Archive for July 2007

Newsflash: Hering Lacks Reasoning, Capacity to Write Editorials

July 31, 2007

He’s managed to do it again. This time, in regards to a recent bill signed by the Governor designed to fight increasing obesity among children.

First, the bill according to Hering:

…the bill calls on schools to require students through the eighth grade to have gym classes, at least 150 hours a week for elementary schools and at least 225 minutes in grades six through eight.

I’m not actually sure what Hering is saying here, since this sentence doesn’t even make sense. Does he mean to say that schools are required to have 150 hours/week of gym classes total? Per student? Per grade level? I’ve stared at this sentence for way too long, and I think it’s making less sense now than it did the first time I read it.

Next, Hering’s “argument” regarding this bill:

But taking gym, while certainly a good idea, is unlikely to make a dent in the obesity problem affecting the people of this state as a whole.

In order to solve that problem, the legislature would have to enact laws that go far beyond its power to impose or the willingness of citizens to obey.

Lawmakers would have to start by limiting the amount of time that we all are allowed to sit watching a video screen. This would include outlawing remote controls.

Then the legislature would have to ban or restrict fast food and other prepared food. This would be accompanied by a mandate to buy food that had to be cooked, preferably at home, before it can be consumed.


He goes on, but really, what’s the point? This reads like another example of Hering’s usual tortured attempts at logic, since I don’t recall anyone seriously suggesting – and Hering doesn’t provide evidence of this either, he just implies that it’s the case – that gym classes alone will solve the obesity epidemic.

This is what’s called a “strawman” argument: You set up a really bad, poorly constructed argument that’s easy to take down, attribute it to your enemies (who would, of course, say no such thing), and when you take it down, you claim victory. Hering works it to perfection here, revealing once again his penchant for intellectually bankrupt hackery.

Note: This is not the same as trying to persuade people that your point of view is correct. This is a series of lies by omission, misattributions, and flat-out bullshit. It might be effective at persuading someone, but that doesn’t make it ethically correct, especially for a newspaper editor. Does anyone at the Democrat-Herald, especially the publisher, ever read the crap he spews?

Seriously – if Hering is going to spin a tale about how “lawmakers” (notice he names no person or party, allowing the reader to attribute these nonsensical ideas to whomever they want) are planning to go on a rampage of authoritarian social control, he could at least try to make the claims a little more plausible.

Finally, there is a pair of assumptions that Hering makes, but never justifies or explains. The first is this: That gym classes will do NOTHING to increase the health of children. Honestly, depending on the way the class works, I could believe this – but it would require actually talking about what happens in a gym class, rather than just assuming he is correct. The second assumption is that since gym classes alone won’t solve the problem, they should be rejected as a solution – yet Hering notes that any solution will have to be multifaceted. So why does he reject this one component?

I don’t really know, but I can guess it’s because he has an ideological aversion to public solutions to problems. An aversion that’s grounded in some mistaken beliefs, but hey, at least he’s consistent on this one.

On the other hand, there is the ending to his editorial:

In short, a legislative answer to Oregon’s weight problem would have to include changing our lifestyle for the better. Since in many ways this would require rolling back social, economic and technological developments of the last 50 years, you can guess yourself how soon this will come about.

Yes , it would require for us to change our lifestyle for the better. I don’t see the problem with that, but I am very confused as to how it would require rolling back 50 years of development. Does he really think that the only way to be healthy is to emulate Leave it to Beaver or that television and cars necessarily make people obese? I hope not, though I would not be surprised.

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Energy & Sustainability

July 30, 2007


Setup

With the upcoming oil supply crisis, there has been a lot of news, discussion, and old-fashioned bloviating about what humans should use for energy sources once oil is no longer viable.

Most of the discussion that I’ve seen has focused on several major technologies – electricity, ethanol, vegetable oil, solar power, etc. I like most of those ideas, but the one problem they all seem to have is that none of them can generate enough energy to replace the energy we get from oil.

The other problem, one that’s common to most of the energy sources we have used historically, is that we use them in such a way and to such a degree that they become depleted, and once depleted, cause major problems when it comes to the maintenance of societies. Even worse, such large-scale use can cause massive damage to the planetary ecosystem – see global climate change for one example (this holds true for some of the proposed forms of energy as well).

Still more observers say that we shouldn’t be looking for one single source, but a few major sources (like using all of the above instead of one). I think this approach at least puts us in the right direction, but that people are still thinking well inside the proverbial box. My own thinking, I hope, will provide the tiniest bit of insight towards a better path to so-called ‘energy independence,’ and more importantly, towards sustainability.

Part One

To really get at what I think is a better way of envisioning energy sustainability, I want to take a look at a very simplified version of, for lack of a more serious term, the circle of life.

I cannot say this enough: I don’t really know shit about nature, so if I make some sort of egregious error, please let me know. Laughing at said error is also acceptable, even encouraged.

Energy in some form is present whenever almost anything happens. A plant takes in sunlight and grows? There is a form of energy there, and we harvest it for food. A plant dies and is decomposed via natural processes? We utilize that as well when we eat mushrooms or through methane reclamation from the organic materials in waste dumps. Water flows downhill, and we create barriers in the form of dams & turbines and convert the resulting force into energy. Tectonic plates move a fraction of an inch? Lots of energy there, we just don’t know how to get to it. Lots of energy in ocean swells, too (just watch Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch), though I hear humans are pretty close to getting energy from that particular phenomenon as well.

The point is that there is energy all over the frackin’ place if we could just get to it. Figuring out how to benefit from a much larger variety of types of energy transfer is one step towards a more sustainable base of energy. As well, energy flows in just about every direction around the planet; the only external source is the sun (as far as I know), but as for the rest, it just moves around to different places and takes different forms. To paraphrase (or perhaps mangle) some law of something or other: Energy can never be created or destroyed. At least that’s the practical point of what I’m talking about.

Second, right now, we – especially in the so-called West, which is really what this piece is about – are obsessed with finding solutions to the upcoming oil shortage that are capable of scaling up to the hundreds of millions of people. I’ve read lots of news regarding how much ethanol or vegetable oil we can really produce without causing massive food shortages. The same goes for all the increased electricity we’d need for electric cars – as of today, I’ve not seen a reliable suggestion as to where we would get all that extra electricity-generating capacity. The point is that, as mentioned above, none of these solutions work because none of them can scale to the degree people think we need.

So that’s where we are, more or less. The closer you get to the Establishment, the more conservative ideas get, and the less innovative. I suspect the threat of a post-peak oil world also manages to get lost in the shuffle, which takes the urgency out of the picture. The closer to the margin you get, the more innovative and radical the solutions, as well as the sense of urgency.

Part Two

I’d like to suggest a direction, if not a solution, one that I think is pretty radical (in the classic sense of gets-to-the-root-of-the-issue sense).

Basically, I think we’re going about looking for solutions to the peak-oil-lack-of-energy-crisis all wrong, and to explain why, I need to talk about values.

The values I see espoused in the current mainstream-y energy debates are pretty standard American values: The necessity and desirability of massive scale (and the resultant consumption); the conception of nature as a giant machine; use of classic top-down hierarchies through central production and distribution facilities; and reliance on nature-dominating, mechanized, big-technology solutions (such as the mass farming of soybeans or corn for vegetable oil or hundreds-of-square-miles floating windfarms). It’s not really a surprise that these values are present, but I do think it’s a problem.

Why is it a problem? Because that’s not how nature works. Not at all, in fact. That giant wave you see headed towards you is not, in fact, one giant wave. It’s millions or billions of tiny water droplets all working in unison, each one exerting a tiny amount of force; a mechanical conception of nature often does see it as one wave.

The same goes for most natural phenomenon; they are not one large bundle of energy or force, but many small bundles working in unison. The human body is analogous here – it’s one body, but billions of cells with a more-or-less coherent plan.

So, for me, rather than try to force the natural world to conform to typical American values, I think we should start thinking about how to draw energy from the world in a way that doesn’t lead to cataclysmic crises when said energy source runs out. And, of course, in ways that are sustainable.

Basically, I think we should emulate nature in a few very specific ways:

1. Inverted economies of scale. Rather than have a type of energy production that relies on one giant device, like a dam, why not have types of energy production that siphon off tiny amounts of energy from a natural process without disrupting that process? Some of this is already happening – there is a house in Belgium I visited that has a small dam, solar panels, and a wind turbine on their property. Not all of this is feasible for everyone, especially in urban areas, but it is one way to generate power on a micro-level and in such a way that doesn’t cause the disruption of natural processes.

2. Decentralization. This goes hand in hand with micro-generation. Rather than have one big windfarm, or a giant coal-burning facility, energy generation should be part and parcel of every building, be it residential, commercial, or industrial. Solar panels, rainwater collection, rooftop gardens, designing and placing the building for minimized heating/cooling costs, etc. – these all serve to create usable energy, and, if done well, don’t cause any appreciable harm. This is happening to some extent, but I think it needs to happen more, and faster.

One great example of this, designed especially for urban areas, comes from this BoingBoing post. The idea is to utilize the mechanical energy people exert while walking on the floor by converting it to electricity. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing I think of when I think of micro-scale sustainable energy sources. It doesn’t “take away” energy that is needed by nature, it’s unobtrusive, (I hope) it’s environmentally neutral, it occurs on a relatively micro-scale, and, as an added bonus it’s perfect for high-density urban areas. (Can you imagine using the same technology on roads?)

I’m not as excited about this second example (via /.): Using nanotechnology to siphon energy from the flowing blood inside human bodies. I like the principles – micro, utilizing existing energy flows – but I’d much rather see this applied in a stream somewhere to power a house than in my veins. Nevertheless, it is a good example of thinking on a small scale.

Part Three

Benefits

There are all sorts of benefits that come from thinking about energy generation like this; reducing environmental harm is just about at the top of the list. Second (or maybe even first) is the empowering nature of it. Can you imagine paying your last power bill ever? Or even getting money or earning power credits for putting power back into the grid (or simply giving it away to your neighbors when they need it in return for some fresh corn on the cob)?

Frankly, I think this idea embodies a somewhat anarchist value system; done well, it could do a pretty good job working within environmentalist values as well.

Another benefit is that it would require massive social reorganization. I call it a benefit because I think it’s good and necessary. More specifically, it might require people to live in places that conform to the land a bit better, necessitating demographic shifts that are environmentally friendly (i.e. get more solar power or get the hell out of Phoenix, people).

Downsides

Well, the one that I expect will come up often is sort of precisely the point of this post: “But you’re undermining American values and/or the profit-motive system!”

Too bad. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s also necessary, since it was relatively unfettered use of the profit motive and other American values that got us here in the first place. I’ll take survival and sustainability over profit any day.

Such a system, done on a large scale (meaning not one big unit, but thousands of small units) would, of course, require substantial social reorganization. I am placing this here as well as above because I think it does take away privileges and advantages for some, and I want to be clear about that. I just think it’s a good idea to rock the boat in favor of the masses, that’s all.

Other downsides? Well, I don’t know much about the environmental impact of many of these ideas. I suspect that given the principles as a starting point – and don’t get me wrong, these principles and ideas are in use all over the place already by indigenous groups and other folks at the margins – I’m sure more low-tech and environmentally sustainable ideas could come out of a good brainstorming session. This is more of a vision thing than a blueprint, anyway.

Conclusion

Basically, I am really attracted to the idea of small-scale, empowering, sustainable ways to generate usable energy (an idea which comes straight of David Graeber and his point about ignoring the state entirely; I see this as one way to get around the need for materials that, thus far, only the state can provide). I can’t imagine don’t want to imagine a plausible future without substantial energy use and technology, but I can imagine one in which existing technology does a much better job working with the natural world rather than against it, and I think the advantages of moving towards making these values a reality now are immense.

PZ Myers Can Kiss My Ass

July 30, 2007

I like militant atheists, at least most of the time; I’m of the opinion that atheism as a belief system (and it is one) gets dumped on in the public square in this country.

I used to like atheist and science blogger PZ Myers, who is a very sharp fellow, and not one to back down from defending his beliefs. Myers has also done an amazing amount of work debunking creationism and so-called intelligent design, something for which I am glad.

Apparently, however, he is also a giant fucking dickwad:

…I’m thinking of picking up a cheap copy of the Qu’ran. And I’m thinking … what to do, what to do. It will, of course, be something in the privacy of my home, with my very own copy — none of this public vandalism and veiled threats to people who believe. It will just be a demonstration of my right to treat my property as it deserves and of my opinion of this silly book.

Supposedly, Mr. Myers is planning on desecrating a Qu’ran (in the privacy of his own home) in response to someone in New York being arrested and charged with a hate crime for throwing a Qu’ran in a public toilet.

Myers doesn’t think it’s a hate crime, and I think he’s making a stupid mistake. He makes no reference to the possibility that the case was, in fact, a hate crime. I don’t think desecrating a religious book is automatically a hate crime, just as I don’t think every instance of white-on-black violence is a hate crime. However, I also think people don’t go around chucking books in toilets for shits and giggles, and that the possibility that this was a hate crime is therefore very real.

What makes something a hate crime is the motivation behind it. This is not news. Hate crimes, as usually understood, are designed to scare, terrorize, and dehumanize entire populations of people.

Furthermore, the very news story that Myers links to makes it very clear that this incident was part of a larger series of crimes with religious overtones, which suggests that the “hate crime” label is, at the least, within the realm of plausibility, if not completely correct.

Given that, I’m wondering – and I don’t read Pharyngula enough to know the answer to this – if Myers actually thinks religion should not be covered under hate crimes law. I have trouble believing he would argue such a thing, but at least it would make this tirade of his consistent with his beliefs. If he actually believes that, then he’s a fool. If not, then his actions make little sense.

In any case, I’ve stopped reading him as of today. It’s unfortunate, because I liked his sense of humor and the fact that he posted on politics from his perspective (that and I don’t read many science blogs as is). Given this most recent post, however, I can’t continue to take him seriously. That kind of disrespect is not only stupid and counterproductive (if he’s at all interested in anything other than annihilating people who believe different things), but, as far as I’m concerned, shows that his behavior and thinking mirrors that of the most reactionary and authoritarian religious fundamentalists out there, the very people he rails against: he doesn’t like the respect accorded to the belief, so he’s going to piss on it. Pathetic.

International Philosophy Or My Two Favorite Things Combined (Thanks to the British)

July 30, 2007

Yes, I realize posting has been light. Friends are down, etc. etc.

Also, I love this bit. Thanks to Luke for sending it along.

Pharmacists Sue State Because State Tells Them To Do Their Damn Job

July 27, 2007

*Apologies in advance for the poor copyediting and generally rambling nature of this post.

Yes, this is about emergency contraception:

Pharmacists have sued Washington state over a new regulation that requires the sale of emergency contraception, also known as the “morning-after pill.”

In a lawsuit filed in federal court here, a pharmacy owner and two pharmacists say the rule that took effect Thursday coerces them into “choosing between their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs.”

The state ruled earlier this year that druggists who believe emergency contraceptives are tantamount to abortion can’t stand in the way of a patient’s right to the drugs.

I hold a pretty strong opinion on this one: The pharmacists in question need to have their licenses to practice removed. Now. If pharmacists want to retain control of their profession, there needs to be some attempt at self-policing to prevent shit like this. Otherwise, I suspect we’re going to see political activists put pressure on state and federal legislative bodies to craft stricter rules for pharmacists around dispensing medications, which will have the effect of taking medical decisions out of the hands of medical professionals. That, I suspect, is not something most pharmacists want to see, especially when the recent advent of the PhD in Pharmacy and the greater role pharmacists are playing in patient care.

Given that EC is just a really strong dose of birth control pills, I’m curious to know if the pharmacists in question are opposed to birth control as well. It’s possible – they are Roman Catholic, according to the story – but if they, I think it would come as a shock to many people who consider birth control a pretty uncontroversial thing.

At the bottom of the story was another bit that caught my eye:

Pharmacists are also forbidden to destroy prescriptions or harass patients, rules that were prompted by complaints from Washingtonians, chairwoman Rebecca Hille said.

I’d be curious to see the exact number and nature of complaints….though I will say that again, this is a case where the fact that a state regulatory body felt the need to intervene is something I consider a net loss for pharmacists. This is something that I think should be handled at the level of the pharmacists themselves, be it their professional association or whatever. It’s still in their best interests – as it is with most professions – to be able to self-regulate. The argument that these issues fall outside the purview of pharmacists since they are “ethical” or “moral” issues doesn’t hold water for me; however you classify them they involve pharmacists, patients, state or federal oversight, and the public’s view of pharmacists as trustworthy dispensers of medicine. And it only takes a few well-publicized cases to freak people out.

…it should be noted that the state regulation in question doesn’t force every pharmacist to dispense medication they are opposed to, just that someone in the pharmacy fill the prescription during the same visit. This strikes me as a very reasonable request that allows for personal beliefs to be respected without those beliefs spilling over onto others. However, if the reason the three people in question is upset is that they’re not being allowed to fuck with their patients, then forget them. And I do think that’s what is happening, based on this part of the new rules:

Pharmacies also are required to order new supplies of a drug if a patient asks for something that is not in stock.

This new regulation is only objectionable if the personal beliefs in question include not allowing women access to EC.

Oops.

This, for the record, is why I’d like to see professional pharmacists do a better job of making clear what responsibilities are expected of pharmacists, and making decisions based on medical advice and not kooky personal beliefs is one of them.

In all fairness, given how much more knowledge your average Doctor of Pharmacy has about drugs and drug interactions than your average Medical Doctor, I can see a case in which the pharmacist has a better idea of what drug is appropriate to prescribe than an MD. In such a case, it would make sense to allow the pharmacist to override or change the doctor’s prescription, yes? The problem is that crap like this lawsuit undermines public trust in pharmacists to make those changes with the interest of the patient in mind (leading to increased regulation by the state), which obviously has a negative effect on their ability to do their job.

Thanks to David for the hour of coffee-fueled & heated conversation in a car at 7 a.m. that helped me develop this position.

Via Feministe.

Oscar, the Grim Reaper Who Licks Himself

July 27, 2007

I don’t really know what to say about this….it’s really creepy, yet it makes a strange sort of sense:

“He’s a cat with an uncanny instinct for death,” said David Dosa, assistant professor at the Brown University School of Medicine and a geriatric specialist. “He attends deaths. He’s pretty insistent on it.”

In the two years since Oscar was adopted into the dementia unit of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Providence he has maintained close vigil over the deaths of more than 25 patients, nursing staff and doctors say.

Yeah.

Having Your Cake and Stuffing Your Face With It Too

July 27, 2007

I hate the slogan “support the troops.” I think it’s meaningless tripe designed to stifle criticism and debate, and that it has no logical, moral, or philosophical basis whatsoever. And that it really fucks with how we relate to those human beings that are actually serving in the military, especially in Iraq.

A couple of recent posts and an article in The New Republic which consisted of observations regarding Iraq from an anonymous soldier made me think about this a bit more, and as usually happens when I think, I get angry. From the TNR article:

One private, infamous as a joker and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit. As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included.

I know another private who really only enjoyed driving Bradley Fighting Vehicles because it gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs. Occasionally, the brave ones would chase the Bradleys, barking at them like they bark at trash trucks in America–providing him with the perfect opportunity to suddenly swerve and catch a leg or a tail in the vehicle’s tracks. He kept a tally of his kills in a little green notebook that sat on the dashboard of the driver’s hatch. One particular day, he killed three dogs. He slowed the Bradley down to lure the first kill in, and, as the diesel engine grew quieter, the dog walked close enough for him to jerk the machine hard to the right and snag its leg under the tracks. The leg caught, and he dragged the dog for a little while, until it disengaged and lay twitching in the road. A roar of laughter broke out over the radio. Another notch for the book. The second kill was a straight shot: A dog that was lying in the street and bathing in the sun didn’t have enough time to get up and run away from the speeding Bradley. Its front half was completely severed from its rear, which was twitching wildly, and its head was still raised and smiling at the sun as if nothing had happened at all.

I didn’t see the third kill, but I heard about it over the radio. Everyone was laughing, nearly rolling with laughter. I approached the private after the mission and asked him about it.
“So, you killed a few dogs today,” I said skeptically.
“Hell yeah, I did. It’s like hunting in Iraq!” he said, shaking with laughter.
“Did you run over dogs before the war, back in Indiana?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied, and looked at me curiously. Almost as if the question itself was in poor taste.


War is hell; it messes with people. Badly. There are mountains of evidence supporting this claim, and there is no fucking evidence that anyone with any institutional clout, DEMOCRATS INCLUDED, are doing a damn thing about it (to say nothing of dealing with the same effects as they pertain to Iraqi civilians). You want a crime against humanity? Try this one, and it absolutely pales in comparison to what people who live in the Middle East are going through.

“Support the troops” doesn’t really speak to the fact that war is hell, does it? It doesn’t acknowledge the humanity under the helmet, and it sure as hell doesn’t allow for “the troops” to behave like those noted above.

So how does this ideologically warped concept stay “pure”?

Through massive enforcement and pressure from those interested in its maintenance, that’s how.

Digby makes a good point – as usual – about the backlash against the publication that printed this piece and the soldier who wrote it:

There has been precious little good writing about the actual gritty experiences of average soldiers in these wars. Everything has been so packaged and marketed from the top that it’s very difficult to get a sense of what it’s like over there. I have no idea if this piece is accurate, but regardless it didn’t seem to me to be an indictment of the military in general, merely a description of the kind of gallows humor and garden variety cruelty that would be likely to escalate in violent circumstances. And so far, there has been nothing substantial brought forward to doubt his story — the shrieking nitpicking of the 101st keyboarders notwithstanding.

It certainly should not have have garnered this vicious right wing attack from everyone from Bill Kristol to the lowliest denizens of the right blogosphere. They want to destroy this soldier for describing things that have been described in war reporting since Homer so they can worship “the troops” without having to admit that the whole endeavor is a bloody, horrible mess that only briefly, and rarely, offers opportunity for heroic battlefield courage (which, of course, it sometimes does as well.)


It appears that what’s truly important is maintaining the narrative surrounding “support the troops” rather than providing any meaningful acknowledgment of the clusterfuck that is Iraq. Which makes perfect sense, given the context. But it’s still repulsive, and I don’t think people who have those damned yellow flags on their vehicles are really thinking about this when they slap ’em on.

Or maybe they are, and they’re just being exploited for fucked-up political reasons. I could go either way on that one.

I just don’t want to be accused of not “supporting the troops” ever again. If “supporting the troops” means supporting the shit that Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp wrote about, then fuck that. If it means supporting human beings in their quest to remain human beings, then yeah, I think we’ve reached a starting point. Just don’t tell me that “supporting the troops” requires supporting immoral, barbaric behavior. That’s a dangerous place to be, especially on accident.