping boy. Saving the world from overheating is first and foremost a battle to reduce consumption and the fair way to do that would be for every consumer to reduce their consumption.

Its just too simple to do: Less oil burned would be more greenhouse gas reduction. Period. "I can afford not to suffer, I can pay to spare myself any inconvenience." is the simple retort but it is not voiced at an honest volume, not while there are shell games for greenhouse gasses.

The New York Times takes a quick survey of experts on the legitimacy of claimed benefits for the environment and all but calls the whole carbon offsets market a sham. The best quote in the article hits at the heart of why we are stalling: human inertia and the pathetic habit of confusing what you have with what you are.
Michael R. Solomon, the author of “Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being” and a professor at Auburn University, said he was not surprised by the allure of the carbon-offsetting market.
“Consumers are always going to gravitate toward a more parsimonious solution that requires less behavioral change,” he said. “We know that new products or ideas are more likely to be adopted if they don’t require us to alter our routines very much.”
But he said there was danger ahead, “if we become trained to substitute dollars for deeds — kind of an ‘I gave at the office’ prescription for the environment.”
There is not much beside curmudgeonhood that I have in common with Boston Globe Columnist, Alex Beam but when he rails against transferring to others the onus of any task or responsibility we ought to share just because we can afford to, I sympathize. Any solution Milton Friedman would approve of warrants severe scrutiny for its effects on the weakest players in the market, especially when the weakest of those players is actually the weather. The weather will hurt the poorest of us the worst. The people who put the most money in their pocket as a consequence of enabling us all to dirty the skies should not be allowed to buy their way out of the mess using the money we have made...that is potentially a runaway positive feedback of power. Until pollution credits are mandatory and costly enough to be punitive they are a smokescreen for business as usual.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

how to heat your house without heating your planet

The Insufferable Carbon Snob went green on domestic heating decades ago...way back when Jimmy Carter and OPEC in their very different ways, stressed the importance of using less oil.
Greensmile has given you an earful of the financial and moral dimensions to heedless consumption of fossil fuels...plenty of fodder for future posts. But ICS wants you to think about the money today. Abandoning fuelish ways by switching to housing that is better insulated and uses carbon neutral heat sources is only expensive in the short term. Here is one family's response to global warming and peak oil.

If you can't afford to do the right things about energy use, you are in the wrong place.
So quit making excuses 'cause YOUR world is broken and you CAN fix it. To put this haughty bit of moralizing in the economic framework some of you might respond to: If you can't afford to do the right things about energy use now, what makes you think it is going to get easier to afford to shift to greener ways later on? You are adrift and headed for the falls. Unless the energy companies that sponsor the present US administration can be convinced that it is in their interest to do something beside move armies and earth to bring you yet more oil and coal to burn, it will be entirely up to us fat-assed consumers to make the changes.

You may find moralizing on sustainability issues tedious. Too obvious, too self-righteous, so much easier to say than to do...etc. Stow it. I have not yet begun to preach. I may slip into a hortatory tone out of habit now and then but pay it no mind. Today, just keep an eye on your checkbook. Here is one way to keep heating costs down and net carbon emissions low as well.

It took us 17 years to pay off all the mortgages. It would have been longer if the "conventional" heat sources had been used.

Building inspectors are conservative in my experience but the really dangerous discouragement comes from the lenders. They demand a conventional heat source to insure the sale of your house should you fail to make payments. If you take out a construction loan for the building phase, lenders dole the money out according to a fixed sequence of completion steps that may not match the increments of expenditure for a solar heated make up the difference.

About 25 years ago we were ready for a bigger house and could not find a contemporary we liked. We decided to build. The plans began with the idea that we should be able to get most of our heat from the sun. The first thing you do then is site the house with most of its glass facing south and with the greatest thermal mass you can accommodate. Water is superior for this purpose, having a higher specific heat than any common building material. All the better if you can swim in your heat sink once in a while:Facing due west, a view of the glass wall and 50,000 gallons of thermal mass.

To make any design work, you must do a heat budget. Being handy with software, I wrote a program that could estimate the heat lost by various designs and various choices of construction materials. It is essentially a software model of a house based on the blueprints. This allows you to know how big a heat source you will need. My numbers were in the range of 30000 BTU/hr in worst winter conditions. That means a 50000 BTU/hr wood stove will suffice.

Most tables that give a way to compare your heating options only apply to conventional construction so you will have to find one that accounts for the amount of insulation you want to put into your house. The table linked is from a Canadian source and would be appropriate for conventional housing stock, not applicable to super insulated nor to solar heating. Many of the books on designing solar heated houses that I bought were written right after the "oil shock" of 1973. Since then we went back to driving trucks to get our lattes and many of those books never saw a second edition. There are a few attractive new books reviewed at this site but the one with the best table of contents is unknown to Amazon. This book claims to have the software for figuring out if your design will work for solar heating your house but I have not read it. To name one book that I like [it has worked examples for our part of the country]: The Solar Home Book by Bruce Anderson, of which no revisions were made since 1976. The core piece of the design task is to add up the contribution to heat loading for each square foot of your house's surface based on the R-value of the walls, windows, roof etc. and figure out how much sun will come through the windows. Vertical glazing is the simplest and works better than sloped because you don't swelter in the summer. The design we have works at its best when the weather is at its coldest with snow on the deck reflecting additional heat into the house:

The romance goes out of wood heat pretty quickly. Its dirty and it always snows when you need to go out to the woodpile for another load. Its far more work and far better exercise than turning up a thermostat. So I never bought a membership at a gym. It is only when there have been two cloudy days back to back that there is any need for the stove. Here in grinding detail are formulas to compute heating costs for wood and comparisons to oil and electric heat. But the important thing is not how you heat but how much heat you keep. Before you do any other thing to reduce oil consumption, insulate your house well. With R-30 walls and an R-40 roof, just the sun alone warms the air over the pool strongly. We simply open windows between the solarium and the living quarters to let a convection current do what blowers, furnaces and duct work do in our neighbors houses. The picture below shows a pink postit suspended by a thread from the yellow thumbtack wafting in the warm current of air. That crude tell-tale is all the technology we use to control when to open or close "for solar". It is of course an utterly silent means of heating.
The bottom line for us is about $500/yr in delivered cord wood heats our 4000sq ft house where our neighbors are paying about 2000 to $2400 per season for oil depending on how big their house is. The performance of course depends on the sun but it is generally quite gratifying. Our coldest weather is dry and windy and often sunny. Winter days when it is below freezing outside and we wake to a 65 degree house, light no fire and go to bed in a 75 degree house feel like a perpetual bonus.

The carbon we put back in the air came out of the air. In that sense, wood burning is carbon neutral if you don't truck the wood from far away. I get it when building lots are being cleared in my neighborhood and split it by hand so fuel burnt to fetch fuel is at an absolute minimum. We recycle the ashes as a fertilizer ingredient in our compost and as ice-melt on the driveway.

If you own, getting insulation is money well spent. If you can remodel to put larger well insulated windows on the sunny side of your house, it can pay you back nicely. If you are smart or lucky enough to be building now that the deflating housing market has made good carpenters available, you should just say "screw resale value" and build yourself a house you will actually enjoy and feel good about.

If you just talk about global warming and blame everything on Detroit, Exxon and Bush, STFU. Demand better choices and make better choices.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Take Back The Blog

You don't even know for sure if I am a man or a woman.
I am a blogger.
That ought to be enough.
But the same pinched little minds that keep women off the street or out of the office want them off the Internet...for no better reason than that they are women
I am supporting Take Back The Blog.

Feat of Clay

The closest I come to idolizing any person is generally a pretty tepid endorsement. These persons tend to be intellectual rock stars of the day, authors or scientists...and lately, a blogger or two. And my "reasons" for the not entirely reasonable adulation are of two sorts. Either there was selflessness and courage shown in putting forth their ideas in spite of convention and censorship or they really made me think. Making me think is not hard, I do it all the time if only in shallow ways on a bewildering menagerie of topics. But when there is, to me, a new idea or new information on an interest of mine, I am grateful for the stimulation. When diverse topics are pulled together, it delights me. That is how Thomas L Friedman got on my list of favorites: I know how much education played a part in the financial well being and interesting work I now enjoy and I know the small and individual stories of our educations somehow grow out of policies and priorities set by states and cities but come to work as important forces in the economic well being of entire nations. I appreciated his feat of always knitting those threads together for readers.

An op-ed piece of Friedman's in the New York Times this morning titled China needs an Einstein, so do we for which I have the cookie and you probably do not, goes on in the following fashion about Isaacson's new biography of Einstein:
“The whole theme of the last century, and of Einstein’s life,” Mr. Isaacson said in an interview, “is about people who fled oppression in order to go places to think and express themselves. Einstein runs away from the rote learning and authoritarianism of Germany as a teenager in the 1890s and goes to Italy and Switzerland. And then he flees Hitler to come to America, where he resists both McCarthyism and Stalinism because he believes that the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nurture free thought — rebellious free thought.”

In the simplifying and optimistic sweep of Mr. Friedman's theme here, I am now hearing a flip side of Dubya's moronic "they hate us for our freedom". Friedman seems to say Fortune has smiled on us and raised our IQs and incomes because it loves our freedom. I do not think that is an entirely wrong appreciation of the advantages of the nation we aspire to be. But it is an oversimplification that might keep us from addressing the gaps between reality and aspiration.

Have I put words in Mr Friedman's mouth here? That may be, but consider the facts that are glossed over in the article.
  • Einstein wound up in Italy while still in school because his father's business failed and the family moved to Italy where the father took up the management of a factory for electrical machinery. He did not personally run away to Italy, no matter how ill-suited to the stifling German educational model his temperament may have been.
  • By the time Hitler drove Einstein and many other intellectuals from Europe to America, Einstein's great creative works were ten years in the past. He actually produced his first brilliant work while marking time in a Swiss patent office because he could not get a teaching position in universities. That ostracizing of an already renowned intellect would have been the observation for Friedman to hang his theme on.
  • He renounced his German citizen ship to avoid the draft. Had he been a young man in America in the late 1960's, we might be writing about a Canadian citizen. That would not suit Friedman's argument at all.
  • He was in and out of half a dozen European universities from 1908 onward and would do his greatest research before finally settling in Germany where he was not exactly the anti-establishment. As a professor at the University of Berlin and a director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics until 1932, many of his papers were not circulated outside of Germany and its WWI allies.

Let us hope China has all its wars with other nations, cold or not, behind it. If so, the kinds of military and world political pressures that kept some of Einstein's work out of the hands of the world science community are not in effect there. Mrs Greensmile gives India better odds of having the next Einstein and the next Silicon Valley. I never bet against Mrs. Greensmile.

Freedom, its just not that simple.

The rest of Mr. Friedman's piece is devoted to his concern that where the Chinese snuff out imagination in some vague way via political supression of dissent, there is some incompetance or lack in the usual treatments of science in American schools which likewise kill scientific imagination. Says Mr. Friedman:
My favorite Einstein quotation is that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” A society that restricts imagination is unlikely to produce many Einsteins — no matter how many educated people it has.
After reading one of Coturnix posts on what an education he got in Serbia, I would agree strongly with Friedman that our system and its expectations are a crushing let-down. But Friedman just quits his essay at that quote. Left at "imagination is more important than knowledge", you could as well be talking about why fundamentalism is granted equal intellectual respect in discourse on law and national educational policy. There is no war between imagination and knowledge folks and it is the ways we team the two that make progress in science.

Imagination, its just not that simple.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Science Fried days, hope and hype edition

One thing you learn from turning over all the rocks: the science and the reporting of science are two very different enterprises. I really wonder why one particular, and not terribly emphatic "result" was lifted from the obscure ACS Journal on Toxicology to the attention of the Washed-up Times readers.

The Washington Times is NOT where you go to read solid science reporting.
So here is a mystery: why do press releases or citations to Washed-up Times occupy the first page of Google hits when you search for the author of the paper mentioned in this story in ScienceDaily copied from UPI?
Neither ScienceDaily nor WT mention which science journal published the study. My first suspicion is that Pharma industry lobby who help fund work at the lab where Joshua Lambert works are not the best friends of the nutritional supplement industry, a less trusted, tested and financially intensive industry and are not above buying a little bad news for the herbal remedy salesmen. But this Rutgers lab looks like its on the up and up as far as its sponsor list is concerned. So I dug further to see if Lambert himself had done any other respected work. This publication for the nutrition supplement industry has its biases and found a rebutter for the results. But they do cite the actual article, which is in a perfectly respectable journal:
Chemical Research in Toxicology
2007, Volume 20, Pages 583-585
"Possible controversy over dietary polyphenols: Benefits vs risks"
Authors: J. Lambert, S. Sang and C.S. Yang

Articles generally favorable to use of compounds naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables are in that same journal issue, as well as the details of some dangerous and misused herbal supplements. When you read the article itself, its a review of previous studies of polyphenals and a report of investigations that hint at dose-dependent oxidative effects of certain polyphenals. The oxidative effects aren't necessarily bad since one of their results is killing cancer cells and, ironically, addition of the once-touted anti-oxidant superoxidedismutase [SOD] to the cultures inhibited this beneficial oxidation. This is hardly what one could call a clear picture though the tone of caution on using supplements is warranted. The results are heavily qualified and its conclusions a mild "further study is needed":
Herein, we will review the available data on the toxic potential of polyphenols as a prototypical class of dietary phytochemicals. As specific examples, we will discuss the prooxidative vs antioxidant potentials of tea catechins, the hepatic and intestinal toxicities of high doses of tea catechins, and the potential DNA damaging.... More in-depth studies on the potential adverse effects of dietary phytochemicals are required in order to assess the potential toxicities and to determine their potential usefulness as disease preventive and treatment agents.
What does Rev. Moon have against green tea anyway?

That is why I quit reading science news from anything but the original publications. You always have to be a little skeptical but when you go straight to the journals themselves, you get to be the first kid on the blog to see a really cool result like this detection of highly correlated genes involved in schizophrenia. These findings in the genes fit with tantalizing hints about connections to autoimmune diseases found by completely different methods of research into schizophrenia.

Fried Days News

I am still paying for this newspaper. The polling booths are closed but a blogger can always cast his vote for or against the news. My short takes on the Times:

If there is a race to find patentable diabetes cures, who is loosing?

Note and enjoy: lots of people in the streets is a very upsetting thing to the conservative mind. The rallying locations have been picked out already, and the call-trees parcelled out. When the call comes to go down to the streets to protest the PotUS's disdain for the will of the people whom he claims to serve, GO! MoveOn and many other activist organizations have done the planning and it will be up to you to make a show of support: it WILL make a difference.

Reading Douglas Adams' Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy should be mandatory for all residents of the five Burroughs:
“When I heard ‘don’t panic,’ I panicked,” said Ms. Sloley, who spent several hours on the sidewalk in a line of displaced residents.

Good ol' Texas: proving once again that it is never too late to do the wrong thing for women's health.

Afghanistan had nowhere to go but up Once the Murkin Talibangelists are sidelined, maybe the "richest nation on earth" can move out of its middle of the pack [twice as deadly a place to be born as, say, Hong Kong] ranking and join Afghanistan as one of the countries with an improving IMR.
[note: in checking the facts, every last document I found on these statistics is a damning comment on social inequalities in the US.]

If you watched Frontline, or read Richard Clarke, you would remember Tenet as an individual too conflicted to be in charge of what is one of the most sensitive and should be the most objective agency in the government. There are instances past counting to prove that one gets fired for telling the cheneypuppets to back off or even for just ignoring them and telling the truth. But that is the only moral course one could take. I would tell George "Its too late to grow a conscience. People have died. You are gonna make money on a CYA book about the CIA. Why don't you give the profits to build orphanages in Iraq or fix up long term care VA facilities?"

Thursday, April 26, 2007

How to succeed in blogging without really caring

[This may be the only post I ever wrote with MBAs in mind]
Here, in only a vaguely sorted and orderly array are a set of things to think about if you plan to be the next Atrios or start the next Pandagon.

You Don't need the Venture Capital Arianna Huffington has at her disposal to pull this off but you need something even harder to come by this late in the land rush: a new angle and a demographic that has not yet found its own voice. The formulaic way to do this is to identify a group that is self selected by their feeling of anger toward group P or issue Q. Perceived powerlessness is a sure fire fountain of angers. It helps insure heightened interest if you choose your P's and Q's from the set of matters that do not have simple, politely definitive and universal consensus positions. Sex, religion and politics were the P's and Q's our parents used to advise us to avoid. But in the era of Rhetoric 2.0 and anonymous communication and confrontation by proxy, the hotter the better. DO consider what use your demographic makes of the web. For instance, while centenarians are a new and rapidly growing demo, few of them are on the web.

It will be hard to single handedly write half a dozen good posts per day...sharing the revenue is a zero sum process but enraged/engaged readers will visit several times a day if the content is ever fresh. That is not linear. Hosting costs are the most predictable if you pay nothing [] or $5/month [ e.g.] and least predictable if you roll your own [backups and service contracts and the fading neutrality of the net are NOT your friends]. The equation to solve, from a financial perspective, includes the empirically obtained H=Hits-Per-Day-Per-Post and a conservative productivity estimation of A=Average-Posts-Per-Day-Per-Blog-Author. Due to the bandwidth of the consumer there is an upper bound or a point of diminishing returns for adding yet more authors: just ask the big print media houses if you don't think that is so. If you are only in it for the money, consider working at a carwash. Part time. Buy the right domain even if you use Blogger or other free tool/host arrangements. Open source tools like Drupal can cut your entry costs down to the price of two server-grade PCs and a contract for a business Internet connection if Blogger is not customizable enough for your tastes. Spend a week with a book on CSS and HTML and you can probably knock together a free blog that has a signature logo and color scheme. When you have taken off into the 10000 hits per day stratosphere where it is hard to get hosted for zero bucks, you can pay a web designer to apply your signature features to your new home with your old domain if you don't have the chops or think Flash would make your pages .ORGasmic. If you know what the hooks are for your demographic, use them in a few one-week or one-month spots on the highest traffic sites that you can afford and that overlap in readership with the group whose interest and loyalty you hope to attract.

Choose your blog authors carefully and set up the teaming arrangements clearly: there must be a clear decision process, be it one honcho or something more collaborative, for deciding what is and what is not consistent with the issues list, the voice and the attitude of the blog: you have to have some consistency or you have no clear product and consequently very little audience retention. You are, in effect, making a brand name for a certain timbre of outrage on a certain selection of issues that you think will appeal to some under served demographic. Your writers must be expressive, concise, very good in an argument and truly "get it" about their issues...that means get it on both an intuitive level and the more academic way of knowing well the current literature, the important players and the back stories on their topics...its a lot like being a good reporter combined with being a sharp but not abusive editorial columnist. No accident that journalism majors and English majors have a leg up when they start and are well represented in the ranks of bloggers. Most likely there will be some big egos. The candidates with the most relevant experience and visibility may bring readers from their personal blogging or a previous stint. When they have the goods you want, they will have baggage too. Don't just survey the posts of a prospective blog mate, dig up their comments: do they tend to lose their cool? Unless parody or humor is their only shtick and the reason to take them on, are they basically self confident and intellectually honest? Deficiencies in these areas will be pounced upon by readers because the readers are also writers if your blog is succeeding.

There is a critical mass or "the rich get richer" sort of phenomenon that is hard to break through. It may be so psychically taxing on a good writer with a good idea making little headway in the race for readers that it is their strongest reason to write as a contributor on some other blog that has gotten onto this high ground. Readers sometimes RTFP clear through but often, especially for a familiar news item and a familiar writer, they skim and then look for a chance to one-up the last commenter or polish some point they think relevant. And sometimes they just want to say "me too!" All of that is entirely normal and what tends to make a loosely bonded community out of an audience. But the one thing you can count on them reading is anything they themselves wrote or which anyone else wrote in response. The end result of all this is reading frenzies in the comment section of some posts: people want to go where the action is and trade words with the smart people about the important causes. A frenzy in one place leaves a silence somewhere else. That differential in traffic is a herd phenomenon and not always proportional to the difference in quality or relevance in the writing. I know of no sure fire cure for that problem. But you can always make it worse by ignoring the commenters you do get.

Each writer will have their own "process" but for the blog to have some kind of stylistic cohesion that promotes reader recognition of a "product-like" consistency, some guidelines may need to be set. For instance, there may be a daily quota on "oddball human interest" posts. Scouring the entire web, tedious and not entirely automatable, is one of the best foundations of a writer's process: the more common sources of interesting news are already under your reader's bookmarks. The touch that the most popular writers appear to have is an ability to capture, harness and project anger without too much damage to logical thinking. It is a sign of some success if the members of the offensive group P stray onto a blogger's turf and think they are "hated". Mistaking anger for hate is the mark of one who does not "get it" and the fans pile on. Its not a pretty pattern but it generates clicks quite reliably. The process that is easy to do badly and a hackneyed yet successful formula is to be the first blogger of the day to come across some fresh outrage from a big mouthed member of group P or an insider report of the government's latest mendacious butchering of issue Q and write a few tart witness-leading sentences or turn the matter in an unusual light for a few paragraphs and let the fans tear into it for the rest of the day. Once posted, comments can be steered back onto topic and party lines on the issues can be illuminated by remarks from the author or others. Anger sells. It sells better to the right wing if fully formed in the mouth of the author. On the left just give'em the ball, they know how to kick. But it sells well on just about any turf.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In the Spring, an old man's fancy lightly turns... compost.

If Tennyson asks for an apology, I'll give him one.
Like the fly, fallen leaves are among the creator's more dubious achievements. They are mobile dirt. They annoy us with perpetual work of the sort advertisers assure us we are too busy and too noble to do. But all such built in annoyances should be weighed on a scale of wholeness where decay answers growth as two dancers answer each other's every move. It was on that scale that creation worked itself out. Here is a little photo essay the Insufferable Carbon Snob put together to help you get over any silly preference you may have for using garbage disposals. The carbon can circle from garden to table to compost and back for ever. Your little job is just to keep "for ever" on the tracks and moving.

If you live in an apartment, and don't grow any house plants you may be excused. That should not discourage you from gardening at one of the shared gardening sites that many towns offer. At such community gardens, composting is encouraged. I have seen them in Boston and in many of its woodsier suburbs so don't be surprised if you have been missing the opportunity to do something with your leftovers and scraps beside burden the sewage treatment facilities.

If you have a back yard of any size at all and you are not growing things, consider moving in with the folks in the paragraph above. Let someone sequester a little carbon since you are wasting the opportunity.

If you don't discharge your waste water to the town sewage but rather your own septic system, all the more financial incentive to compost. We have the sceptic pumped every 6 years instead of every two and it is in perfect working order.

If you are still with me, the rest is simple. Get a bucket that seals, opens with one finger and holds about a gallon of slop. That provides for a weeks worth of cooking, is easy enough to use that it will get used and it won't stink you out of the kitchen. That is stage one. About once a week you will be going to your compost bin or to an intermediary stage. The picture here is my stage one and a stage two, anaerobic, bucket to which I am dumping the weeks slops. I always stir the bucket when a new batch comes from the kitchen and I don't drain off liquids like coffee or turkey all adds to the sewagey consistency and keeps out the air.

Anaerobic decomposition is a vile smelling process, more or less like a sceptic system. I use about eight or ten 5-gallon buckets with air tight lids. This lets me put an entire winters worth of slops to work fermenting while my stage three compost bins are frozen solid. These are just reused buckets from when I seal coated my driveway but you can buy such buckets if none are laying around loose behind the local restaurants or paint shops.

Once in the spring and once in the fall, I lug the whole collection of buckets to the real composting operation in the far back corner of the lot. There are two composters here, one that lets rain in.

And one that runs kinda dry.Then there is a sequence of operations
  1. Unload most of the compost from the dry bin and screen it into mortar tubs or a wheel barrow: this is the end product and as good as you'd buy from a gardening store. It does tend to grow volunteer tomatoes at a furious pace but that may not be a bad thing.
  2. transfer last seasons material from the wet bin to the dry bin leaving a little material as a "starter culture". This is similar to some sourdough baking techniques.
  3. add about three quarters of the rotten slops to the dry bin and mix thoroughly
  4. In the wetter bin, a mix of leaves, the rest of the putrid buckets of kitchen waste and some ashes from the wood stove [we will get to heating in a later post]. The ashes balance the low pH of the oak leaves.
It works. I enrich the rocky sandy glacial til we call dirt with that finished compost and grow enough tomatoes, basil and other herbs to keep us in salads from late July until first frost. The flower beds do well also but I hate having to pluck out all the cantaloupe sprouts.

I didn't start out with this composting religion. I learned it from my daughter. It is odd how satisfying this "chore" is to me.

Natural history

ETBNC is one of my most thoughtful commenters. Almost a year ago, we exchanged a few comments and in the process, he made me realize that while capital H History [what arrogance!] may not be over, natural history is.
Natural history ends when you have a predator that can just keep switching prey as it wipes out one thing after another. That ability to switch, more or less unprecedented in the history of the world, spells the end of natural history. We take a piece of ground and we don't move on until nothing will grow there and nothing to eat lives there any more.
Any natural predator comes into balance with its prey or perishes when it has eaten is food source into extinction. Its a good rule not to break. We broke it.

My personal fear, one I apparently share with a growing minority in this nation, is that we may have broken more than we can fix. We seem, for the first time in American History to have a slight PR edge and growing though minor demographic to employ against the flat earth wasters. My own shortcomings with regard to my ecological foot print I will leave to the Insufferable Carbon Snob to confess. There will be a confused and self contradictory series of posts from the ICS...we who have lived well must, of necessity, be more than a little conflicted about living within the means of what would be our share of the planet, were any environmental justice or equality to suddenly break out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

strangers in a strange land

I have a solution to the unpredictable eruptions of violence by loners. It is at least as implementable as either taking every one's guns away or arming everyone with a working trigger finger. That is not saying much since neither works. Besides, since you will probably never meet me face to face and I blog anonymously, hypocrisy is an easy charge to lay on me here. Let me call my quixotic notion a suggestion. Suggestions that we could do better, in an ethical sense, than we commonly do are generally the stuff of sermons but at least its not politics. It won't require government to do or not do anything and only a slight change in our own culture and personalities. It is both faith-based and psychologically based so who could say they should not at least give it a try?

As truth is an early casualty of war, ( dying, in the case of the Republican war on Iraqis before the first shot was fired), so too our sense of proportion is an early casualty when wanton impersonal murder of innocent people rends a community. That is the objective of the terrorist: to alter a balance of power by distorting the judgement of the public. The April 16 killings in Blacksburg VA are crazy and unexpected but seven times as many innocent civilians met equally horrible deaths in the market places of Baghdad in the same day. More than damage to our sense of proportionality of which scales of death and risk are worse, both kinds of carnage share other characteristics. Wanting vengeance but feeling powerless to try other means, sneaking bombs among the innocent is how Iraqis seek to remove a threat by dissolving a pluralistic society and frustrating the Americans whose power is now invested in the tattered symbolic democratic unity of the country. Violence in Iraq is increasing in a deadly spiral of reprisal between rival sects. Wanting vengeance and powerless to get in touch with any means but killing, Cho's act of terror changes little because it was for a benefit that was pointless outside of his own mind. Acts of terror are impersonal. But they kill persons and always have horrific personal impacts that spatter more than blood on the bystanders. Killing strangers is apparently easy to us in certain states of mind. I will propose that we do something radical but harmless and unconstraining: get rid of strangers in a far better way than killing them.

All the good of any religion that ever soaked through my thick skull got there as a result of years of mostly congenial and at times wide ranging studies of the texts. But always, face to face study: we were swapping and alloying values faster than flowers are trading pollen. It was in such study that I became acquainted with the bible fact that the most repeated injunction in the Hebrew bible, stated 36 different places, is to not oppress the stranger. One of the most sensible tools of exegesis I was exposed to was that the more something is repeated in the text, the more attention one should pay to it. By that argument, "do not oppress the stranger" deserves at least as much prominence as the Decalogue.

Here's where it gets radical. We could interpret "do not oppress the stranger", which all history shows to be a commandment beyond typical human behavior, as "do not let any person among you remain a stranger".

Better than gun control or mind control, might be an effort to take that commandment a step beyond: if we can overcome our own self absorbed business and xenophobia and just watch our neighbors and stay in better contact with them, we might rescue some of them from the loneliness in which they stew. I have serious reservations of stating the suggestion in the negative or fear-based form: "You don't know who's going postal next unless you chat attentively with everyone you run into". That feels like an admission that we failed already and need to cover ourselves. If the intent is negative, the outcome will not be as good. I am after prevention, not remediation. We don't need to be shrinks, we just need to be better human beings. We won't salvage everyone but we might rescue a little of
their self esteem at no cost to our own and make sure the people who need help become known and get that help. Trying that couldn't hurt and it might save a few people from killing themselves too. While the deep isolation in which Cho lived would challenge a mental health professional, many suicidal persons develop a relationship to society that is similarly alienated though not to such a degree. Far more that 32 college kids take their own lives each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.

Your inward groans of protest are audible to me. "We don't get in peoples face's, especially not violent losers!" I tell you to examine your need to see losers: even if someone is not operating as lucidly and adeptly as you, almost everyone has some gift to show. Where you need to see a loser, you will cast someone in that role. "We were all brought up not to talk to strangers!", you say "It avoids conflict and danger." I tell you every last one of you was born a stranger and nothing but care saved you. Pay it back. In response to "change in our own personalities", I hear you some of you smugly say "You can't change people". I agree. They change themselves. With opponents and tormentors, they change for the worse, with friends, they change for the better. Chicken and egg arguments about the social feedback that dooms awkward souls to be ostracized are a tacit admission that we lack the nerve or kindness to be the first to offer our hand or to persist when it is not taken.

Turn xenophobia inside out. Let no one among you be a stranger. Alienation is a two way street: the crowd often does as much to "other" the loner as the loner does to the crowd.

That concludes my suggestion. Masochists may read on.

There is a kind of alienation that I find particularly appalling. It does not have a name as far as I know so I will call it "Religion without humanity" though that is its effect and its cause is more like "Religion without community". I want to look into a few cases of homegrown US terrorism, many already categorized as "Christian terrorists" to see how things might have been different if a "leave no stranger alone" ethic were the norm.

I am sure that the number of Christians who really should be made to answer in front of a crowd, "what clinic would Jesus bomb?" is a small percentage. Maybe they are just the back row of pews at the fundamentalist churches. Maybe they use the label Christian and rarely set foot in a church. Maybe they have their own Church of the Fringe. And for the rest, the question is an irreverent taunt and an aggravation they have done nothing to deserve. Big tents, as I have said before, wind up including the freak show along with the best of the stunning athletics and daring. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolf and James Kopp seem in fact to be only peripherally involved in their religions, remotely assuming and modeling the authority as the Army of God supporters, Rev. Bray and William Donahue project it rather than spending regular time in the pews and bible studies finding out what all the supposedly ancient and inspired words mean to their coreligionists. These loners use the words and the causes but lack even a trace of the compassion those religions claim to preach. As those Army of God quotes show, the sacred writings supply plenty of verbal cover for the conscience of assassins and mass murderers. In fact, the bible can be quote mined for whole pages of persecution imagery, misogyny, genocidal violence and fratricidal abuse. Cho, who was actually quite angry at organized religion along with much else, still responds by picking up the words and imagery
"Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and impaled upon the cross? Thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenceless people,''

Only adults should ever study such dangerous stuff. Studying alone or just hearing the words on the radio is clearly a way toward twisted and unchecked interpretations. The unhinged can dip in to those words without a minute of ethical training or serious conversation with another person on what those words should mean in modern practice. Abetting the unhinged, there are the disturbed ignorant whose sociopathy extends only as far as talking up the fantasy of violence but, fortunately, not acting out their unschooled and unbalanced use of the "word of god".

Mass killings in religious contexts have other examples. Jonestown intrigues because while the community was presumably face to face with each other and in dialogue with itself, it was a cult and collectively isolated from the larger society. Could one outsider have tried to befriend a cult member and see what they were feeling? This is a problematical case for my suggestion.
The first killing that I remembered in the wake of the VT shootings was Charles Roberts attempting to kill all the girls at an Amish school. Among the little he had let be known was that he was mad at god. His past was not known and only came out in days before the killings. What if he had had some opportunity to unburden himself before he snapped? I am still struck by the amazing composure of the Amish community in dealing with that loss...there, finally, is the good of religion at work. I consider it no accident that the Amish live in a way that obliges most communication to be literally face to face. They have depression in their community as any community does and deal with it enough to even have a phrase for its presence:"Siss im blut". Roberts was not Amish.

Of course, there are a larger number of people who winnow the good from the good book and sometimes even manage to live up to the better insights we find there...I include myself and a few of my blogging friends in that number. We should not lose the good ideas that history has stored up just because they got warehoused with the bad. If you want to ignore that history for a fresh start and work up your own commandments from first principles you won't do any worse than the worst that has been done so far. The wrestling with the old words, if done in good company, is ultimately moderns picking and choosing by their own criteria...not a morally superior process to first-principle ethics and certainly, as the fundies would say [based on their interpretation that The Word is not to be interpreted] illegitimately placing ourselves above the texts. That wrestling is a great exercise but it takes time and requires companionship, fellows to study with and bounce your interpretations against. So there are plenty of good guys and I don't mean to slight them by not listing them all. I link a few of the bad guys as a reminder to those who refuse to admit they are the other face of religion in America and can't understand where reactions against the entire enterprise of religion are coming from. Good cop/bad cop stories are always about two methods used or at least intended toward the same good end, operating in the same framework. I want to suggest the schizophrenia of religion in America is not really about two ways of doing the same worship. It is not for me to sort out but it if it does not get sorted out, religion's leakage into American politics, such as this Creep Republic discussion, will leave permanent stains on both politics and religion. Despite this post looking like a swipe at religion, it is anything but. I want you to consider the possibility that the schizophrenic presentations of religion in America can better be understood as one label carelessly applied to two very different ethics:
  • openly and personally deliberated search for the roots of decency
  • drive-by appropriation of old words for old hatreds and fears, personal and collective.

The right ignores at least as much bible as the left. But on the left, the people do not ignore each other. Any "faith" that eventually requires one to chose between abandoning a belief or abandoning their reluctance to kill their neighbor needs to have its head examined.

[I wonder if the Amish mind me categorizing them as liberals?]

Monday, April 23, 2007

Not just one day a year

Except a few astronauts, most of you live on this earth 365 days a year.

The alternative to living sustainably is what?

My other car is also a bike.

Another thought on truth and beauty

Cognitive science has found that intuition passes for thought even when the thinking is done to weigh moral choices of great import. Aesthetic judgements, even the trained and reasoned findings of art historians and music critics, sometimes seem arbitrary to my farm boy tastes. Now I see that arbitrariness as inevitable and not to be attributed entirely to schools of thought or institutions but more to the formative circumstances which incline one toward this school of thought or that. That is to say, as I often do, we hardly know where our "reasoning" comes from and ought to be much more deliberate and communal in coming up with our endorsed findings [thank god for juries?]. In a disagreement over whether Picasso paintings are universally stirring things to behold or whether that other Austrian Arnold produced grating impenetrable music, you can just walk away from the contentiousness with a shrug: "there is no accounting for taste".

Keats deeply believed in the immortality of the pattern, the threads of longing that run uninterrupted through the sequence of chopped off lives since before that urn was fired. So do I, in a way. What he deeply believed became, for him, synonymous with beauty.

We may think our science seems to bear on these matters when we understand that thread as the twining of gene and culture. Still, if there is comfort in the perception of pattern, the comfort of it comes from an intuitive spot, a "belief" that that cycle of longing is in us, IS us, is how we connect to all time outside our finite selves. I may only speak for myself but that is my view of the conditions from which the sensed meanings of our lives arise. And it is necessarily the case that coming to this admittedly intuitive understanding of all these deep currents we sense first and explain later as perhaps only the workings of gene and culture, we have not thereby reduced their "beauty". We have not reduced the reality of the passions with which we follow out these faint guidelines of fate, or the awe they may strike in us as the patterns spring into consciousness gathered from scattered experiences.

It might more simply be that beauty is our name for the sensation that arises when the deepest patterns we hold in us are confirmed by a painting, a piece of music or even a sermon. In a way, physical beauty, such as the face or figure of a beautiful woman is also the apprehension of unusually pure examples of patterns. When they deserve their category of special respect, sermons have earned it for being representative of an entire scheme of beliefs and perhaps for coupling values to actions and expectations.

The patterns we carry within us need not reflect any objective reality. They come by sundry means to be within us: by wiring or upbringing, observing nature or even from reading blogs. But we scan constantly and detect matches with little conscious effort. When the match is found, the beauty is noted. Belief has too much to struggle against if it is contrary to basic observable elements and facts. But patterns and rules that we believe in, especially those allowing exceptions, can be profoundly resistant to disproof and will persist as the organizing principle of our experience, the way to find whats right out of so much that is wrong. I recently opined that it must be very difficult to create a beautiful lie. That was an incomplete thought. Beauty can be seen where the pattern is only hoped for and the evidence, in an objective sense, is missing. In this sense, I consider religion to be a beautiful lie.

I will accept the sloppy way in which we grasp for the root of motivation. The hunger for "whys" is universal and will be satisfied even if it has to eat the empty box. I will not demand that we all prove or compute, with the rigor of Russell and Whitehead, the schemes of belief we claim: so long as we actually live by our preachings, their viability is soon tested.

Why can we not admit that much of what we dispute and defend about one or the other forms of deity that some people espouse are also arbitrary, intuitive and primarily the result of which household we happen to grow up in? What makes this such a sore topic? Why do we deal with religion as if, unlike so much else about which we disagree, it could only have one right answer? If I grew up eating peanut butter sandwiches and you ate only bologna, we could each try a bite of the other's lunch, expecting to change no preferences but to widen understandings. What puts it in our heads that our sandwich is cosmic and the other guy's is store bought? It is unfortunate that there are categories of belief that hold themselves to be worthless if they are not considered absolutely true, more "true" than rules of math or laws of physics. Tolerance is all that will save people on either side of such beliefs. The fear of worthlessness fuels intolerance.

To say your religious beliefs are rationalized intuition is not to say they are less valuable guidance than my scientifically informed world view. PZ Myers, among a few others, makes the argument that the non-believers give too much deference to the believers. I probably stepped on enough toes already but I do want to be clear that my own lack of certainty and my pragmatism caution me that anyone who is doing at least as much good for their town and country as I am is not to be questioned but to be sought as a confederate. My scale of "good" being all I can use to make that determination, no further questioning is needed.

Religious scales of goodness may be fine inside ones own head. But the rest of us lack access there so let the scale of goodness be communal. Ever since the idea of the social contract was put before us, there has been a fitful trend to codify "good" as some blend of the greatest good for the majority and stopping short of harm to the minority. Always an imperfect blend in a pluralistic world, the progress of its formulation in America has been brought to a halt, even reversed lately. I am not a person without faith. One of the beautiful patterns I dream may yet be realized is that the progress toward a more whole and beneficent society will resume when all of the personal and denominational scales of goodness weld together in all the matters where they find common tenets of altruism and compatible views on which ways individuals are responsible for each other and their community. That there IS a pattern has been obscured because we have lived for over a decade under media siege from the neocons promoting the views that only divisive matters, such as abortion and gay marriage should be emphasized. They have, in effect, told us that tolerance and common ground are the ugly lie. Its past time for that disservice of the conservatives to be done away with. Even the confrontational atheism of a PZ Meyers would work better within the "lets work together" paradigm I hope for: he has not been battling to teach evolution in church but only that church teachings not be forced upon his biology teaching. Tolerance takes place at the boundaries of belief, battles occur when invasions are attempted. The pattern of cooperating scales of goodness that looks so beautiful to me is one played out at the boundaries of belief communities.

This post marks no intent to change minds on matters of belief but rather is my statement of protest that, since minds will not be changed and outside of the cases we each state for our own belief, there is no generally accepted super-case to recommend one over the other, we ought to just let it be. There is work to do. The world is a place full of hurt and want. There is a super-case for our putting aside arbitrary differences and fixing up our neighborhoods, our wells, our glaciers, for cleaning our oceans and air, for preventing disease, for seeking the population levels whereby we could all live within our means and within our borders....and only after all that, will I try a bite of your sandwich.

This post is linked among some very interesting writing in the 65th Carnival of the Godless at Klaasacts.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Can we recall Bush?

For some lower elected offices, the voters who put the jerk in office can have a recall vote and kick him out.

Of course Gonzo can't recall Bush, or anything. His Alzheimer's is more advanced than Reagan's was at the Iran Contra deposition. And he looks so young, what a shame.

I must be the hundredth liberal blogger to have complained about Gonzales amazing inability to remember what he does for a living. Why add my post to the chorus of cat calls? Because there are the telling little bits of news, the sense that the sharks in the pool all just turned to see where the scent of blood is coming from. My local CW station is not deep or astute in its 10:00 O'clock news political coverage but tonight they picked up a rather sharp Candy Crowley video clip from CNN in which various protesters at Gonzales testimony counted and held up score cards for each time he said he did not recall...your four year old with the chocolate all over his face saying he did not get into the candy would have been about as convincing. The segment also put in some of Jon Stewart's best cuts. To have my local station playing ridicule-by-quote as news is refreshing and the most accurate thing they have done in a while...and THAT is news.

Gonzo is toast and there are only two or three people on the planet stupid enough not to know it. One of those would be the aphasic in chief. You recall who he is. Would you like to recall him now? Gonzo is small potatoes and too much of the administrations sins against democracy will seem expiated by the AG's dismissal. Bush incompetence in hiring is on display here and we won't really fix it by unhiring Gonzo, we should just end the reign of incompetence at its source.

The best mistakes

The best mistakes I ever made were in love.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

No time for appearances

We have a saying from the Talmud: do not console the mourner while his dead lie before him.

I have found in dealing with those who were facing their own death that it helped us both to make an opportunity to cry or to admit how hard it was to keep up a brave appearance. The suffering should be acknowledged. I am off to a shiva this evening but forutnately it is one of those we describe as "full of years and good works, she breathed her last among her children".

When we die, I like to point out, the disturbance is over for us. But when our children die it is half of our own death and still, we must live through it. I have no words nor way to share the ache of 32 families this evening.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Death by the numbers

A while back, I dug into the FBI crime statistics pages to buttress an argument that the crazy woman astronaut was only "typically deranged". Those same pages report far more than that about the actualities of murder in America. Sadly, it is time to examine the numbers a bit further.

From those same stats sources, the numbers for all murders, including "domestic" break down this way:

solved murders919N/A

This slightly begs the question of whether women get away with murder in a different proportion of cases then do men. 28% unsolved murders is nearly 4000 unexplained corpses nationwide per year. Considering that 3000 deaths in 2001 are the justification Americans unconsciously cling to as reason enough to waste uncounted lives in Iraq, you'd think 4000 would bother us a little more.

Other numerical findings rendered roughly in English:
  • 44% of victims have no known relationship to their killer.
  • By region, 2/3 of all murders are by firearms ...
  • Except in the northeast where that cause still leads at 3/5 of all murders.
  • About 5% of all killings are deemed "justifiable homicide"

That justifiable homicide number includes about 400 per year in which a police officer shoots someone, a number that has been rising over the last few years. Non-police justifiable homicides are about half that number. Handguns are the weapon in 81% of the non-police "justifiable" killings.

One might be tempted, as Michelle Malkin was, to see in that last stat a justification for arming all the students. That would be an asinine idea. Even if it reduced deaths in the sensational but rare cases like VT, Columbine etc by letting potential victims kill their attacker, it's far more likely consequence is self harm or more frequent if less spectacular killing of acquaintances and S.O.s with a net increase in unjustified deaths being an absolute certainty. Here are some numbers on suicide for one state, NC, where the gun ownership demographics might be similar to VA: 44% of suicides are by handgun and part of that is because it is such an effective weapon for that purpose. Note, also in the graphs at that NC link that suicide rates are highest in the college to mid-twenties group...just not the right group to be casually carrying sidearms. The terrible waste of life at Virginia Tech was also an elaborate suicide. Malkin and her ilk cannot recognize the operation of fear and fantasy in their "reasoning" . The events at VT are, after all, a fantasy played out. The fantasy of Malkin is that some magic will increase only the number of justifiable homicides. Fear makes people stupid.

Is Cul Heath OK?

The domain has expired for his blog Ratboy's Anvil. There was active posting right up to the time the hosting or DNS service unplugged it. Neither of the two email addresses google leads to are in service. The domain suspension is part of that email disruption. I have never met Cul but he was one of the first bloggers to link here and say a kind word about my pompus postings. Other blogs on which he is co-author allow commenting only by authors. But on those blogs, the same query has, in effect, been posted: is Cul OK?

He has had sudden health crises in the past so the worries are not without reason. If buying a domain has become a problem, others have offered to pitch in and I would join that effort.

There is no permanence.
Only ghosts live on in cache.
All the more reason community arises,
at the thin tail of our social density,
from the slightest seeds of sympathy and strands of communication.
And at the thick tail where only groups are real,
all the more reason groups fall upon each other
for another bite of permanence.
Houses side by side are not a neighborhood
if nobody will speak to and for their neighbor now and then.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Primate research

If chimps are this similar to humans, what the hell happened here!?

I owe a danke sehr to Herr Fengler for his most handy compendium. I assume he won't sue me because of this borrowing. Chimps, on the other hand might want to talk to their lawyers about this unflattering comparison.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Buckhead, GA

Some people take pictures when they travel. Such pictures might be crudely categorized into two kinds: "the place" and "me". The latter will be explained to you by the traveler as "This is us in front of the grand canyon...this is us in front of the statue of liberty..." etc. The former actually might need explanation: "this is the stairs going up to the Frontenac in looks a bit abstract but the sun was just right to play up all the geometry that is crammed into that stonework."

I do not take great pictures and though I have appeared in a few, I generally prefer pictures of "the place". My offense as a travelogue writer is that I insert my perceptions. So every frame is captioned "what I thought of...". Sorry.

A family simcha for some in-laws gave us a reason to visit the Atlanta area for three days. Boston has offered its soggy expensive version of hospitality to a Buddhist from Atlanta, and Atlanta has repaid with its under construction hospitality to an all of the above from Boston. Buckhead is a suburb in the greater Atlanta metro area that is becoming crowded with self conscious corporate architecture. Google Maps cannot keep up. This satellite view points to the intersection of Peachtree Road and Piedmont Road but the green patch at the north east corner of the intersection is now replaced entirely by a massive and showy new office tower and garage all but ready for its new tenants. That tower is most of the right margin of this shot:

People watching in Buckhead is interesting as it is everywhere but so few people are afoot on Peachtree Road that you have to go to the Mall or the MARTA commuter rail station to see many of them. Is a warehouse format liquor store where staff are wearing ties and the parking lot has assorted jags and Mercedes but no pickups really Georgia? When they get it built, I am sure it is going to be a lovely place.

Crappy Boston weather delayed flights so we got to ATL at midnight. The third shift elves that invisibly clean and remodel airports had come out from their invisible neighborhoods. The eateries were closed. Carpenters called out measurements to each other in Spanish. Had we known, MARTA could have gotten us from the airport to our hotel in Buckhead. Despite a reputation for sprawl, in places, Atlanta offers the carbon snob a way to live responsibly. On the other hand, I saw exactly two bicycles in the flat and sunny streets of Buckhead. As in New York, cabbies appear to have just landed from nations the UN has yet to recognize. But unlike New York, if you aren't a quick-draw tipper, they do not drop luggage and glare at you.

Gorgeous weather will make departing a bit more sad. I walked around town long enough to get a slight sunburn. Not quite as hectically under construction as Shanghai, but still ubiquitously dug up for widening, Peachtree Road offers a face to the world. Construction cranes are everywhere as are utility trenches and red mud. Behind the face by a few blocks there are residential pockets where the irrepressible flora burst from cracked pavement and twine up every wall and utility pole. The unfamiliar scent of late spring blooms will still reach you while you have a beer in the outdoor seating of restaurants on the main street. Wild mating scents of the plants faintly broadcast all through the swanky high rises here while in Boston, only the reddish blush of oak buds tint the horizon of bare tree canopy.

Until the late 1800's, the tallest and most expensive structures in most cities would have been the churches. Mr. Eiffel's structure, not the first sky scraper, was seen as something of a profanity in the context of Paris's trove of landmarks. The problem with symbols is that while many will say they are important, few will agree on which ones are the most important or what they actually stand for. So the fact that our temples of commerce now dwarf our cathedrals may mean that the market is the greater force in our lives...or it might only signify that the places where business lives are now segregated from residential areas where a church might indeed still be the most imposing structure. Whatever. In Buckhead the presence of religion, personality and nature in the built up world seem to be in retreat.
If you hover over this picture, and blogger lets me code some HTML tricks, a church hunkers down at the foot of a crane. Nearly invisible to its right is the red awning of an abandoned storefront Christian Science Reading Room. Hidden behind the trees between these two, at the rear of the old white mansion is a funky little restaurant and jazz club called Dantes'

The azaleas still bloom on the walkway to the club.
The owner's pet crocs are memorialized at the entrance to the club.

But if you gaze upward, you see you are shrouded in scaffolding.

A reminder to holocaust deniers

If you are a fatalist, a complete believer in a supreme being as the ultimate author of the history behind us and the fates ahead of us, then you had better quit screwing with God's lessons and just study exactly what happened. You will not learn your god's lessons if you keep rewriting them.

This year, the Yom Hashoah will be on April 16, 2007.

The social pyramid: conservatives climb it, liberals flatten it?

I go away for a few days and I feel like I am a month behind. I get rusty quickly. I was so itchy to write that I blew up a comment into a post. Pam has post over at Pandagon that she figures people were afraid to touch. Being as I am just an avatar, I am somewhat immune to peeing on third rails. When Pam asks "where is the sympathy" between oppressed groups and why is the MSM so seemingly stupid when it covers stories that turn on common biases against women, blacks, gays etc, I attempted to answer in spite of some handicaps I gladly accept:

Being too white to ever do anything but imagine the hurt of being disliked or distrusted simply because of my skin,

Being too male and too straight to have ever experienced even my least comfortable moments as a sexual being as anything but "normal",

Being too old and too hard of hearing to find anything but din and celebration of antisocial values in Rap and Hip Hop, [really, it hits me like a musical "keep out" sign, the most salient demonstration that I am too old to blog with a bunch of gen-Xers]

Being too well off and too comfortable in the bosom of the establishment to have much insight into the "poor life choices" hardship might necessitate,

I can offer no authentic answer to Pam's basic question.

As to the idea that the silence of those who do not enjoy my privileges and whose comments Pam had hoped to see is simply the result of her a posing too controversial a topic, I just add another question: Are those who have submitted to the pervasive and not always subliminal persuasion that their social credentials for having opinions are of a lesser sort therefore too timid to take the open stands against bullshit conventions and notions? Or are they really that conservative? I do read criticism and review, so I know that folded into the spirit of some rap music is exactly that willingness to call convention a lie. But as a genre, it is fatally undisciplined in doing this service. And it is so strongly the label of a particular generation that questioning its values almost instantly becomes a battle of generations rather than a battle between groups who suffer different kinds and degrees of bias.

Pam speaks out on GLBT issues and oppression but Pandagon is primarily known as a feminist blog. That alone seems to provide an example of one group that is sensitive to its own oppression, i.e. feminists, recognizing common cause and value in alliance with another group. I would ask another question to try to pick apart why a similar recognition has not occurred or borne much fruit going the other way between advocates for equality for blacks and advocates for equality of gays. Which group has the hardest time turning loose of the "advantages" they have over another group?

By "advantages" I mean the superficial, but at times iron bound, conventions of our social pyramid: no matter how many dimensions or categories you use to measure the place a person occupies in our society, each dimension becomes a way to make people suffer and to keep them in their place and only political correctness downplays the "greater than" symbols in the equation-of-place for our social pyramid that might be organized something like this:
More people think in such terms than would ever admit it.
Any such "space" has corners of greatest and least esteem: In the US after two centuries of "all men are created equal" we have white-christian-male-straight-rich at the top of the pyramid and black-atheist-female-lesbian-poor at the bottom vertex. Now and then, liberals sometimes congratulate themselves for slight dents and blurrings they force upon this scheme but it is still in place, as of old.

Now, who least wants to cede their rung to someone on a lesser rung? One up from the bottom might be the scariest place to be: In that place, one knows from experience what vulnerability is and they can spot an even more vulnerable place just below them. A conservative mind, in that position, does not reach downward for alliances. A conservative mind is primarily wary and focused on guarding what it has and fears it could lose. That's my theory. It means we can have conservatives all the way to the top of society, and the only place where conservative positions become clear and complete insanity is at the lowest station in the pecking order of convention. MSM, or any "media" for that matter, barring explicit admissions to the contrary, are claiming to be above all this weighing of souls. But if their income is dependent upon retaining a certain audience segment, they won't stray far from the view of that pyramid held by the not expect leadership from market driven media.

The current issue of Atlantic Monthly paints a disturbing picture of how putting an entire society "in the closet" has the ironic effect of weakening the pyramid. By contrast to Saudi social norms with their "values" harshly imposed on all media, our more open society, especially as embodied in the rap music, seems to actually allow the pyramid to hold us all more rigidly in our places. That is not implausible to me because I think it is our own individual consciences and consciousness, or lack thereof, that is really the enabler for the elites we tend to scapegoat. We do not live in a country where the government or the media operate oblivious of the desires of all us little pay checks. In fact, if you have been following the fascinating and very educational discussions on framing, you might be persuaded that both government and media cling to their jobs by always saying things in a way that tacitly ratifies the desires and views that inhere from our perch in the hierarchy. The constant work of corporation and religion, often via the media, is to shape those desires. We are the pyramid until the day we stop believing in it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why isn't the tragedy of the commons a Conservative's cause?

I have never in my life taken one course or read one book on economics. There are copies of Thomas Freidman and Jarred Diamond books somewhere in the "to read" pile. Garrett Hardin's book, I have never seen. No copy of WSJ or IBD on the coffee table either. You will learn nothing from reading what I think about the world economy. I am prompted to talk about the economy because of what I don't hear when economic reportage flickers for a moment on the nightly news or blurry continual lowing of the bulls on the business news channels.

The lag between sustainability warnings sounded decades ago and the token concern for it just now entering political speeches may be fatal. Alarms sounded for distant problems go unheeded and the people have to have widespread economic discomfort which they can clearly connect to unsustainable practices before they will reward these well advised politicians with a bit of attention.

There is for now only one economy. The peak of oil production is also the peak of the parabolic trajectory of our own standard of living. You can't see that connection if you live in denial of peak oil. The regional economies merged into a global economy for a combination of reasons and enabling circumstances. The opportunity seems to depend only on the emergence of political toleration and accommodation between nations: hold your nose and abolish your tariffs. Then cheap labor can be exploited. The irony of Walmart's Bush-voting customers lining up to buy stuff their unemployed neighbors used to manufacture because the last effective communist economy is happy to exploit its workers in return for enough cash to finance the worlds largest "economic boom" is not in enough minds. Walmart has been doing well with this situation too. Isn't it a win-win? [are we really converting the Chinese to capitalism or are we really transferring our wealth to a power that will be happy to hold us in the position of a colony once they hold the reins of world energy as we once did] One of the critical circumstances is that fuel was cheap enough that goods from anywhere could be shipped where ever money would buy them. The other is that only some of the workers are paid well. The invisible hand has become like a giant bulldozer spreading the pile of money in the us all over the globe. When little of the money is left and far more money is needed to move the goods, whatever their cost of production, the economies in extracting resources, manufacturing goods and consumption will have to disengage somewhat. Their current interdependence rests on transportation so they simply are not sustainable. Technological fixes are weak hopes. The logical fix that will eventually be forced upon us is to consume less, and probably to let our population decline.

I warned that I am ignorant of economics so maybe somewhere the arithmetic has been carried out unbeknownst to me. But FAIK, none of the wealth engines that were ascribed to various economies, from the industrial revolution to the post WWII emergence of US economically straddling the world, were fully costed out. If the constant dollar replacement cost of the resources mankind burned through in each of the economic booms were added to the tab, I don't know that we would be far ahead or behind a break-even. We should be thinking of ourselves as carrying a huge debt, a marker for the resources we have withdrawn from our earth, perhaps unreturnably.

Either I don't get it...or most of our leaders don't get it: essentially 0% of America's political "conservatives" voice even the slightest clue that woods, water, air and the unfarmed creatures we eat also need to be conserved. The party of Cheney and Polombo foster not only the imbalance of payments with our trading partners and the wild borrowing that is an imbalance of trade with our own future selves, it is making the US poor via the imbalance of our commerce with the source of all wealth.
Russert interviewed Thomas Friedman last fall about the update to his flat earth book. TF's prediction: "green power" will be to 21st century China what the automomibile was to 20th century US. Gore gets it but if he is not electable, if the voters don't get it because they just can't see any good except the comforts they amass, what then?
Sustainable practices do not become "economic" in the conventional sense of economics until is is too late. The consumer is carefully kept unaware of the depletion their consumption gives rise to. The corporation is governed to consider its wealth at the end of this year the ultimate measure of good. How is this system working out for us?

The wealth of nations may indeed flow wherever the invisible hand of market forces can carry it and wealth is power. Whenever personal wealth is divorced from the national wealth, the state must sooner or later loose the power to spend, which is the only power because no law or foreign policy is enforced for free.
The fate of a nation is hidden in the character of its people: what they will endure, what they will do without. Markets are hoped to be a democracy of dollars. But a market with no money in it is a democracy with no vote. If all you have is money and nothing left to buy, you are profoundly poor.
Market economies are touted by conservatives as creators of wealth. They are only redistributers of wealth. Labor and nature create created the wealth and they are not inexhaustible...and it is they that need conserving.

UPDATE: It turns out a few economists ARE starting to think this way...and they conclude no politician ever will think this way and still stay in office. That is the conventional wisdom: green is political suicide. But not-green is environmental suicide. Why do modern, industrialized lives seem to operate with less sense of connection and responsibility to the future on the part of normal citizens than we romantically think to have been the case for more primitive and primarily agricultural societies? This researcher says we were always wasters of nature. This one says we were not. Except for the findings of our sciences, we consumers are onlybecoming more decoupled from our impacts on nature because the layers of technology and ever more compartmentalized divisions of labor that accompany the technology denature our expectations. We are all so isolated from the organic strata that actually feed us that we can't see why the supermarket shelves might some day be bare. We move about so readily and often as to have lost all sense of connection to the earth under our feet. Do too many of us live in places where it seems the entire world is man-made and so we settle into an illusion of being in complete control? Have we become so oblivious to our personal mortality that we can't think about the days that will dawn without us?
... psychophysical scales are notoriously debatable. An increasing number of researchers would agree that it is highly problematic to postulate a deterministic relationship between measurable environmental factors and occupants’ evaluation of environmental conditions...