Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The 2005 Koufax Awards: Best Post

People have started reading this post again, because of a link that appears on this list of nominees for the 2005 Koufax Awards: Best Post. This has inspired me to fix a typo in the post.

Voting apparently has not started yet. When it does I encourage you to vote for me, or Echidne, or Kotsko, or whoever. There’s something odd about the “best post” category. Its somewhere between “best offhand remark” and “best five second stretch by an actor in a Hollywood movie.”

tooth crags in a gum sea

My morning was totally hijacked by dentistry, and now I'm in pain. I had written down that I had a dentist appointment, and I had just assumed it was a cleaning. When I got to the dentists office, the hygienist leaped out from behind the counter and surprised me with "you're here to have your fillings replaced with inlays." After I had been in the chair for a while I got another fun surprise. "You know, there is really too much decay here for inlays. I'm going to have to give you crowns on both these teeth. Don't worry, I won't charge you more, though."

Now I had always pictured crowns as something small that goes on the top of your tooth. They apparently don't teach this benign image in dentistry school, though. Mr. Dentist Person started in with the drill, and by the time he was done, there were just little crags of tooth left above the gum line. I guess “crown” is really “anything that is not the root,” or perhaps “anything we can get at with a drill and still leave tooth left to glue the crown to.”

They put in temporary crowns, which will break or fall off if I use them to chew anything crunchy, or sticky, or solid. They also used an electric cauterizer to push back my gums, so that they could find more tooth to drill into. My mouth hurts, and no one even gave me a sticker. Caroline always gets a sticker when she goes to the doctor. I want a sticker. Or a treat. But only a liquid one.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Blogging relationships, fan relationships, & real relationships

Dr. B has recently been putting things out about herself that people are likely to judge harshly. Her commenters, including me, are offering emotional support and advice, as all good readers of personal blogs do. Occasionally they suggest that Dr. B may be a bit at fault for her current predicament, and B, to her credit, takes this seriously.

But here’s the interesting thing, even more interesting than someone else’s marital troubles: Many commenters are asking whether they are friends offering support and advice, or readers. They emphasize the fakery and artifice that goes into an online personality. They even say things like this:
You - Dr. B. - should never forget that we are an audience. Nothing more; you and your family are characters that you construct and control for our amusement. Any advice or support we offer is not only useless, in this sense, its probably counterproductive.
And Frau Professora B says many things that support this distanced reading of the blogger/commenter relationship. In the original post of this sequence, now removed, she justified spilling personal details of her life because that's what a writer does. When she was accused of being dishonest with her readers, she wrote this:
I shall never understand why people who think that a writer is fundamentally dishonest is likely to suddenly realize this and admit it because a complete stranger points it out.
So what are we doing when we spend all this time online, chatting at each other? Are we creating fiction after fiction, or are we forming *real* relationships?

I want to answer this question the way that all bloggers do, by talking about myself. I also want to talk about the word ‘real’, which is useful and good, but prone to misuse. (This puts it in a category with words like ‘true’ and ‘self’, and in a different category than the word ‘nature’, which I think we should give up on altogether.)

Consider the following:

My relationship with Dr. B., whose blog a I check daily, who sometimes reads my blog, and who has sent me real live personal emails.

My relationship with Curt Cobain, whose work I loved, whose published life and professed attitudes I felt a connection to, whose suicide caused me genuine dismay, and who never knew a thing about me.

My relationship with my neighbor Ms. Vicky, who occasionally comes over for coffee, and who reads this blog but never comments. (Hi!)

My relationship with a mommy (Mommy A) in my child’s daycare co-op, whom I rarely say much to, but always thought was cute and charming.

All of these relationships are relationships with a public persona. They all involve a potential for falsification. Dr. B may be constructing fictions about her life on her blog. But then again, Mommy A could be a Satanist, conducting bizarre rituals in her basement, rather than the mild mannered Unitarian she claims to be. On the other hand, they all involve real affection, with varying degrees of intensity and reciprocation. I honestly hope Dr. B works out the issues she’s having, and when I offered her advice and support, it was the best advice I could give with the information I had.

No one would say that my relationship with Ms. Vicky is a relationship with a fictional persona, or not a real relationship, despite the potential for dissembling. (How did Chirp the Bird really die, anyway?) Similarly, I think I have a real relationship with Dr. B.

The problem is the ambiguity of the word ‘real’ and the attitudes it engenders in those who use it. ‘Real’ is sometimes used to talk about what is authentic. Thus we ask if a painting apparently by Rembrandt is real or fake. We also use real to talk about existence. Thus I frequently claim that human caused global warming is real, but, say, unicorns, are not.

The urge to dismiss some relationships as not real I think comes from confusing these two notions of real. The important thing about all the relationships I named above is that they were with actual existing people. There are cases where one develops an attachment to a person who does not actually exist at all. There are bloggers who turn out to be fictions. People form email relationships with J.T. LaRoy. The world of personal zines offers an interesting prelude to the world of personal blogs. There was a guy who wrote a zine called Subliminal Tattoos, that was popular enough to even be distributed at Barnes and Noble. It later turned out that the guy was pretending to be a teenage girl in another zine, and took up snail mail relationships with other teenage girls using this persona. I have good evidence that Dr. B is a real person in a way that LeRoy, say, was not. In that sense, we who read her blog have a real relationship with her. On the other hand, it is clear that the person we have a relationship with may be misrepresenting herself, but that does not make the relationship different than relationships we have that aren’t over the internet. It is only by leaving the notion of ‘real’ vague that we miss these obvious points.

There is an urge to dismiss relationships mediated by new technologies or social structures. I don’t think that this is justified.

pentagon covers up the cause of death of female soldiers.

Apparantly, a poorly lit latrine at Camp Victory in Iraq became a rape hazard. Specfically, it was a place where male U.S. soldiers were likely to rape female U.S. soldiers. The women of Camp Victory responded by not drinking water in the late afternoon, so they wouldn't have to pee at night, even though daytime temperatures could reach a 120 degrees. As a result, several women died of dehydration in their sleep. But here's the kicker: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez ordered the cause of death covered up.

All this is accodring to Col. Janis Karpinski, formerly Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the scapegoat for the Abu Ghraib scandal. Here is the report of her testimony. (Via braodsheet.)

Added: They are debating the credibility of this report over at Majikthise including whether the story itself is believable and whether Karpinski is a reliable source.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pure as the Driven Slush

Heather Corina offers feminist, sex-positive, sex advice for teenagers at her website scareleteen. In her blog she recently talked about what happens when she hears from someone in serious trouble. She doesn't provide permalinks: go here and scroll to Jan. 16 if it isn't on top.

Peak Oil and Fertilizer

In an essay I routinely assign to students, Richard Manning writes.
Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. (Manning 2004)
I had always assumed that a significant portion of the oil used in the production of food was used in the production of nitrogen fertilizers, and that the guaranteed rise in oil prices in the coming decades would hurt conventional agriculture specifically by cutting off the flow of nitrogen, a cycle in which 1% of the Earth’s primary energy productivity goes to feed 40% of the human population (Smith 2002).

I should have realized, though, that the picture is more complicated. “Peak oil” is the name given to the prediction that that the production of oil over time follows a bell curve pattern, with a peak that will occur in the near future or perhaps has happened in the recent past. Life on the down slope of that curve will be increasingly difficult, and should be feared much more than possible end of oil production altogether. So what would be the effect of peak oil on fertilizer production?

Fertilizer production accounts for 28% of all the energy used in agriculture, but the limiting input to fertilizer production is not oil, or even fossil fuels, per se. The important input is hydrogen. Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia, which for nearly a hundred years has been synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process. The Haber-Bosch process makes ammonia from hydrogen, nitrogen from the air, and an iron catalyst. Since the 1960s, most of the hydrogen for this process has come from reformed natural gas. Since the mid-70s it has been unprofitable to use fuel oil for this process. (See this UN document.)

Several factors mitigate the threat peak oil poses to fertilizer production. The first is simply that the relevant peak is not oil, but natural gas. Natural gas production will also peak, but the peak is generally thought to come about 10 years after the oil peak (see e.g., here which buys us some time. Second, hydrogen does not have to come from reformed fossil fuels at all. Hydrogen can be made by electrolyzing water, using electricity from the greenest of sources, like wind or solar. Proponents of hydrogen fuel cells are fond of emphasizing this point, and most talk of a coming “hydrogen economy” assumes that solar or wind will be used to create the currency for this new economy on a large scale. If these predictions are correct, then nitrogen fertilizers will actually have a comfortable place in the post oil world. Finally, biotech may wind up contributing a lot to fertilizer production in the future. Legumes fix nitrogen because they have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that produce the enzyme nitrogenase. Nitrogenase also makes ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, and we are beginning to understand more about how it works its magic. One of the articles I found while googling around on this topic is a report in Science identifying the three dimensional structure of nitrogenase (Einsle et al 2002) along with the comprehensible to outsiders write up of the report (Smith 2002). Genetic engineering has long track record now of creating microorganisms that produce useful chemicals. In the future, ammonia may be on the list.

Another interesting post I found while googling around compares peak oil to the Y2K scare. “Y2K?” you ask, “wasn’t that a lot of people getting all freaked out over nothing?” Not the way Jamais Cascio sees it. He says Y2K was an example of people getting all freaked out, organizing a global response, and averting disaster. When the levee holds, everyone assumes that there was no danger, and the levee builders where upset over nothing. Perhaps even the money spent on fortifying the levee was wasted. The levee builders know better.

I think there is a good chance Cascio is right. There are a lot of problems raised by peak oil that we can avert if we get freaked out now.


Einsle, Oliver, F. Akif Tezcan, Susana L. A. Andrade, Benedikt Schmid, Mika Yoshida, James B. Howard, and Douglas C. Rees. 2002. Nitrogenase MoFe-Protein at 1.16 Å Resolution: A Central Ligand in the FeMo-Cofactor. Science 297 (5587):1696-1700.

Manning, Richard. 2004. The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back To Iraq. Harper's Magazine, February.

Smith, Barry E. 2002. Nitrogenase Reveals Its Inner Secrets. Science 297 (5587):1654 - 1655.

My Little Revealation about the Letter People

At Caroline's school they are learning about the Letter People: Mr. M with a Munchy Mouth, Mr. T with the Tall Teeth, etc. I was told at the beginning of the year that all of the consonants would be male and the vowels female. This made me wonder what they would do about Y. Would Y be a hermaphrodite? A tranny of some kind?

As it turns out, I was misinformed. As you can see from the catalogue at the Letter People homepage, there are at least two female consonants, as well as Ms. Y, who may still have some vowel-identity issues.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

NCAEFA Comment Bag

Bridgett writes: I think you might want to consider being an art teacher for the pre-school children of affluent hippie parents. If you can do so bilingually and with recycled goods to boot, I can guarantee that your driveway will be choked with Volvos and Saabs and your hallway will never want for cubbies and backpacks.

What are you talking about Bridgett? We already run an art school and are not wanting for cubbies and backpacks.

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Also, in these Wintery climes, affluent hippies drive Subarus.

Winter CSA in Michigan?

Mona passed along this article from the Detroit Free Press about an organic farm run by students and faculty at Michigan State University. The interesting thing is that they can keep their CSA going all winter long using unheated greenhouses and Winter-hardy crops. I bet the same thing could be done in Northern New York. I'd certainly sign up. Right now it seems like all access to fresh organic produce shuts down for the winter.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Aleatoric Techniques in the Work of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Aleatoric Techniques in the Work of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts

When I first began archiving the art produced at our local academy, I was quite concerned about shoddy storage techniques. Art was being produced more or less continuously, and I couldn’t even wait for a piece to dry before putting it away. A typically morning would have all of the young artists around the dining room table making an ungodly mess, and then at ten the whole thing would have to be swept away for snack time. Work got piled together wet, and later when you tried to separate them, little pieces of one artwork wound up stuck to the next artwork.

I have learned not to worry about such things, though, from the advanced aesthetic sensibilities of the students at the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts (NCAEFA). Moreover, learning this lesson has made me rethink the boundaries of a work of art and the nature of the creative process.

Over the summer, we liked to hold class outside on the back porch. The artists could get paint all over themselves, and afterwards we could just hose them off in the blow up swimming pool. But the arrival of a summer cloudburst often forced us to decamp to the playroom fairly quickly, and sometimes art, which had been placed on the porch rail to dry, was left behind. One day, when I and another caregiver were trying to usher our charges indoors before the rain, I stopped to bring in a picture of Caroline’s that had been left out to dry.

“Daddy no; leave it,” said the artist.

“But it will get rained on,” I protested.

“I want it to get rained on,” came the reply.

That’s when I saw the depth of the creative mind I was working with. Random elements, which I had been thinking of as storage problems, were actually a part of the art work. Some pieces simply weren’t finished until they had been left out in the rain. Once realized this, I could see that several of the pieces were extraordinary. The image above is a scan of the work Caroline asked me to leave outside. It was not only rained on, it was caught under the downspout, folded along two axes, and soaked. The result is quite beautiful.

This next piece, as well, is a product of the rain method


Look at how the water brings out the texture of the paper.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

New Heights in Sci-Fi Gobbledygook (With Battlestar Galactica spoilers)

Have you been watching the Battlestar Galactica remake? Ok, last night on Battlestar Galactica, roughly this conversation occurred

Dr. Baltar: OK this is human blood.

He draws a hexagon on a transparency. Why a hexagon? What does this mean?

Baltar, continuing: This is Cylon blood. It looks similar, but its different, because they’re Cylons.

He draws an octagon on the transparency, overlapping the hexagon. Why overlapping?

Baltar: This is the thing, it has no antigens. The Cylon baby literally has no blood type.

Admiral Adama: What are you saying?

Baltar: We can cure the president’s cancer.

Adama: With the Cylon baby’s blood?

Baltar: With the Cylon baby’s blood.
The blood cures disease because it has no type? I know this is just a plot device, but come on guys! Also, I am losing patience with the fact that the Cylons are indistinguishable from humans biologically, and yet are robots with superpowers. I know, the show isn’t really about robots. It's about religion; it's about military and civilian government; it's about the characters. I gave this spiel to Sweater Project when he complained about the lack of believability. But Christ, man, the Cylon blood cures cancer because it has no type?

There are other weirdnesses in this episode. Early on they decide to abort the Cylon baby because it has “genetic abnormalities that could threaten the fleet.” What exactly counts as a genetic abnormality if you are a hybrid between a human and a robot that is oddly indistinguishable from a human? How does a genetic abnormality threaten the fleet? Just give me something, man, a little something plausible enough so that I can return my attention to plot and character. I don't ask for much.

I’m also getting tired of the references to contemporary politics that don’t add up to anything. The cancer cure resembles stem cell research. So? What does this mean? Also this episode features a shitty stereotype of peaceniks as people who collaborate with the enemy and aren’t at all committed to nonviolence.

Are we already jumping the shark with this show?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Sad, unproductive

I've been at the office for two hours, but gotten next to nothing done, because I am thinking about the war. The rant in the post last night is still echoing around my head. I am reading militarist trolls on Pharyngula along with people who respond to them by saying “I’m not a pacifist, but…” By making overt pacifist statements I have no doubt shown that I am beyond the pale of reasonable conversation.

Ok, the semester starts Monday. I have job applications to file. I must concentrate. Maybe if I try to work in the bookstore.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The difference between 9-11 and the bombing of remote Pakistani villages

My government, using an unmanned Predator aircraft, bombed a remote Pakistani village in an attack which they knew would kill civilians and thought might also kill al Qaeda leaders, which in turn might reduce al Qaeda's ability to kill U.S. citizens. Our government felt the certain loss of Pakistani lives was worth the possibility, twice removed, of saving American lives.

On 9-11 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade center, in an attack that the knew would kill civilians, on the hope that it would lead the US to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia.

Thus we see the difference between the Bush administration and al Qaeda; we see why we fight. Al Qaeda deliberately targets civilians. The Bush administration launches attacks that they know will kill civilians, but which are intended to kill combatants, even if they actually have a small chance of doing so.

This distinction looks a little like a notion in Catholic medical ethics known as the doctrine of double effect, which has its roots in Aquinas. The idea is roughly that it is ok to do something that you know will be hurtful, if the hurt is just a side effect of something you intend that does a greater good. (Consequentialism on the cheap for deontologists.) But the Bush bombing can’t even be justified this way: the long chain of uncertainties between the bombing and any positive outcome is easily crushed by the surety of the death of innocents.

Whatever the line that separates American tactics from al Qaeda tactics, it is apparently of immense moral importance. Bin Laden talked of a truce in his most recent audiotape, to which our esteemed vice president replied “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” (This is a line I never understood: if you are in a war, who else would you negotiate with, besides the enemy? When Arafat was still alive and Sharon was still conscious, Sharon would always refuse to negotiate with Arafat because he was a terrorist. Instead, the Israelis would negotiate with someone else who is not actually attacking them, like I dunno, Finland, and hope that a settlement with the Fins would somehow transfer over to the Palestinians.) Whatever the line is that separates American who kill civilians from al Qaeda people who kill civilians is, it is so significant that it makes the people from al Qaeda subhuman. You cannot talk to them, their demands are never reasonable, because the way they kill civilians is worlds apart from the way we kill civilians. Even when we torture innocent civilians, we rise above the action of the accursed enemy.

Of course, this all depends on the assumption that the lives of Pakistani civilians are as important as the lives of Americans. As I drove Caroline home from school today, I listened to an administration spokesperson on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. A caller wanted to know if the administration would have bombed the village if they knew Americans would be killed. For a follow up question, he asked if the administration could provide a ranking of nationalities in terms of how acceptable it was to kill them. The administration person mostly talked about how unlikely it would be that any Americans would have been in that village. She did add, though, that anyone who was there should know the consequences of associating with terrorists. (Or the risks of associating with people who might be terrorists, or the risks of being in a place where people who might be terrorists might be.) The response was remarkably disingenuous--bullshit, even. We all know that evidence that al Qaeda leaders were in Dearborn, Michigan would not lead to a bombing on US soil. We also know that when Canadians are accidentally killed in a US attack, we at least express our “deepest sorrow and sympathy”. When Pakistanis die, though, they should know not to associate with terrorists.

The ethics of impartiality--the basic idea that all lives are of equal worth--gets a bad rap from people like Carol Gilligan, Nell Noddings, and other “care ethicists,” who argue for favoritism towards people like your own family. I swear, though, if the combatants of the world held themselves to the same standards they use to denounce their enemies, war itself would end. The bloodshed continues because people are always willing to make exceptions for themselves. Our war crimes are not war crimes; they are symbols of our resolve. Our torture camps are not torture camps; they are justice in a post 9-11 world. Our wiretaps are not wiretaps. Our crusade is not a crusade.

North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

As some of you may know, we run a small arts academy out of our house, the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts. (Motto: Sarma eike kexumenon 'o kallistos kosmos.) I have been archiving some of the work this school has produced, though unfortunately not in a very scholarly or rigorous fashion. I haven’t been dating things, and I have focused mostly on the work of a single artist, even though the mutual influences among the school are clear and fascinating.

The above piece, Caroline Loftis untitled (Watercolor on paper, Summer 2005), is an example of the incredible artistry that first drew me to the work of this school. It follows in the tradition of monochromatic canvasses from abstract expressionists like Ad Reinhardt. But look at the dramatic brush strokes, harkening all the way back to Van Gogh! The swirling purples create an absorbing, unearthly landscape.

This C. Loftis used monochromatic technique for most of the summer of 2005—that is the main way I can date the work. She learned the technique from Xiomara Oey-Langen, a colleague at the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts. For a while, in fact, no one at the North Country Academy could step away from a work until it was completely filled in. I do not believe I have any of the original X. Oey-Langen pieces that inspired this movement achieved, although some may still be in the possession of the Oey-Langen family.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Seven searches that led people here.

I think I got all y'all beat for weirdness here.

1. Monkey taking a shit
2. female choose mate orgasms
4. Evangelicalism and fundementalism
5. human females

The all caps in 3 and the misspelling in 4 are from the original searches. That’s how people come here, by not knowing how to spell or use a keyboard. Moreover, I am the number 2 google result for "Monkey taking a shit"

I would also like to apologize to

6. Meghan Strell
7. Rhonda Danielle Egan

People searching for both of these names have wound up here. I am thus partially responsible for your unusual public image.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Abortion Blogs

My recent post on the New Zealand study of the effects of abortion has been linked to by a pro-life blog aimed at women who have had abortions and are feeling bad psychological fallout. Welcome new readers! I should clarify some things: although I write about abortion fairly often, I am not a woman, as many of you seem to think. I do try to compensate for this, however, by being a good listener. Two commenters at After Abortion were surprised that I could show off pictures of my children and still be pro-choice, revealing an ugly stereotype life people have about choice people. Please remember that we are not child-hating monsters: we have families that we love dearly. I myself see no conflict between loving children and supporting abortion rights simply because I do not believe that a fetus is a child. Certainly not a first trimester fetus, and an embryo is even farther removed from being a child. There is one comment from After Abortion which I will simply admit to be true: I did wander off topic when I started talking about the bible and abortion. Blog writing is informal that way. I have more to say on the topic in the Teaching Abortion Ethics links to the right.

It would be nice to see a level headed conversation between choice and life factions on the effects of abortion on women. Although it may be an odd thing for a man to do, I will probably be writing more about this shortly, having just received a copy of the New Zealand study through interlibrary loan.

News Roundup

1. Of course we are all used to glow-in-the dark genetically engineered animals by now. But have you seen glow in the dark pigs that are this bright? (Added: Via Bioethics.net.

2. Rioting in China is getting really ugly. "At least one person, a 13-year-old girl, had been killed by security forces...The police denied any responsibility, saying that the girl had died of a heart attack."

3. Both Flea and Dr. B have been approached to be on the reality TV show Wife Swap. Fortunately, both declined. Apparantly, they were both supposed to be bait for women like this. (Warning, really scary reality TV person at the end of that last link.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The border between waking and sleeping

Every couple months, I fall asleep while wondering "Why is there something, rather than nothing?" It is not an issue I work on professionally. When I think about the issue professionally, I wind up agreeing with the positivists that the question is simply not well put. Nevertheless, I frequently find myself driven to it. The first question is generally something like “Why can’t I find a job?” Intermediate questions generally include “Why did the universe start small, and then expand, rather than just starting big to begin with?” Then I ask “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” At this point I know I should just fall asleep. All hope of productive thought is lost. But really, why is there anything at all? I mean, a lot of incomprehensibility seems built into the structure of the universe--as does a lot of injustice. This bothers me, or at least I think about it when I am bothered and can’t sleep.

A fun answer to the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing,” is “well, actually, there isn’t anything.” You might think this answer is licensed by the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata. But really, sunyata only denies a certain kind of existence, generally translated self-existence. Relational, non-essentialist ontologies are neat, but they don’t satisfy my maundering, late-night mind. Why do relationships exist? Whence the myriad things, the thousands of appearances?

And why do they have to be so annoying? (I have heard this question asked by Hume, and my old roommate Thomas.) At this point I know I am not thinking right. Psychologists who study sleep for some time have urged us to think in multiple categories. “Sleeping” and “waking” are crude divisions among varieties of experience that don’t map on to patterns seen in EEGs. “Exhausted,” “drunk,” and “agitated by irrational questions” are clearly others.

I should just sleep.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bush Began Collecting Information US Citizens from Wiretaps Before 9/11

The NSA began wiretapping shortly after Bush was sworn in, and under direct orders from Bush and the defense department, began keeping a list of American Citizens whose speech made them suspect. Here is the story based on this declasified document, via Majikthise.

Clarification: the declassified document only shows that the data mining operation was ready to go when Bush was sworn in. Other sources in the article say that he began using it to collect an enemies list of US citizens before 9/11.

Plants turn out to be a source of a greenhouse gas.

A new study in Nature suggests that living plants are actually producing methane, a major greenhouse gas. If you have a Nature subscription, you can read the study here. Here is the response at Realclimate.org. Here is an article from the Financial Times about it. Here is the Guardian article.

If the results hold up, and this methane turns out to persist in significant levels in the atmosphere, they will affect climate science and global warming negotiations. Climate models will have to be rejiggered. The credit nations get for forest cover in the Kyoto protocol should be reduced. Details of the fallout have not been determined yet. There is some nice romance to the discovery itself. The researchers "acted on a hunch after they found hints of methane from leaves left in an incubator" and everyone else is now slapping their foreheads saying "how could we have missed this?"

The Financial Times article uses this as an opportunity to undermine confidence in climate models in general. Although the author says global warming is real, and that these results only affect how we should respond to this, the subtext seems to be, “Hey look, scientists keep changing their minds, so why should we ever make plans based on scientific predictions?”

This kind of reasoning is what I call the “Sleeper fallacy”, after the Woody Allen movie where Allen plays an owner of a health food store who wakes up in the future to find that smoking and fatty foods are now good for you. It’s funny, because we can imagine that changes in science could make almost anything good for you. But that doesn’t really change anything. You can’t justify taking up smoking now just because at some point in the future it might be found to be healthy. You act on the best information currently available to you. The difficulty in determining the consequences of your actions does not absolve you of the responsibility to act with as much foresight as you can.

(via Steve H via email.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Seed Magazine Scoops Up Cool Bloggers

Both Pharyngula and Adventures in Ethics and Science have moved moved to ScienceBlogs, hosted by Seed Magazine. Not only that, but PZ Myers at least is now being paid to blog. Congratulations to both!

Eat your peas, people are starving in Bangledesh!

It's one of the older parental brain teasers. People of my parents generation were told to eat their peas because people were starving in Europe (because of the post-war shortages). I, a child of the 70s, was told to eat my peas because people were starving in Bangladesh. I imagine my students were told about people starving in Africa (where, by the way, they are still starving.)

This argument never quite makes sense to children. We all wondered, "How will my eating these peas help someone in Bangladesh? If I eat these peas, other peas won't magically be transported to south Asia."

However, your parents were right. (Of course your parents were right.) But their reasoning needs a little filling in. When I cover this argument in my ethics classes (and I do cover it in my ethics classes) I explain it in terms of opportunity costs. Money your family spends on food could have gone to charity. If you are able to cut back on your food budget by wasting less, you can give more money to UNICEF. Of course, for the argument to really work, you must actually give money to charity when it becomes available, rather than just wasting it some other way.

As it turns out, you can quantify this kind of waste on a global scale. This is one of the things Smil (2004) does. One of the reasons I like Smil is that he deals with large scale figures that span economics and environmental health. For instance, he keeps track of the ratio of GDP to energy consumption of many countries, to figure out if we are wasting the most basic resources available to us. The problem with Smil's big numbers is that they are often very rough estimates, and since few others do the kind of research he does, there aren't many models that can help us make sense of these numbers.

In any case, one of the most interesting numbers is the ratio of calories available to a country to the calories actually consumed, the difference representing waste in the food chain. Smil summarizes the standard this way:
With the actual daily food requirements of modern urban societies averaging no more than 2000-2200 kcal/capita it does not make any sense to supply more than about 2,700-2,800 kcal/day: Wasting 20-30 per cent of all available food is surely enough.
As it turns out, though, only the Japanese actually use food this efficiently. The US actually supplies 3,700 kcal/day, which means like 43% of our food is wasted. China, too, is rolling in food, with 3,000 kcal produced for every person in the country every day.

But, you say, is table waste really a big factor here? Doesn’t most of the waste happen in production and shipping? Well, at least in China, Smil suggests, table waste is a problem: “Waste is encouraged by an unfortunately Chinese habit of ordering more food than can be eaten by hosts desiring to gain face, and by widespread, and often astonishingly ostentations, dining at public expense” (107). I had the chance to experience this when I was in China. Wherever we ate, we had to leave huge piles of uneaten food on the table. Anything else would be a slight to our host. Once, one of our number made the mistake of suggesting that a Chinese guest could take some of the extra food home. The unintended insult lead to shouting: “I am not a dog!” Furthermore, all business in China appears to be conducted over rounds of competitive drinking, which can get completely out of hand. One member of our group dishonored himself by declining a challenge to drink from one of our Chinese hosts, a loss of face furthered by the fact that the challenger was female. Another member of our group dishonored himself by accepting too many challenges to drink. Doing business in China is very difficult.

Well, if Chinese table waste can show up in Smil’s calculations, table waste elsewhere can as well. So eat your peas!


Smil, Vaclav. 2004. China's past, China's future: energy, food, environment. New York: Routledge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Also, the band still sucks.

The NYT has a moderately interesting article up about a new revenue sharing agreement between Korn, EMI, and the Live Nation promotion company (recently spun off from Clear Channel).

Actually, the article isn't interesting at all. What is interesting is the managerese spouted by the founder of the company that brokered the deal.

"Instead of thinking about 'How do we get back $200,000 on the Fresno show?' they're thinking, 'How do we maximize the Korn brand?' They're more likely to invest dollars, ideas, thinking time."

"We've taken the biggest promoter and one of the biggest record labels and incentivized them to think long term and to think career about our band," Mr. Kwatinetz said. "We believe long-term career planning is what's been lacking in the business. We believe that's part of the solution to the woes the music business is experiencing."

Yup, that's the problem alright.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Is Bush Really the Worst. President. Ever?

It's fun to say. It's fun to write. "George W. Bush: Worst. President. Ever"

But is it true?

I hesitate because the crimes of 19th century America--slavery, genocide--are much worse than the crimes of 20th and 21st century America. I think that any president who can be directly blamed for some portion of these crimes would be a worse president than W. Unfortunately my American history isn't good enough to evaluate here.

I typically associate Andrew Jackson most with the genocide of Native Americans, but according to Cecil Adams the Trail of Tears killed a mere 4,000 souls. Can more Indian deaths be blamed on him? Did too many Native Americans die from disease to label any American president our own private Hitler?

Can we simply say that all the presidents prior to Lincoln are worse than Bush because they acquiesced to slavery?

Who is really the Worst. President. Ever.?

So called "Scare quotes"

via Ray Davis the comments section at John and Belle, here is a snippet of an epic poem by Alice Notley called The Descent of Alette in which every phrase is in scare quotes, the so called "inverted commas." Davis says he isn't sure if Notley claws at the air with her fingers when she reads the poem out loud. The blogger who posted the excerpt suggests that Notley has more serious motivations for using the quotation marks.

I'm actually having a more productive day today. Yay me!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times

My review of Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times is up at Metapsychology online. My bottom line: "I can't think of any reason for anyone to read this book, except perhaps as a guide to the literature for someone who is writing the work that this book should have been."

I'm having a spectacularly unproductive day. In the interest of continuing to avoid doing anything useful, I’m also going to update my interesting-only-to-me list of books I have actually read cover to cover, part of my ongoing effort to read more ethically. I have gone back and added some spring and summer entries, which I originally didn’t include because poetry and comic books go down so quickly. But really, the day I sat down to read the book by the person I am giving the pseudonym SwampWoman the BloggyFriend was actually the closest experience I’ve had in years to reading for its own sake. By contrast, the two books I china I may have finished last semester, although real academic books, were read in exactly the way I don’t like to read. They were basically skimmed repeatedly until all the skimming adds up to a full read. I’ll know for sure I’ve given them a full read only when I go through and actually see if I’ve underlined on every page.

Winter 2006

Coates, Peter A. 1998. Nature: western attitudes since ancient times. Berkeley: University of California Press. 0520217438.

Fall 2005

Shapiro, Judith. 2001. Mao's war against nature: politics and the environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smil, Vaclav. 2003. China's past, China's future: energy, food, environment. New York: Routledge.

Whedon, Joss, and Karl Moline (2003) Fray. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics

Summer 2005

Mohr, James C. 1978. Abortion in America: the origins and evolution of national policy, 1800-1900. New York: Oxford University Press.

SwampWoman the BloggyFriend 2003. A Book of Poetry about Nature and Relationships That Is as Lovely as Her Blog. New York: Some Press I Won’t Name.

Spring 2005

Lloyd, Elisabeth A. 2005. The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Liszka, James Jakôb. 2002. Moral competence: an integrated approach to the study of ethics. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Otomo, Katsuhiro. 2000. Akira. Vol. 1.Translation and English Language adaptation: Yuko Umezawa, Linda M. York, Jo Duffy. Originally serialized between 1981 and 1993.

Fall 2004

Huxley, Aldus. 1962. Island. Reprinted by Harper Collins Perennial, New York, 2002, ISBN: 0060085495

Coetzee, J.M. 2003. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Penguin.

Carlson, Allen, and Arnold Berleant, eds. 2004. The aesthetics of natural environments. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Summer 2004

Thompson, Paul. 1995. The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics. New York: Routledge.

As a parent, I have never read anything so depressing

How, how, how does it happen?

John Rawls, perhaps the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, known for both his kindness and rigorous thinking, has a son who is far right conspiracy theorist and blogger. His current shtick is finding secret Islamic codes in the memorial to the Flight 93 victims. (It's a crescent, the shape that hates America! And it faces Mecca!). Then there is this bizarre quote that has been blasted by PZ Meyrs
Islamic terrorists planted 12 backpack bombs and the Spanish people surrendered. They immediately switched from supporting a Spanish government that had backed the war on terror to electing a socialist enemy of the war on terror. We now have a scientific measure of Spanish instincts. They can be described in one word: female.

Faced with the choice of whether to fight against a violent invasion or surrender to it, men and women face very different, sometimes opposite, biological imperatives. Throughout mankind’s evolutionary history, if a man fought against an invader he risked death in proportion to the strength of his foe, while if he surrendered, he faced almost certain death, at least in the biological sense. At best he would be enslaved and denied further access to females. Thus the reproductively more successful strategy for a man would almost always be to fight invaders, and this is how we should expect the male instincts to be programmed, according to the precepts of evolutionary psychology.

For a woman, fighting against an invader also risks death, but surrender offers much better reproductive prospects for women than for men. A woman’s reproductive capacity is part of the booty, often the primary booty, that invaders have always been after. Thus a fertile woman could almost be guaranteed that, with surrender, her reproductive capacity would not be wasted. This difference in biological incentives will have left women with stronger instincts to surrender.

European males and females both see the world in the instinctive female way, as the Spanish displayed last month. By choosing not to fight for their survival, the Spanish are, at the biological level, seeking to survive by making babies for the invader. Here in America, our women (or at least our Republican women), grow up thinking of themselves and their men as armed. Thus their rational faculties grasp that it makes sense to fight. Faced with an attacker, it is the female instinct that gets overruled.

Such good girls, even helping out behind the lines while our boys methodically stuff the Jihadis into the meat grinder. There is a long way to go, but women, don’t worry. We will never let the vermin take you. You can go to them if you want, the flakes amongst you. We allow you your weakness. What we love is your strength.
I like PZ's response
Mr Rawls is simply making it all up. Human strategies for survival and reproduction have long been much, much more complicated than killing our enemies and raping their women. ...
I despise people who invent "instinctive natures". It's always a crude rationalization, an attempt to impose a demand that other people act in some undesirable way ('You. Go work. It's your nature.') while justifying their own indulgence in stupid, barbarous behaviors ('I'm gonna beat you up. It's my nature.') There's nothing instinctive about any of this. I wish Rawls could spare biology the shame of dragging his bastardized, dim-witted version of evolution into his argument.
But really mocking people like Alec Rawls is a rather low enterprise. The real question on everyone's mind is "How did John Rawls wind up producing such an ignorant, misogynist child?" I have an even more pressing question: "How do I keep my children from growing up to be thoughtless and bigoted?” If it can happen to Rawls, it can happen to anyone, right? How can I be assured that my children will come out like Jo(e)’s?

Should I just take Jo(e)’s children?

Friday, January 06, 2006

New Study on Psychological Effects of Abortion

A team in New Zealand led by David Fergusson has published what is billed as the largest study yet on the psychological effects of abortion. They found that women 15-25 who have abortions are more likely to have psychological problems later on. A popular write up in the Sydney Morning Harold is here. The New Zealand Herald has more information. This is the abstract. (Full content available to subscribers only, which is not me.)

Fergusson describes himself as "an atheist, a rationalist and pro-choice." He was expecting his study to show that having an abortion relieved psychological problems, which is the belief of most pro-choice activists. Intellectual honesty and a concern for the well-being of patients led him to publish the findings that disconfirmed his hypothesis. The NZ Harold quotes him as saying, "To provide a parallel to this situation, if we were to find evidence of an adverse reaction to medication, we would be obliged ethically to publish that fact." Nevertheless, he had a lot of trouble getting his results published, and some people were explicit about not wanting to touch his research because of the political consequences.

Sometimes conservative activists claim to be liberals who are "just following the evidence." Take, for instance, Bjorn Lomborg's claim that he is a true environmentalist simply practicing good skepticism. In this case, though, I trust Fergusson. No one would claim to be an atheist in public for political purposes: atheists are even more hated than Muslims. On the other hand, a commenter on Bioethics.net reports that Fergusson has made other dubious claims with a right bias. Like Glenn at Bioethics.net, I will believe the study when it is reviewed by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Also note what this study does not show: it does not show the existence of "post-abortion syndrome," a fictitious cousin of post traumatic stress syndrome invented by pro-life activists. "Post-abortion syndrome" still belongs in the same category of nonsense with intelligent design, the "erototoxins" released by pornography, ritual satanic abuse, and witchcraft.

I'm going to order the study from interlibary loan. There's a section on post- abortion syndrome in my teaching abortion ethics paper, which was supposed to be finished six months ago. A lot of the material in that paper has been getting popular attention recently. The NYT a while back had an article on the underappreciated fact that the Bible never mentions abortion at all. Sadly, it has now disappeared behind the pay wall. Hopefully I'll get my act together enough to blog more on these issues before the semester starts.

Via bioethics.net

Thursday, January 05, 2006

APHIS fails to regulate GMOs, according to its own internal audit

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, a part of the USDA) is the only government institution doing any real regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) right now. Although both EPA and FDA also have jurisdiction, they have basically announced that they are not going to exercise it unless there is evidence that something not approved for human use has entered the human food chain.

Now it turns out that APHIS isn't regulating GMOs either. This is according to a report from the USDA itself. The Times quotes Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists: "Over all, I thought the report was devastating," So basically we have a situation where genetic engineering is occurring in a regulatory vacuum, but no one really cares because it just involves altering our environment and not directly altering ourselves. This exact stupidity was the focus of my KEIJ paper.

7 x 7 Meme

Lindsay tagged me. It's so nice when cool people acknowledge your existence.

Seven eight nine things to do before I die

1. Become desireless

2. Write a chamber opera based on Night of the Living Dead which captures the intimacy and minimalism of the 1968 original Then direct a low budget film version of said opera. Right now I’m thinking that the instrumentation should either be just a string quartet or a string quartet plus an acoustic bass, like the original Trout Quintet or this arrangement of Libby Larsen’s Four on the Flour I saw once.

3. Write Elizabeth Costello fan fiction.

4. Learn to play the banjo. Teach Caroline the dobro and Joseph the fiddle. Form a blue grass band that specializes in Bad Religion covers.

5. Draw a comic book based on the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus.

6. Draw a comic book of philosophical dialogues between lovers in bed shortly after coitus.

7. Publish a paper with real empirical data that I gathered myself.

8. Turn my KEIJ paper into a book.

9. See my children grow and be happy and flourish into a ripe old age and die before they do.

(some of these are recycled.)

Seven things I cannot do

1. Get a tenure track job

2. Get a good night’s sleep.

3. Read music. (I drawback for goal number 2 above)

4. Draw (a drawback for goals 5 and 6 above)

5. Travel any moderate distance without getting lost.

6. Stop swearing in front of the children.

7. Go from being vegetarian to completely vegan

Seven things that attract me to blogging

1. It gives me instant feedback

2. It gives me an instant community

3. It gives me an outlet for my monkey brain.

4. It has a bad reputation that may be preventing me from getting a job

5. It gives me a new way to procrastinate.

6. It lets me write on anything, without too much worrying about audience.

7. It is a space for first drafts.

Seven things I say most often

1. Caroline, no!

2. Because it is custom of our people. (A parenting line I stole from my friend Polly)

3. Because you could get an owie.

4. Who’s a little stander? Who’s a little stander bander? Commander stander bander!

5. Wooshee gag a.

6. What’s the magic word?

7. Caroline, you won’t get your way if your cry.

Seven books that I love.

1. Plato, Republic

2. Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy

3. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

4. J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello.

5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus

6. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solicitude.

7. Philip K. Dick Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge.

Seven Movies (or Series) I Watch Over and Over Again (or would if I had time)

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series)

2. Simple Men (dir. Hal Hartley)

3. Henry Fool (dir. Hal Hartley)

4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

5. Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Winders)

6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (all three versions)

7. Andrey Rublyov (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

Tag seven people

1. Jo(e)

2. Rob the Unapologetic Atheist

3. Terri

4. Bridgett

5. Pippy

6. Butch Stroll

7. Orange

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Nothing human is alien to me"

I'm back! Vacation turned out to involve a lot of childcare, so I couldn't blog much. Here at the office, though, it is easier to slip in an entry.

One of the nicer things I've read all week is the excerpt from K. Anthony Appiah's new book which ran in the NYT magazine. It is a ringing endorsement of culture mixing, nay, even cultural contamination against those who would seek to preserve it. Oh, Appiah is all in favor of subsidizing traditional culture. "I am all for festivals of Welsh bards in Llandudno financed by the Welsh arts council. Long live the Ghana National Cultural Center in Kumasi, where you can go and learn traditional Akan dancing and drumming, especially since its classes are spirited and overflowing." But that is different than blocking the natural flow of living contemporary culture. Foreign words are going to creep into your language. People will flock to see high budget American movies--and respond with movies presenting their own unexpected takes on the genres they saw.

I suppose an economic libertarian might argue that there is no difference between government financing of traditional arts and laws demanding, say, linguistic purity. I'll admit that there are cases where government sponsorship of traditional culture crosses the line over into moronic cultural coercion. Venezuela’s new law saying that 40% of the music on the radio must be "traditional" Venezuelan music is a clear example. (What is traditional Venezuelan music? Inca music? Spanish music?) But it would take a very strong notion of a property right to argue that using tax dollars to support a cultural enterprise that otherwise wouldn’t exist is the same as controlling what people play on the radio.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Appiah’s work for some time. Here is a review of his last book, The Ethics of Identity, which looks quite good. I like this quote from the book: "To value individuality properly just is to acknowledge the dependence of the good for each of us on relationships with others. Without these bonds we could not come to be free selves, not least because we could not come to be selves at all." (21)