Monday, December 26, 2005

Democracy and Environment in China, pt. 1

In Mao's War Against Nature (2001) Judith Shapiro argues that elements of society generally associated with democracy, including intellectual freedom, political participation, government accountability and transparency, and local self governance, lead to good environmental policy, while coercion and authoritarian centralization lead to environmental damage. We read Shapiro’s book last semester in my environmental class, along with a patchwork of a book by Vaclav Smil called China’s Past, China’s Future: Energy, Food, Environment (2005). I used the two books together to pose the question “What mechanisms allowed Mao to completely destroy the environment in China?” Shapiro’s account emphasizes the authoritarian nature of the Mao era, whereas Smil’s account puts more blame on the lack of private property and ensuing tragedy of the commons.

Many, many events in China right now are testing these hypotheses. I wasn’t able to cover them during the semester, other than a quick note about the wave of land-rights riots that has gripped China recently, but I hope to start tracking more of them now. This is a good time to do it, because the Chinese environmental situation is starting to get attention from the American media.

Yesterday’s NYT features another important story in this area. The central government of China is planning a new mega hydropower project: 13 dams to be built along the Nu ("Angry") River in Yunan province. The project would generate more electricity than the current record holder for hydroelectric production, China’s own Three Gorges Dam, helping the nation move away from the dreadful coal power it currently depends on. But it would rip apart Yunan province, which holds most of China’s biological, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. The area is a mountainous, temperate rainforest filled with endangered species and odd ethnic groups who have had little contact with the industrialized world.

But the story is really interesting because of the democratic element. The Communist Party originally wanted to build this dam the same way they built the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangze and before that the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, that is, they wanted to just march in, announce to everyone that they had to leave and then build the damn thing, regardless of who it hurt, or even whether the dam itself would actually do the job it promised to do. The human cost of the Three Gorges Dam--1.3 million people displaced and countless historical sites lost--is infamous. The Mao-era Sanmenxia Dam quickly became jammed with silt, and could not produce electricity. More gates were constructed to channel off the silt but, as Shapiro reports, “Eventually the dam was so pierced with holes that it became virtually worthless for either flood control or electricity generation” (2001, 63).

The Nu Dam may have been heading the way of its infamous predecessors, but small openings in the dictatorship may block this. China now allows nongovernmental organizations, including environmental ones, and a new law, the China Environmental Impact Assessment Law, was passed in 2002, which requires public hearings and environmental assessments of all major building projects. When Friends of Nature and other Chinese Environmental NGOs started questioning the dam, the project was suspended and an environmental assessment ordered. The victory was only partial, however, as the assessment has never been declassified, and the project remains in limbo.

The Times’ piece pitches this as a story about the growth of civil society in China, rather than a story about the environmental dilemmas China faces. The story is a part of an extended series about the growth of rule of law in China. Government and business in China has been conducted for decades mostly via personal relationships and networking. Many foreign investors are hoping that the industrialization of China will replace this uncertain culture of “face” with a system of explicit regulations consistently applied, something you can build a business plan around. Hence the question: will China obey its own laws and hold public hearings around the Nu dam.

I suppose some environmentalists would prefer to see this simply as a story of a partial victory over an evil dam. Sometimes it seems that environmentalists must automatically be opposed to building dams, the way that we are automatically in favor of fuel efficiency standards and a robust national park system. But let's face it, this is terribly short sighted. Hydro power is clean, and despite rhetoric about rivers running wild and free, it beats the shit out China’s main energy source, coal. The air in Chinese cities is simply Dickensian. Smil notes that many years the mean daily concentration of particulate matter exceeds recommended daily maxima in many cities (2005, 16). That's right: on the average day it is too polluted to go outside. Moreover, the system of dams being built on the Nu sounds like the sort of project that people were proposing as an alternative to hubristic mega projects like the Three Gorges and Sanmenxia dams. It is a system of smaller interventions, rather than a big, Soviet-inspired monument plopped down in the middle of a river.

For this reason, I think The Times took exactly the right angle on the story. I don’t know whether the Nu river dams should be built, nor do I particularly feel like I should tell the Chinese how to manage their rivers. But I am obligated to give support to the democratic process here. A major reason why the Sanmenxia dam was such a fuck-up was that Mao silences all of the experts who tried to warn him that the dam would not work. Shapiro tells the story of Hydro-Engineer Huang Wanli, who warned that the Sanmenxia dam would silt up. The incident was a nasty case of Lysenkoism that some contemporary world leaders should pay attention to. Mao claimed that Marxist ideology disproved any scientific objection to his plan, and Huang replied that he “could not simply order the sun to orbit the earth” (Shapiro 2001, 60). His ideas were repressed and he was sent to be reeducated in a labor camp. The dam silted up in three years.

I am in no position to assess the Nu river project, and I doubt any of my 50 or so readers are either. However I am quite certain that no one, not even the people involved in the project can know anything about it, unless it is subject to proper public debate. (Declassifying the environmental impact statement would be a start.) Without that, at most all one can have is true belief about the project.

Shapiro’s thesis--that features of civil society associated with democracy are good for the environment--suffers from an ambiguity: “good for the environment” is simply never defined. As an environmental philosopher, I can assure you that it is no easy phrase to define, either. I am certain of two things about the good of the environment, however. A good environment is one that is just for the humans that live in it. The burdens of pollution and environmental degradation must be shared justly across a society. If some are to be displaced so that all can have cleaner air, this must because this is the fairest distribution of environmental goods. I am also sure of a second fact about the environmental good: we won’t know what it is unless we approach it with all the tools of good science. Both of these facts tell me that the aspects of civil society associated with democracy are not only good for the environment, they are actually constitutive of it. We just wouldn’t call it a healthy environment if it weren’t managed by other means.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

the grandparental bounty

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Caroline got a pink tutu that plays The Nutcracker Suite through tiny speakers when she moves. She also got a toy screw gun with different bits and a plastic car she can disassemble.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

a small, vague bird.

Joey is still sick. The doctor has given us a device called a "nebulizer" to use on him. Molly assures me that the nebulizer is not designed to make our child more nebulous, but I am unsure. He seems a little bit more…indistinct these days. Also, because he is on antibiotics, he has come down with thrush, which I know for sure is a small bird. Apparently my child is turning into a small, vague bird. I’ll keep you updated.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


The problem with having a lot of time to finish your grading is that the grading expands to fill the time you have.

Good sentence from a student paper

Regarding Socrates insistance to people like Euthyphro and Meno that a good definition is not a list of examples, a student writes
If Euthyphro said something along the lines of, “Piety can only be defined as this unseen form in which everything ‘real’ participates in”, then Socrates would agree with him100% and walk away actually having less of an idea of what piety is because of the lack of examples from Euthyphro.
This is actually from much earlier in the semester. I'm only revisting it now because I need to compare drafts of a paper.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Grading the CBL reflection papers

Grading has been going slowly, largely because the children are sick, and I haven't been able to get away from the house much. I have learned, however, that grading is actually less stressful than dealing with a cranky, feverish 3 year old who throws floor tantrums at the mere mention of Daddy leaving the house.

In any case, I just finally read the reflection papers from the Community Based Learning project in my environmental class, and I wanted to post some about the feedback I have received, if only for use as notes to myself.

The feedback was almost all positive, but as usual, the positive feedback was not nearly as educational as the negative feedback. The nicest bit of positive feedback came from the student who said "It is assignments like this that keep me in school." For the most part, though, the compliments were the ones I expected. Working with organic farmers gave students the chance to see the interaction between agriculture and the environment in person. One student noted that working with the Bennetts was especially useful for understanding an ethic of stewardship, a point which made it into one of his papers as well. Also, everyone loves working with Dulli from Birdsfoot. She is truly an inspiration for how to live a happy, harmonious life. You can get a good sense of what it is like to work with Dulli from student journal entries, such as this nice one by Caitlin.

But there are still problems, both philosophical and practical. On the practical level we simply aren't organized enough to get students enrolled and out with the community partners for all the hours we are expecting of them. There are serious problems with delegating authority. Students were not clear who was in charge of what--me, Brenda or Elizabeth. I was only supposed to deal with the educational aspects of this, but I didn't even know where to refer students when more logistical questions came up. It is easy to blame student irresponsibility when commitments aren't met, but we should look at our own practices too. Example: Am I going to get CBL partner feedback forms before Christmas? They are supposed to be a part of the grade.Update: feedback forms received.

A more serious philosophical problem is that most of the actual day to day work is not directly related to the course. While students liked seeing real farms at work, spending several hours planting garlic didn't contribute to the experience. One student noted that he learned as much from the one day field trip to the Greenwood farm as he did from the entire placement at Bittersweet. Right now, I wish I could use the CBL resources to arrange more field trips like that, rather than doing as much community placement.

Of course, we all have this intuition that physical labor, in the right context, is redemptive. So is helping people out. There ought to be something about going and physically helping people that is educational. Most of the time, though, physical labor is just physical labor. And working on a farm can seem to students like a Maoist reeducation camp. It doesn't help that the university actually does use community service as a form of punishment. One of my students was unable to complete her CBL requirement because she also had to follow the SLU grounds crew around as punishment for some minor dorm-room infraction. In general, I'm finding that that school's heavy handed approach to discipline often conflicts with its educational goals without actually solving the perennial problems it is supposed to address, like undergraduate binge drinking.

Friday, December 16, 2005

more on the difference between speech and action

One of the ways I've been avoiding grading is by engaging in a heated debate at Bitch PhD about sex work. Someone named sam has been presenting some very good arguments against legalizing prostitution, based on the lack of real autonomy of most prostitutes. But she also wants to extend this argument to cover all sex work. This strikes me as wrong. My most recent reply relates to things that I said about hate speech and the Mirecki case, so I thought I would reprint it here.


Do your comments also apply to pornography that is only text? or comic book pornography? Anime? What about pornography where the sex is only simulated? or where people simply pose nude?

I will, at least for the sake of argument, classify pornography where real people perform real sex acts as prostitution. I could see, plausibly, regulating them like prostitution. A law against paying for someone to be sexually penetrated, either on film or in person, makes sense to me.

But if you start regulating imagined or simulated sex acts, you are...well for starters you are confusing representations for reality, which is always troubling. But more importantly, you are beginning to regulate people's very thoughts and the way they express them.

There is a parallel here to the debate over hate speech. In an article I regularly assign when I teach hate speech and free speech, a proponent of hate speech regulation says that to him, words of hate aren't words, they're bullets. To this, the author of the article replies: no words are words and bullets are bullets. It is important to know the difference.

And it is. Look, the whole reason humans have this capacity for imagination is that it allows us to consider courses of action without having to do them. We can make mistakes and learn from them without actually getting ourselves or any one else getting hurt. And when i say "the whole reason" I mean that in a very concrete, evolutionary sense. That is why the capacity for imagination was selected for in our species. Now I know evolution can be a lazy and cruel designer, but in this case it did something right and good. We have a tool that lets us experience freely without the consequences of physical experience. Let's fucking honor that.

I dunno if a little paean to the imagination is what people expect here, but it seems right to me. One of the most annoying errors in reasoning, and the one that I see at work most often in seriously askew thinking is mistaking a representation of reality for reality itself.

What is to be done?

9 dialogues (with perhaps 2 more filtering in)
1 character sketch (with perhaps 1 more filtering in)
13 portfolios (with perhaps 31 more filtering in)
21 16 papers
Check for updates on the discussion board

Environment east and west

54 final papers (with perhaps 2 more filtering in)
6 portfolios and CBL papers (with perhaps 21 more filtering in)
An old paper from midsemester
Check for updates on the discussion board

2 Finals (with perhaps 1 more filtering in)

Independent study
1 big huge final paper.

In which I emit a high pitched whine

I am not going to finish all this grading before Christmas. I fell too far behind during the semester. Each time I get through a stack of papers, a student walks into my office and turns in another project. Who told them to do that? Me? Why did I do that?

Molly is having a rough day with the kids. We got so much ice last night I was actually frozen out of my car. I had to walk to school. (Uphill, both ways.) I feel completely exhausted, even though I got a good 9 hours of sleep last night, with only one major interruption.

Aargh. Gark. Grrr. . asdkfdhhwud. slkjsljksljk.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The continuing assault on academic freedom

After Paul Mirecki offered a course which lumped intelligent design in with other religious mythologies, he was beaten by two strangers who felt he was hostile to Christianity. Since then, he has had to step down as chair of his department. The police, alegedly investigating the crime against Mirecki, have confiscated his car and his computer. The Chancellor of his university called some of the statements he made about his course "vile." The right half of the internet is convinced that he beat himself up, their only evidence being that in the past in an unrelated case another academic vandalized her own car and blamed fundamentalists.

What has Mirecki done to earn all this abuse? His statements about intelligent design are simply fact: It is a mythology and not science. His ire toward fundamentalist Christianity is widely shared amongst academics, and indeed almost everyone who is not a fundamentalist themselves.

At this point I feel simply obligated to repeat the things that Mirecki has said, as a gesture of solidarity and because I think they are true:

Fundamentalist Christianity is irrational, bordering on being a form of group insanity. It promotes violence and intolerance. In this respect, it is no different than fundamentalist Islam. While I may have to tolerate the expression of intolerant views, I do not have to pretend I believe they are benign or a purely private matter.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Stupid autocratic environmental policy in China leads to protest, at least 20 dead

One of the stories that has been flying just beneath the media radar these days is the wave of protest against the Chinese government from rural areas. I was aware of it, but never chose to investigate, because, well you know. Now it has bubbled to the front page of the New York Times.

Villagers in the town of Dongzhou, near Hong Kong in the industrial southeast of China, were protesting the construction of a coal-fired power plant wind farm.(see update) China gets most of its power from coal, which has created a thick, Dickensian haze over the southeast region. Protesters feared more air polution, and were also mad that the plan required filling in a part of the bay where many made their living as fishermen. The villagers used fireworks as a part of their protest. "The kind that fly up into the sky," a witness explained. Nevertheless when the fireworks went off, the police appear to have rioted, fireing automatic weapons into the crowd. At least 20 are dead, and fifty are missing.

The times reports that there have been 74,000 riots in rural areast this year, generallay around environmental issues.
Like the Dongzhou incident itself, most of the thousands of riots and public disturbances recorded in China this year have involved environmental, property rights and land use issues. Among other problems, in trying to come to grips with the growing rural unrest, the Chinese government is wrestling with a yawning gap in incomes between farmers and urban dwellers, and rampant corruption in local government, where unaccountable officials deal away communal property rights, often for their own profit.

Finally, mobile telephone technology has made it easier for people in rural China to organize, communicating news to one another by short messages, and increasingly allowing them to stay in touch with members of non-governmental organizations in big cities who are eager to advise them or provide legal help.

Other fun Chinese environmental news include 100 tons of benzene spilled into the Songhua river and a mine explosion that left 134 dead.

Update: It wasn't a coal plant, it was a wind farm, which makes the whole thing more interesting. Villagers are protesting all development projects where their land is siezed and livelihood disrupted (understandably). I will have to blog more about the relationship between democracy and environmentalism soon.

Rejection Number Two

Dear Applicant,

The search committee has now reviewed the 7 million applications for our available position of Junior Adjunct Professor of Spit. We received many fine applications. Unfortunately, yours was not among them. Here's hoping you enroll in one of those government programs where they pay you not to work.


The Job People

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What is professionalism?

Here's another case of a blogger being punished because his blog was considered "unprofessional": a Marquette dental student has been suspended and forced to take a semester over because of remarks on his blog about unnamed teachers and students. The article only mentions a few examples of his remarks. At one point he calls someone "a (expletive) of a teacher." (The expletive was redacted by the newspaper or someone earlier in the chain of transmission of this quotation, not me.) At another point he revels in a display of incompetence by a student he dislikes.

Let’s look at the remarks themselves before we get to the deeper issue here. The first remark probably isn’t even an insult. Odds are that the redacted expletive is “fuck” and “a fuck of a teacher” is a compliment. I would be overjoyed if any of my students called me a fuck of a teacher on their blog. The second remark expresses an ignoble feeling, but a commonplace one. I myself have written and recorded an entire song about workplace schadenfreude (mp3).

So we know already that the blog is hardly controversial. But there is a deeper issue here. The student was called "unprofessional." Does this raise a higher standard? If the Ivan Tribbles of the world are to be believed, having a personal blog at all is unprofessional. What's really going on here?

A job becomes a profession when its practitioners decide that even though what they do has a profound impact on others, they ought to regulate themselves because they feel that others do not have the expertise to regulate them well. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers are all good examples of professions in this sense. These are people laymen have to trust because we don't have the knowledge to evaluate what they do, except in the most general way.

The ability to regulate yourself in such a sensitive position is a right that must be earned. It is earned by regulating yourself well. The first rule of regulating yourself well is not to betray the trust of your client by having a secret conflict of interest. (I use "client" to cover "patient" and "student" as well.) This is why the first rule of professional codes since the Hippocratic Oath has been not to have sex with clients. The second rule is to do your job well. Keep your skills up to date. Don't slack off because no one is watching you. many professional societies keep lists of "best practices": the best techniques in general for designing a bridge that doesn't fall down, for instance. An engineer can be sued for not using best practices. It is worth noting here that college teachers are woefully behind when it comes to identifying and promoting best practices.

Way, way down on the list of things that a professional must do is "look and act the part." Professions have lots of tokens of authority: robes, lab coats, Latinate lingo. These are important for evoking a feeling of trust, but really what is more important, evoking a feeling of trust or genuinely deserving trust?

I have encountered a number of unprofessional teachers in my career. Teachers who run extension courses where everyone gets an A without showing up and are curiously popular among full time students looking to graduate on time. Teachers who cancel more that a third of their classes in a semester and never hold the other classes for the full hour. Teachers who actively scoff at the idea of honing teaching skills.

I have never encountered a teacher who was unprofessional because of their blog.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

People should get beat up for statin' their beliefs

"He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth
People should get beat up, for statin' their beliefs" --TMBG

...and on a private listserv no less!

University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki offered a course in the religious studies department entitled "Intelligent Design, Creationism and Other Religious Mythologies."

Did he really mean to imply that intelligent design was a myth? Well, this is how he described the course on a listserv for athiests and agnostics: "The fundies want it [ID] all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.’"

Well, after his email was leaked, reprisals were inevitable:
Kansas University religious studies professor Paul Mirecki reported he was beaten by two men about 6:40 a.m. today on a roadside in rural Douglas County. In a series of interviews late this afternoon, Mirecki said the men who beat him were making references to the controversy that has propelled him into the headlines in recent weeks.

“I didn’t know them, but I’m sure they knew me,” he said. ...

He said the men beat him about the upper body with their fists, and he said he thinks they struck him with a metal object. He was treated and released at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

“I’m mostly shaken up, and I got some bruises and sore spots,” he said.

Well, it sounds like he's ok, thankfully. But the incident should remind us of the importance of distinguishing speech acts from physical acts, and how wrong it is to respond to any speech act, no matter how offensive, with an act of violence.

Discussions of hate speech over the last decade have attempted to push more forms of speech into the category of "fighting words," things that the government can regulate because they are more like acts of violence than speech acts. I never liked this trend: for the sake of a civil society with a vibrant cultural life, we need to say again and again that the morally important line is the line between a speech act and an act of violence, and not the line between polite and impolite speech acts.

In my practical ethics courses I routinely assign excerpts from a book by the libertarian thinker Jonathan Rauch on the debate over hate speech, which I like a lot.
A University of Michigan law professor said: "To me, racial epithets are not speech. They are bullets." This, finally, is where the humanitarian line leads us: to the erasure of the distinction, in principle and also in practice, between discussion and bloodshed. My own view is that words are words and bullets are bullets, and that it is important to keep this straight.
(Well, I've never liked the libertarian tactic of characterizing their opposition as warm hearted but soft headed "humanitarians" whose attempts to help people wind up hurting because they don't see the Hard Realities. This tactic plays on a false dichotomy between reason and emotion, and leads many liberals to think they have to prove their hard headed rationalism by periodically acting against the dictates of compassion by supporting a war or ending welfare or whatever.)

One could plausibly argue that Mirecki's comments were a kind of hate speech, and therefore fighting words, thus apparently justifying his beat down. I believe they are busy doing this over at The Free Republic Right now. The argument sucks, but where is the real breakdown? Should we try to distinguish what Mirecki said from "real" hate speech? It is much easier to continue to draw a bright line between speech and bullets.

via pharyngula

Korean Stem Cell Madness

Just a few links here, because I'm still majorly behind on work and had a debilitating fever over the weekend.


The television show "PD Diary" has aired accusations of major fraud against Hwang Woo-suk, including that the results in the 2004 Science article claiming that stem cells had been derived from a cloned human embryo were "a collection of falsehoods" (Story from Koran news service The Chosun Ilbo)


PD Diary itself has been accused of ethics violations during its investigation into Hwang, including bullying and hounding researchers, and possibly falsifying its information about Hwang's alegedy false information. Hwang, meanwhile, has said that he would not redo the 2004 Science results because it would set a bad precident. (The Shosun Ilbo, again.)

Ack, there's more stuff here than I can read right now--and it all looks so thrilling. The missing scientist, Park Eul-soon, is now being chased by the Korean spy agency. She is described as being the crucial link in the Korean team's success (if they succeeded) having the careful "hand skills" necessary to perform the nuclear tranfer (if it occured).

All this stuff is from and The Marmot's Hole. The discussion at Marmot's hole looks especially interesting.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I should check my helpychalk at yahoo account more regularly, because when it does get mail, it gets goodies like this: The Christmas Resistance Movement!
Together, we boycott Christmas Shopping, Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, and every variety of Christmas Crap. We refuse to support the Holiday Industry. We show our love for friends and family by giving our time and care, not by purchasing consumer goods. We maintain the integrity of giving by giving spontaneously and from our hearts, rather than during a specified season.

You are not alone. Together, we can RESIST CHRISTMAS!

Korean Stem Cell Intrigue

Have you guys been following the Korean stem cell craziness? has had great coverage, and the latest twist is like something out of a movie.

The junior scientist who donated her eggs for the Korean Stem cell project is missing. It turns out her name is Park Eul-soon, and she knows key information about how the Koreans accomplished their breakthrough.

Ok, refresher on the backstory. A Korean team led by Hwang Woo-Suk had a series of breakthroughs involving stem cells from cloned embryos. But allegations of ethical misconduct surfaced, including the accusation that he got his eggs from a junior scientist, giving the appearance that she was pressured by her bosses. The accusations get credence when Gerald Schatten of Pittsburg suddenly backs out of a major collaborative project with Hwang, saying that he has evidence that charges of ethical violations are true. Hwang then admits wrongdoing and resigns as project head.

Now here's what makes these new twists really exciting. Park, the junior researcher, disappeared in Pittsburg, where she had been working some time with...Gerald Schatten. The conservative Korean newspaper Chosunilbo ("the Fox News of Korea" according to one commenter) is speculating that Park may defect to Schatten's camp taking her stem cell secrets with her. Meanwhile, other Korean news outlets are reporting accusations of research fraud--not just mistreatment of human subjects, but misrepresenting data--against Hwang. Are there any Korean stem cell secrets to reveal?

Big fun!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Welcome Prospective Employers!

I am in the process of applying for academic jobs, and this blog is the first entry that comes up when you google my name, so I have no doubt that at least a few prospective employers will find themselves here.

Welcome. To the right, under the heading "my work persona" you can find plenty of material relevant to the job search, including my CV and writing samples. The rest of this blog is not directly a part of my professional work, although I do frequently discuss philosophical ideas here, some of which may wind up some day in professional work. Imagine a group of academics who have a regular date to go bowling. You might expect them to talk shop, and even exchange important ideas and information, but it still wouldn't go in their tenure file. If you want to hear more about my thoughts on how blogging relates to academic professionalism, I recommend you look here.

This post has been changed: Comments about professionalism are now just forwarded to another post.

Meeting Fuck *ff w/ Her Hat

“Bug People”
by Melanie Yazzie, 2000

Melanie Yazzie, who's print "Fuck off w/her Hat" caused a minor stir on campus, just gave a talk at the art gallery, so I had a chance to meet her and see her works in person. First impression: she was short and pleasant and gave me a hug immediately. She said that she had forwarded my blog post about her work to a lot of people, and that it was used for class discussion some places.

At the end of her talk, she told a bit of the history of "Fuck off w/her Hat." It is a part of the "Little Fuckers" series, which grew out of her experience at the Institute of American Indian Art, where apparently she had to do a lot of ambassadorial work with visitors who weren't always themselves diplomatic. The Little Fuckers series was circulated among friends as an expression of what it was like to have to appear short and pleasant and wear a funny hat while really wanting to tell people to fuck off. The Little Fuckers became totems of encouragement, given out to help other artists who were facing unpleasant tasks. It was only at the behest of a woman at Rutgers, who was infatuated with the figures, that one of the Little Fuckers slipped out into the realm of public art.

What a great story, if only because it gets at one of the fundamental functions of "fuck you" art, and one reason why so many people find it so appealing. The language is offensive if it is directed at you, but empowering if it comes from you. Your reaction to a piece of "fuck you" art thus depends immediately on who you empathize with. Really the best way for "fuck you" art to be distributed is informally as a token of empowerment. Fuck you art can be great in more public settings, and I so love Cathy from the Art Gallery for bringing Yazzie to campus and choosing to feature "Fuck off w/her Hat" in the exhibit. But I imagine it was even better to receive a Little Fucker figure from a friend when facing an unpleasant task.

Kristin Hersh has Blog!

Kristin Hersh has blog! How come no one told me? The woman whose CDs sing my children to sleep many nights and whose numerous bands constitute a big chunk of the CDs Molly and I can agree on has a blog!

And it seems to update regularly, not like the dead Sleater-Kinney blog! And it is in easy to access, standard blog format, not like the flash-heavy, gee-gaws-fill-75%-of -the-screen-so-the-text-is-in-6-point Kaki King blog!

In fact, she seems to be using blogger for her software. One of the things I always appreciated about Bob Mould's blog--and real proof that he is still super punk rock--is that he uses the same blogging software that I and a lot of other ordinary bloggers do. I assume he does it all himself: He doesn't have some elaborate site put together by marketing executives. Moby's blog used to look all market-y, but now I see that he has at least given his blog the look of an ordinary blog.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bride of "I'll Be Your Straw Man"

Michelle Goldberg at Salon lets us know that the war over Christmas is back. Once again, evangelicals are declaring that any time someone says "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas", every time an office holds a "holiday party" instead of a Christmas party, everytime Santa is invoked before the savior, the secularists have won another victory in their struggle to destroy Christmas.

And once again, good christian liberals are insisting that they do not want to destroy Christmas, that Christ is better honored by keeping his name away from half off sales, etc.

Last year I expressed my dismay at this rhetorical move by liberals, because it got in the way of my real goal this time of year: to destroy christmas. I honored the occasion with a list of aspects of christmas that I wanted to destroy, which included "The Little Drummer Boy", twice. I've had to retract some things from that list. Thomas snoped me with the pleasant truth that in fact suicide rates do not go up around christmas. In fact, Christmas frequently leads people to postpone suicide until January.

I stand by the Grinchy sentiment of that post, however. We must stop christmas from coming. I have already seen people dressed up as the little drummer boy. Things could get worse. I may have to watch that David Bowie/Bing Crosby video of the "Little Drummer Boy" with their damnable sweaters. Something must be done. This year, I have an ally, though. Flea has come out explicitly against Christmas. Victory will be ours.

Victory over Productivity!

They thought they could trick me into getting work done by cutting off power to my building, so I couldn't get to the internet, but I fooled them--I'm blogging from the Library! Ha ha ha!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Let the rejection begin!

Hey, it isn't even December yet, and I've already received my first rejection letter for a job application! Pacific University writes "Look, it's not you, it's us. We love you, but we're not in love with you. We are't ready to commit right now. (Except that we're going to hire someone else tenure track.) Don't go away mad, just go away."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

In which I embrace the common phrase, "I'm spiritual, but not religious"

We do not pray in our house, in part because I am an atheist. But atheism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for abstaining from prayer, and I often find myself in public circumstances praying with groups of people. One such circumstance occurred over thanksgiving.

My wife's people (on her father's side) are Quaker, going way back. I sometimes chafe at some of their stiff, almost puritan ways, but they were protesting slavery and abstaining from war back when other religions--maybe yours--were still wondering if Indians had souls. Molly's Dad, Mike, maintains his faith is by having a silent prayer before meals.

After one such prayer over break, Caroline asked me "Why you pray?" It had taken a fair amount of shushing to get her to be quiet for a short interval, and she wanted to know what the deal was.

"I better let you field that one, Mike," I said.

Molly interrupted before I could finish, saying, "Tradition," a standard answer we give Caroline whenever she asks about odd human behavior.

"Mike, did you still want to answer," I said.

"We pray to ask the Lord for help," he said.

A little later, when we were alone, Molly asked me what I thought of the incident.

"I was surprised he went with petitionary prayer. That's never been my favorite kind."

"It is, though, something that an almost three year old could understand."

"Yeah, but do you really want to give a child a Santa Claus notion of spiritual life?"

"So how would you have answered?"

"I would have said 'I try to cultivate a reverential attitude.'"

You, the internet, may be asking "A reverential attitude toward what, Mr. Atheist Person?" to which I can only answer, “You know, stuff.”

Those who fetishize the ability of science to generate knowledge think that one’s emotional life is a random, insignificant thing. But emotions can be apt or inapt. In truth, apt feeling may be more important than true belief. So here is a minimal sense in which one should be spiritual. Calling you emotional life a spiritual life begins to grant it the kind of meaning it merits.

Update: Speaking of cultivating a reverential attitude, PZ Meyrs links to this incredible BBC video of slugs mating. PZ's right. If this doesn't make you feel a little homely and inadequate, you have no understanding of beauty.

The tree outside my office window

Sept. 2, 2005


Nov. 1 2005.


Nov. 26, 2005

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thanksgiving Break

Blogging will be light, as the family leaves tonight on an extended car trip for thanksgiving.

[impolitic remarks deleted. Honestly, I don't know what I was worried about. Everything is going great.]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Linguists Gone Wild: Okay, something about language...

Following a referral link in sitemeter, I came across this lovely post on the grammar of expletives, which begins with the observation that expletives are their own grammatical category and ends with the hypothesis of an older language module, older than the modules that give us full human language, which covers simple context neutral expressions, like greetings and expletives. Really quite nice.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I hate computers

So we get this new wireless internet connection, and the first thing I discover is that the "wireless" part is bullshit, because the computer can only find the signal if it is sitting on the desk right next to the wireless router. The next thing I discover is that even when the computer is on the desk, just a few inches from the router, the connection is slow and is frequently lost altogether. So then I think, "Well fuck, if I can't actually move the computer, why not just plug the connection that currently runs from the wall into the router directly into the computer? I mean, why go through the router if it does nothing for me?" This immediately causes me to lose all internet connectivity altogether. Even after I put the cord back where it was originally.

So everything’s back in its original configuration, and there are no less than three (3) icons in the lower right corner telling me that I have an “excellent” wireless connection, but no web browser can find any web page. And I’m starting to say “grrrrr.” And Molly is starting to say “Um, Rob?” and I say “WHAT?!” in a tone that was not at all snappish, I swear, and Molly says “Nevermind. I am going to bed.” And I reboot a few times. Then I look at the paperwork that came from our new internet provider. It says “Premier Wireless rules and acceptable use policy agreement shall be between Premier wireless I.P. Inc, with its address at…..” I look at the help screen that comes up with one of the many wireless connection icons in the lower left. It says “make sure that you have the correct network name, encryption settings, and station ID (or MAC address)” but doesn’t clue me into what those are.

I shake my fists at the sky and curse the gods and goddesses of information.

Then I try the internet again and it works.

Objectivity is a process, not a result

The NYT is reporting on a new report by the inspector general of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on the reign of former CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. While chair, Tomlinson launched a campaign to rid public broadcasting of an alleged liberal political bias. Turns out to do so he violated every law that had been set up to shield public broadcasting from political bias. He personally pushed for funding of shows, including a show by Wall Street Journal writers, even though the board of directors isn't supposed to make content decisions. He imposed political tests on hiring and promotion. He singled out some programs for scrutiny, like “Now with Bill Moyers,” because he did not like their political content. Again, this was in the name of promoting "objectivity."

If Tomlinson is genuinely concerned about objectivity, he is grievously confused about what objectivity is. You do not call a process of gathering information (like reporting on a public broadcasting station) objective because it yields the results you like. Nor do you call a process of gathering information objective because it yields results equally favorable to you and your opponent. A process of information gathering is objective if it follows procedures which are known to have lead to truth in the past. A detective investigating a murder does not only gather evidence that will point to the guy he thinks did it. Nor does he gather evidence that implicates all suspects equally. He gathers the sort of evidence that has uncovered crimes in the past.

Of course, it could be that Tomlinson was not interesting in objectivity, but in power. His actions fit the pattern revealed in another report, this one on the way the FDA mishandled the rejection of over the counter Plan B. Each time, we see procedures designed to improve objective decision making trashed in order to achieve a conservative agenda.

I am finding myself quite the proceduralist in my old age. Perhaps it seems odd. In graduate school guys like me were all about the feminist and lefty criticisms of objectivity and science. But we never tried to do in objectivity altogether and replace it with a simple power struggle. The feminist epistemologists I respected—Helen Longino for instance—were all about creating a richer understanding of objectivity, and indeed of knowledge generating procedures. Essentially the camp that emerged in the 90s understood objectivity as intersubjectivity, and attempted to develop social epistemologies that exploited this fact to create better knowledge generating procedures.

(Ok, guys like Stanly Fish and Richard Rorty were all about replacing objectivity with a power struggle. But you know what? No one in philosophy liked them. They are really Ward Churchills of epistemology.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Wead! Wead!

Caroline needs to learn a lot about how to ask for things nicely. This comes out often when I am reading to her. If I pause momentarily to, say, talk to my lovely wife, Caroline starts bouncing in my lap yelling "Read! Read!", except she can't pronounce her r's very well, so she really yells "Wead! Wead!"

This happens so often that I have completely internalized it. On a busy day like today, when I have a lot of research that needs to get done quickly, I hear a little voice in my head--an angry, impatient toddler--yelling "Wead! Wead!"

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Strong Evidence of Ethics Violations by Woo Suk Hwang

Woo Suk Hwang and his team have led the world in theraputic cloning and stem cell research. They were the first to create stem cell lines from a cloned human embryo. They recently announced that they plan to create hundreds of new stem cell lines every year.

Apparantly there have also been rumors that the eggs for these cloned embryos came from one of Hwang's junior team members, which is always an ethics violation because it smacks of coersion. The team member may have also received illegal payments. Now a team from the University of Pittsburgh is pulling out of a collaboration with Hwang's team because they are convinced these accusations are true. I think it would take strong evidence of serious wrongdoing to get people to walk away from this much money.

This is the WaPo article, and this is the take on it. Also see the comment at on the Korean bioethics community, which has long distrusted Hwang.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fuck *ff w/her Hat

So last week I got the coolest thing I have received from campus mail at SLU. It was a flyer for this show at the Brush Art Gallery by Melanie Yazzie. The cover of the flyer was the drawing to the left, entitled "Fuck Off w/her Hat."

This is a really nice piece (and I haven't even made it to the Gallery to see it in person yet) and not just because the "Fuck Off" gave me a chuckle when I picked up my mail. Nor was I entranced just because everything in the design of the image draws your eyes to the "Fuck off," the way that it is centered, the black writing against a bright colored background, etc. I was amused by the juxtapositions. The thick black lines of the figure against the orange and red background. The attempted cutesiness of the figure, with her large wide set eyes, and the actual crassness of the way she is drawn, with those thick black lines (again.) Also, the orange and red marks in the background look like the lip prints from the character that somehow have moved from the world of black and white to the world of color. The title is cool too. It lets you know that "Fuck off" is the name of the character. It also points you to her hat, which, as Molly pointed out to me, looks a lot like a penis. I was impressed enough with the flyer to put it on my office door. Why not, I thought, students will know that this is a work of art, and that the "fuck off" is not directed at them.

well, the day after the flyer went out, the brouhaha started on the fac/staff listserv. People were offended. How dare university money be spent on this flyer! (People seemed to know not to object to the art exhibit, so they just objected to having to look at the flyer.) Someone sarcastically suggested that we all put the flyer on our office doors, to impress visiting parents and students with our maturity. (This actually led me to take down the flyer.) Soon, though, comments got really...dumb. There was an actual "A child could have drawn this!" remark which really bugs me, because I've spent a lot of time looking at childrens’ art, and I know that no child could do that thing with the black figure on a colorful background. People's inability to distinguish child-like drawing from actual children's art mostly tells me that they don't really pay attention to what their children do when they draw. Other remarks included "what if a child saw this!?"

What was even more embarrassing about the discussion was that the best defense people could come up with for the drawing was that art is supposed to provoke. As if no one had looked at any part of the picture besides the words "Fuck Off." Then people started sending emails with the "fuck" in the title of the work starred out: "F*** Off w/her Hat" explaining that the F-word shouldn't be in public email either. I decided the asterisk looked better in the word "off."

Finally Cathy from the art gallery posted and said she was sorry. When she sent the flyers out to the public, they had a warning label that said that this was not appropriate for children. Next time, she said, I will put the warning label on the flyers that go to faculty and staff as well. No one seemed to notice that they had just been told that they were children who needed to be sheltered from dangerous content.

Ok, here's the kicker. These gallery flyers contain material that is not for the prudish all the time. The flyer for the Get Your War On show was laden with profanity. Another flyer had on the inside a comic featuring two giant anthropomorphic turds discussing the history of political cartooning.

So why did this flyer cause the controversy? I think it was exactly the stuff that made it good as a work of *visual* art: the image succeeds in focusing your attention in a way that the clip art of GYWO simply can't. No one was offended by the other images because they weren't compelling enough to look at long enough to notice the profanity. But because Yazzie has visual sense, her drawing becomes controversial.

So this gets at one of my pet theses (I keep theses as pets): the censorious people of the world really are agents of ugliness. Censors are people who are scared precisely by the things that make life interesting. And I'm not talking about words like "fuck" here (although it is dear to my heart). I'm talking about things like color contrast.

Bad body image a better predictor of diminished sex drive then menopausal status

Via Twisty comes this newspaper writeup of a study which hinted that poor body image was the primary cause of diminished sex drive in older women, and not hormonal shifts. The write up is sloppy, but the best I could glean from it is that the correlation between diminished sex drive and body image is stronger than any correlation involving hormones.

If I'm right about the study, it is exactly what Twisty says it is: another piece of evidence that patriarchal conceptions of female beauty cause a lot of misery. Still, I am also irritated at the way people are misinterpreting the science here. First, there's the Reuters Headline "Body image, not menopause, causes lack of desire." This overstates things at least two ways. First, menopause was not shown to be completely irrelevant. It was merely shown not to be as important as body image. Second, the study doesn't offer us much reason to move from correlation to causation. We don't, for instance know that being horny doesn't actually improve body image, either because people primp more, or because horny people don't have quite as many negative ideas floating around about sex in general.

I'm also irritated at this remark in the comments at twisty: "And if the shocking finding is that women don't like their bodies, then I just have to sit, mouth agape, astounded that someone actually funded this study." I am bothered, in part, because this was simply not the point of the study. I am also bothered that sociological studies can't win. If they confirm common sense, they are accused of not being worthwhile. If they go against common sense, they are accused of being the product of a demented, overanalytic scientific mind. what it really speaks to is a kind of epistemic arrogance. Nothing anyone else says could be more compelling than what I already believe.

I am, though, not so irritated that I am going to track down the original article and actually develop an informed opinion.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Teaching Portfolio 3.3

As a part of my big job search, I've made a .pdf version of my teaching portfolio. In case any prospective employers come by this site, the link is now to the right under "My work persona". It contains syllabi, samples of class exercises and handouts, examples of feedback on student writing, and summaries of my teaching evaluations for Spring 2005. The longer version also contains complete copies of the original evaluations. There is also a shorter version available.

All the photos in the wallets on the battlefields

Teresa has her annual post up in honor of Armistice Day. We lost something when we started calling it Veterans Day.

Added, via Writers Almanac, this quote from Bertrand Russell about the Great War:
All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride.

Beard Envy

Ok, here's where I cop to having a major case of beard envy. Most of the dads of the children Caroline plays with can grow these spectactular beards. This is especially true of the ones who have lived in upstate New York the longest. Here's a sample conversation I might have with a dad picking up his children from our day-care co-op.

(North Country Man arrives, sporting three inches of beard below his chin.)

Me: Hey, didn't you shave your beard this morning?

North Country Man: Yeah, but I skipped my afternoon shave because I was too busy building an addition on my house using only trees I felled myself and rock hewn lovingly from mother earth by my own hand.

Me: Oh, yes, that must be why you are still wearing your tool belt, laden with long dangling implements.

North Country Man: Are you going to stare at my tools or let me in?

Me: Oh yes, come in. Your numerous and eerily self sufficient children are in the play room.

North Country Man: Moonbat, Mountain, Bench, come here! We have to go split wood for the winter! By the way, Rob, have you seen my knife, or my compass, or any of the other outdoorsy stuff I not only carry around with me everywhere but actually find occasion to use almost every day?

Me: Yes, you left them out back while you were teaching the children to identify signs of global warming in moose scat.

I wish I could grow a beard. I bet I would look good with a beard.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bodhisattva Never Disparaging

There's a fight going on, where people can get hurt. We need a little peacemaking. Let me try something here.

Paul's now deleted comments on B.Ph.D may have been too close to trolling. Or not. It doesn't matter now, because they have already been said. Further argument will not unsay them; it will only say them again, more forcefully, with more real world repercussions. Let it be.

Dr.B. may have made the wrong decision by deleting the comments and banning Paul. Or not. It doesn't matter now, because the damage has already been done. Further argument will not undo it; it will only do it again. Let it be.

The email Paul sent to Wally may have been threatening. Or not. It doesn't matter now because the damage has already been done. Further argument will not unsend the email, it will only send worse emails. Let it be.

Wally may have been wrong to contact Paul's advisors. Or not. It doesn't matter now, because Paul's advisors are now aware of what is going on. Further argument will not plunge them back into ignorance, it only gives them more evidence of unprofessional conduct. Let it be.

Paul may have been wrong to threaten lawsuits against Dr. B and Wally. Or not. It doesn't matter now, because things have already escalated this far. Actually following through on the lawsuits will not help anyone. They will only increase the acrimony. Let it be.

At this time there was a bodhisattva monk named Never Disparaging. Now Gainer of Great Authority, for what reason was he named Never Disparaging? This monk, whatever persons he happened to meet, whether monks, nuns, laymen or laywomen, would bow in obeisance to all of them and speak words of praise, saying, "I have profound reverence for you. I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and are certain to attain Buddhahood.
--Lotus Sutra, Chapter 20.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This could be the best thing ever.

How long as the beta version of Google Print been on line? I just went there for the first time, following the link from the Salon article. I can tell already that it could be a delirious browsing experience, and all they have up right now are some public domain texts and a few things they have copyright permission for.

This is the version of the Tractatus they have up, scanned from a book by a reprint service called Kessinger Publishing. In some ways the edition is delightfully minimalist. The cover just has the author and title in a medium sized font, and the contents consist simply of the propositions of the Tractatus and Wittgenstien’s introduction, along with a short text ad for the reprint service. Ludwig would approve of the austerity of it all.

On the other hand, there is no indication of who the translator is (it’s not Ogden’s translation), or even that the book has been translated from another language. Also missing are Russsell’s introduction, the dedication to David Pinset, and the motto from Kürnberger. I can see ditching Russell’s verbiage in the name of minimalism, but the dedication and the motto are part of the content.

Finally, Google provides us with a synopsis of the Tractatus, which, for some reason, consists simply of proposition 5.123
If a god creates a world in which certain propositions are true, then by that very act he also creates a world in which all the propositions that follow from them come true. And similarly he could not create a world in which the proposition 'p' was true without creating all its objects.
And all of this fun I got just from my first search of Google Print!

Update: Sometimes Googling around you can get to the Dover edition of the Tractatus, but it is not consistent, and it won't let you flip to other parts of the book besides the place your search lands you.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Philosophical Dialogue Idea

So I was sitting around dreaming up plots for horror movies, which I often do, and I started thinking about a mad scientist movie, like Frankenstein or Reanimator, where the mad scientists all are at universities, and have to deal with university BS, like tenure and IRBs. I was also inspired in part by some jokes on Pharygula.

Then it hit me: what we really need is a philosophical dialogue where Dr. West, from the Reanimator movies tries to justify reanimating corpses using glowing green goo to an IRB. The question: whether reanimatng a corpse is a harm to the corpse.

Now you think, of course it is. Any sane person would chose non existence over life as a zombie. But wait. If that's true, then don't those much maligned "wrongful life" suits have merit. Setting things in France would help, because as I recall, the French supreme court upheld a wrongful life suit, which then led to major legal changes banning them. (Maybe I'll check this at the office tomorrow.)

Well, it sounded like fun.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Doctor of the Future?

This weeks NYTimes Magazine has a cover story on a doctor working with Amish and Mennonite children with severe genetic defects, including a scary disease which in addition to being fatal makes your joints so rubbery they call it "The Pretzel Syndrome."

The doctor, D. Holmes Morton, certainly looks like a saint from the article. (And he's gotten similar coverage before in the Wall Street Journal.) He set up a clinic to help an isolated community at a time when his advisors were telling him to stay in pure research and he's used his field experience to develop a wealth of new treatments. Science as public service, field science, these are good things. We all like it when doctors help poor babies who are having seizures.

The article has another angle, though, which is less appealing: medical genetics will transform everything for the better. Sure, the article begins by talking about how medical genetics has promised too much
"The enthusiasm has dimmed," says Dr. David Ginsburg, a professor of medical genetics at the University of Michigan. "Many in the field have been accused of overhyping it."
But then it starts right away overhyping it.
"This really is the future," says Edward R.B. McCabe, co-director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center for Society and Genetics. "Genomic medicine will be predictive, preventive and personalized," meaning that treatment will be shaped by, and tailored to, each patient's DNA.
Of course, its easy to make medical genetics look good if your example is a doctor in a community that has been genetically isolated for a couple hundred years. The article doesn't use the phrase, but the Amish are dealing with inbreeding depression. It also helps the Times' example that the diseases they are looking at are caused by single mutations. In one case, a disease called glutaric aciduria Type 1 (GA1), the ailment not only has a single cause, but also has a treatment. GA1 is a metabolic disorder, and if you keep the baby away from the things she can't metabolize, she's better off. The other main disease the article tracks, pretzel syndrome, has a known cause but no known cure.

Still, you're thinking, once you know the cause, isn't it easier to find the cure? This is where the dangers of overhyping genetic medicine come in. The article briefly mentions that for a while Morton, the heroic doctor whose tale we are following, was planning on treating GA1 using gene therapy. For those of you who don't know, gene therapy is really a form of genetic engineering. Your genetic code is rewritten, but only to cure disease and only some parts of your body--not your gonads, so the alterations won't be passed on to future generations. It is rightly regarded as far less morally problematic than other forms of genetic engineering. But still, it is odd that the Amish, who don't even drive cars, were going to be among the first to rewrite their DNA.

In any case, the death of Jesse Gelisinger and the crash of the gene therapy hype made Morton move from using genetic technology as a possible cure to a tool for early diagnosis. He still pushes strongly for universal genetic screening for all sorts of shit. This is something I favor too, although I am more keenly away of privacy and discrimination concerns.

The thing is, we still have no reason to think that genetic medicine will provide a radical transformation in the treatment of diseases that aren't caused by a single mutation. Genetic medicine is good news for people like the Amish, groups with inbreeding depression. For that reason, it should be pursued. But hold off on promising stuff to everyone.

It's a Bad Pun, It's Creepy, and It's Geeky

Check out David's Halloween costume at Sweater Project.

David is my old friend Pippy's new boyfriend. I think he's a keeper.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

How Do you Survive a Second Term Scandal?

All of the presidents who have had a second term since Roosevelt Eisenhower have had serious scandals in the second term: Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra-gate, Clinton had Blowjob-gate, and W. Bush has Plame-gate. Nixon was brought down by his scandal. Reagan survived, although his numbers took years to recover. Clinton prospered during his scandal.

Liberal bloggers like to note the vast gulf in the seriousness of these scandals. Three involved subverting the democratic process and one involved a blowjob. I don't want to go over that one again. I was born and raised inside the Beltway, and I want to look and the totally Machiavellian angle: how do you survive one of these politically? Sidney Blumenthal claims that Reagan survived because he ditched the neoconservatives and brought in the center-right Washington policy establishment personified by Brent Scowcroft.

(For some reason, this establishment is typically called “the realist camp” particularly on foreign policy, where they use compromise and diplomatic maneuvering to maintain American power. People like W Bush are then called “idealists” because they use the military to spread democracy everywhere. To me, though, the two camps simply look like cautious and ambitious imperialists. Or better yet: power worshipers who understand power and power worshipers fixated on the crudest manifestations of power.)

In truth, though, Nixon has as much claim on being a centrist in touch with the political establishment as Reagan. While fighting the Viet Nam war he drove to the center on domestic issues, among other things, founding the EPA. Blumenthal does note something, though, that Reagan could do at the height of his political comeback that Nixon could never do. Blumenthal writes, “President Reagan's popularity rating had collapsed from 67 to 46 percent; it did not recover until a year and a half later, in May 1988, when he negotiated an arms control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and traveled to Moscow to declare the Cold War over.”

I have an alternative prescription for surviving your second term scandal: don’t be in the middle of fighting a losing war. Animosity to Nixon was driven by the war he kept us in, the costly war that served no purpose. Of course, this lets us know a lot about W Bush’s chances of surviving this scandal. Especially given new revelations (via Dr. B) about the VP’s role in authorizing torture.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Yes, I do endorse the use of the word "lover"

I was just having lunch with the family in a local coffee shop. I announced I had to get back to the office, and Caroline started to cry. "Daddy! I want you to stay here!" I reassured her that was ok, that I'd see her in the evening, and headed for the door. She followed me out, arms outstretched, tears streaming "Daddy don't go, don't go!"

Now imagine for a second that you had a lover who was this needy. Imagine that everytime you got up to leave for a few hours, your partner just became apoplectic. How long before you went completely nuts?

No, I'm not implying anything. I'm just sayin'.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Bitter Sarcasm in Footnotes?

I am considering putting a footnote in the bibliography of my GMO paper discussing the on line availability of some of the documents I site.

I am also considering ending it with this passage about a World Bank publication:
To find the World Bank publication “Global Commodity Markets” you must go to, click “Data and Research,” then “Document Search” then search in “Policy Research Reports.” Even then, for some reason, only the publications from 2000 are available. And this may not be true after November 2, 2005. It’s a brave new world.
Should I?

New Buffy Straight to DVD?

Via Pharyngula, this old, brief interview with Marti Noxon about negotiations for a direct to DVD movie featuring characters from Buffy. Noxon says up front that they won't be able to get Sarah Michelle Gellar, and they may not even be able to get Alyson Hannigan, but they still might try.

Personally, I'd watch a spin off that featured only Andrew and the cheese guy from the dream episode at the end of Season Four, if the writing was good. Also, and I know this is heretical, I would be willing to see major roles in Buffy played by totally different actors. If many many actors can play James Bond and Clarise Starling, why not Buffy Summers?

Update: While adding the Fray graphic novel to my Amazon wish list I encountered this rather complete list of the major Buffy products available.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I am trying to

resist the urge to blog on everything. Comments have been appearing on an old post about Kass and another in the comment thread vertical farming, issues I’d love to revisit. I got some interesting emails about the evolution of the female orgasm that I’d like to blog. I have a half written post about China’s efforts to lure western academics. I can’t do all these things.

So I’ll just provide a link Steve H sent. Tech Central Station is promoting oil from tar sands as an example of the magic ability of the market to turn not-oil into oil. They actually don’t have anything new to report, they simply write up Canada’s success at producing oil this way, and give numbers on the total amount of technically recoverable oil on from tar sands on earth. (They say it is enough for 400 years, which sounds right.)

What don’t they mention?

1. How high the price of oil has to stay for all of this tar sand oil to be economically recoverable. If oil prices have to stay high, then the peak oilers remain correct: the end of cheap oil is over.

2. The environmental cost of using tar sands, including the strip mining of the sands and the carbon released into the atmosphere.

3. The energy return on oil sands. Here is Stuart Staniford on the topic .
One measure of this is the EROEI - the energy return on energy invested - how much energy you have to put in to to extract and make usable a resource versus how much you get out. In the early years of conventional oil, EROEI was often over 50. These days it's probably in the low teens (10-12). EROEI on LQHCs [Low quality hydrocarbons, like tar sands] tends to be around 3.

I do not know what these factors imply. They may mean that the transition to oil from tar sands will be painful to the world’s economy and the environment. They may mean that tar sands can never be a major energy source. They may mean nothing. They are, however, the factors that were ignored by Tech Central Station.

Stuart Staniford at The Oil Drum has an analysis that looks more in depth. Maybe I’ll have time to read it some day.

I just had a think

I just had a think, and I think it was a good think. At the very least it was a thinky think. And since this blog is a thinking place, I think I will use it to think my thinky think.

Ok, so I'm rereading Cooper and James (2005) to prepare for class today, and I notice something I just blipped over before: in their discussion of the experience of nature in Buddhist sutras, they actually outline a very specific model of aesthetic appreciation. They don't just say "oh yes, there are plenty of descriptions in the sutras of people attaining enlightenment in natural settings." They note two facts: first, the sutras describe nature as a place where you can easily see "the impermanence and dukkha [suffering] that infuse the world"; second, the sutras describe nature as conductive to the virtues of tranquility, equanimity and self-restraint. This leads them to conclude that the experience of nature in the sutras is much like aesthetic experience in Kant and Schopenhauer, a detached and disinterested appreciation. They don't say this exactly, but it looks in particular like the Kantian experience of the sublime, because it involves a detached appreciation of stuff that is huge and terrible.

Ok, so there’s also this conversation in analytic aesthetics on the proper model for the aesthetic appreciation of nature which Cooper and James do not seem to be hip to. The two main disagreements in this conversation are about whether the aesthetic experience of nature should be detached (looking from the mountain top) or immersive (jumping in the mud puddle) and whether it should be cognitive (organized by scientific theories of nature) or noncognitive (merging with the ambience.) The Buddhist model C&J propose is clearly detached and noncognitive, which is an interesting combination. It also provides a nice antidote to people who assume that when you enjoy parks, you have to enjoy happy hoppy bunnies, and not nature red in tooth and claw.

Ok, so my think is actually quite small compared to the big thinking C&J have done. Really all my think does is link C&J to the analytic aesthetic conversation. But, you know, in my business, that right there is a journal article. What I should do is defend the C&J’s detached and noncognitive model to the analytic crowd using a few Buddhist premises. Basically, I can argue that all other forms of experiencing nature are suffering.

Ok, so the only reason why this wouldn’t go through is if someone has already introduced C&J and the analytic aesthetic crowd to each other. J of C&J has a new book out on the Zen experience of nature, so he may already be talking to the analysts, particularly Yuriko Saito. Ok, so I should investigate my thinky think.

Ok, so here's the bibliography:

Cooper, David Edward, and Simon P. James. 2005. Buddhism, virtue and environment, Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT.: Ashgate.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Pumpkin Insides

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.


Fire truck! Fire truck! Fire truck!

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The potsdam Halloween parade included fire trucks. Caroline was too scared to go for a ride.

Halloween is not Caroline's Best Holiday.

We went to David and Lisa's Halloween party again this year. A picture of all of us in costume is below, and more on Flickr.

We didn't stay at the party long, though. There were scary guys there. Someone was dressed up like the rabit from Donnie Darko.

After seeing him, Caroline spent a half hour curled up against me, hiding her face.

Caroline: "I don't like that scary guy."

Me: "Its ok, he went over to the dance floor, you can come out now."

C (hopeful, but still not coming out): "I think he went home".

Me: "Well if he did, you can certainly come out."

C: "I think he went to another party, maybe. A party with bigger kids who like to be scared."

She never did pull her face out of my side, and eventually we just went home.

Halloween 2005

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

the hedonic treadmill

A well known problem with pleasure is that once any given pleasant state is achieved, one quickly grows used to it, and begins to crave the satisfaction of a more outré desire.

In this respect shadenfruede is no different than all of our other fredue. Now that a top administration official has been indicted, and a supreme court nominee has withdrawn her name rather than face further mockery, I want more. More indictments. More resignations. More withdrawals. That woman nominated for the position where she deals with refugee issues, she's supposed to be a twit. I want her to withdraw her candidacy. I want a Rove indictment. A Cheney indictment. Perp walks! I want perp walks! I want to read that Bush’s approval rating among Latinos is 1%. Among Asians, 0%. I want to hear that his approval rating among seniors is minus 5%. I want to hear that they had to invent new forms of math to properly calibrate the contempt felt for this administration among women ages 18 to 35. I want Checkov, Uhura, Troi, Beverly Crusher, Kira Nerys, Seven of Nine, Kes, and that Vulcan woman from the most recent series to all come out as bi-curious. Wait, that’s a different want. I want Bush to admit he made a mistake. I want him to appear ashen faced in public, start to mutter an apology, and then start blubbering.

Sigh. I should just go to bed.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Halloween Pageant

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

I haven't felt this excited before a live performance since I don't know when. Maybe some occasion in college where I drove a long distance to see, like, Sonic Youth, or something.

Caroline and her classmates at the Little School got through two songs before the agony of being up on stage when the rest of the family were sitting in the small plastic chairs got to be too much, and she ran down, gave Joseph a big hug, and jumped into my lap.

Like all good performers, the other children knew that the show must go on, so several more songs were performed. Artists often look to each other to determine the acceptable boundaries of their art, though. Thus one of the other children, upon seeing Caroline decamp to her family, decided to decamp to hers.

One of the nice things about Children's Pageants that you don't see much in adult art is do overs. For one of their songs, Mrs. Randi decided they could sing louder, so she had them do it again. The only time I've seen adults do that was a concert by Sebedoh, where Lou decided that the first run through of the song was too slow, so they played it again at a faster tempo. It did sound better that way.

It turns out my camera was almost dead when I got there, so there aren't too many pictures. Click the above photo to get to Flickr where you can find the others.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

While KBR looks the other way, subcontracters employ slave labor

The Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles earlier in the month on where Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root gets all those Asian laborers that run the mess halls and supply chains for our war in Iraq. They have tapped into a long existing pipeline for the trafficking of human beings. Peasants are lured out of largely rural Asian countries like Nepal with promises of nice jobs that don't exist, and then coerced into dangerous and underpaid labor. Previously this pipeline supplied workers for Middle Eastern countries; now it supplies the Iraq war with bodies.

The reporter from the trib story was on Fresh Air today. (The Fresh Air links to the wrong audio file from the page on the KBR story. Here is the correct link.) Like any good reporter, he begins with the story of a few individuals, in this case twelve men from Nepal who were promised jobs in a five star Jordanian hotel, but found themselves in Iraq with no way to get home. KBR and its subcontracter didn't bother to provide them with protection: slave labor is too cheap to be worth it. The twelve men were captured by the insurgent army Ansar al-Islam and executed. The video of the execution made its way back to Nepal, where the young men's mothers could watch it.

KBR employs about 35,000 third party nationals through more than 200 subcontractors. This page at the Trib site focuses on their complicity in the trade in human beings.

Angry yet? US Citizens can contact their senators, representative, and president. It would be nice to influence Halliburton in some way, but, despite being major world power centers, large corporations like Halliburton are not directly accountable to the public for their actions. This is their website. If anyone can find an address to send mail to, let me know.

More on the current oil crises

While Rob the Unapologetic Athiest and Steve are having a little colloquy in the comments below on whether we are "running out" of "resources", the NYT has an article up about Saudi Arabia's maxed out oil production capacity. I'm still not in the mood to talk about long term projections for "resources" in general. Short term projections for oil are scary enough, and don't require us to debate the fit of Hubbert type models or the magic ability of the market to make oil out of not-oil.

The bottom line from the NYT article is that the Saudis have been promising to increase production to meet our increased demand, and even though oil experts doubt their ability to do so, the Bush administration has simply accepted the Saudis at their word. Here's a money quote:
"The long-term capacity was not considered a problem," said Robert W. Jordan, the American ambassador to Riyadh from 2001 to 2003. The Saudis, he added, "never expressed any concern about the need to expand."

"Nor did we, or at least me, engage them on this topic," he said.
Oil optimists are fond of quoting Saudi Sheikh Zaki Yamani, who said "The stone age did not end for lack of stone. The Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil." Ironically, it is the saudis who are now looking around and not seeing any more stones.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Corpus Delicti: Just Desserts

The Local Infinities theatre troop in Chicago is doing a show in the operating theatre of the University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine. The play is a dialogue between Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Larry Underwood) one of the first doctors to perform public dissections and the woman whose cadaver he has disected, Sister Luyt (Meghan Strell). Tulp you may know from the Rembrandt painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp", left. Luyt was actually a criminal--whose exact crime seems to be lost to history--whose sentence to be publically executed, dissected, and flayed. The Trib has a review of the play here.

Meghan Strell and her fellow founder of the Local Infinities theatre troop, Charlie Levin are acquaintances of mine. They were both good friends of my good friend/former housemate/former drummer Alex Blatt. Both Alex and Thomas have provided music for their works in the past. It is very exciting to see people I know do such interesting work.

Added: the story was via

how pale and insignificant those crude representations were

I used to read The Onion every week as soon as it came on line at the end of the workday on Tuesday. My interest had been fading until the Bush White House did our beloved satirists the favor of sending them a cease and desist letter regarding their use of the Presidential Seal in their parodies of Bush's weekly radio address. This wonderful bit of free publicity inspired me to go back to The Onion's page, where I saw a article by young Edwin Bauer in their community voices section, entitled "Fire Truck! Fire Truck! Fire Truck!" It begins thusly:
Look, out the window! A fire truck! I've seen drawings of fire trucks in my picture books, of course, but how could I have ever known how pale and insignificant those crude representations were in comparison to the real thing! Fire truck! Oh, great God in heaven, fire truck! This has got to be the most moving of mankind's creations, and perhaps of nature's, as well.
Read the whole thing, and understand your toddler better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

New York Review of Reviewed Books, issue 2

I want to use this space to note new books that look interesting, but which I only know through book reviews. (I've done this before.) I was tempted to call this the New York Review of Book Reviews, but I don't want to review the review. I just want to review the book second hand.

All that is a long winded introduction to this remark: Hey look, there's a new book in the Blackwell Companion series, this one on genethics. Metapsychology has a review. The review says that it doesn't work well as an introduction or critical overview, but many of the individual articles look exciting.

1. Mary Anne Warren has an essay claiming that "the individual gene has independent moral status." I always knew her theory of moral status was too inclusive. Now I have proof.

2. Bernie Rollin has an essay on the ethics of genetic engineering and cloning animals from an animal rights perspective. Maybe he can answer a question that has been troubling me for a while: will we soon being seeing huge confinement facilities full of genetically identical, cloned farm animals? Some people I've talked to said that this is coming, others say that it will never be profitable enough.

3. George Annas has a piece on monster mythology and genetic engineering. It would be nice to see something on this topic that doesn't simply rehearse the role of the Frankenstein myth in our culture and the image of the monster as a category breaker.

Apocalypse Now

An amusing anecdote from Abigail Zuger the NYT:
"I was crossing Third Avenue yesterday and I was coughing so hard I had to stop and barely made it across," a patient told me last week. "I'm really scared I'm getting the avian flu."

I just looked at him. What could I say? He has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the last 50 years. He has coughed and wheezed and gasped his way across Third Avenue now for the last 10 years. His emphysema is not going to get any better, but it might stop getting worse if he were to stop smoking.
Zuger's article is about the way disease fears in the media help us avoid confronting real problems in the here and now. Her thesis has rich analogies in other domains, particularly mine, environmentalism.

Environmentalists are often parodied as doomsayers and chicken littles, constantly predicting an ecological crises that never arises. This image is facilitated by environmentalists like Lester Brown, who really are doomsayers constantly predicting an ecological catastrophe that never arises. Brown's failed predictions about everything from population to the price of copper make it hard to talk about global warming and peak oil. Every time I try to talk to my colleague Steve Horwitz about resource issues he reminds me that the predicted copper shortages never came.

So here’s the deal: I’m never making dire predictions about the future again, because the present sucks enough. Let’s start with peak oil. I officially no longer care whether oil production has peaked or will peak, because excessive demand for oil—greed for oil—has already launched two Gulf wars. Here’s a charming anecdote from the current Gulf war, included in a recent Human Rights Watch report excerpted in the NYRB, describing the treatment of “Persons Under Control” (PUCs).
Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn't be in with no PUCs
You don't need to predict the end of civilization to argue for an end to our oil dependence. All you have to do is show that we don't quit oil, things will stay the same. A similar argument can be made, no doubt, using the current hurricane season and global climate change.