Monday, August 29, 2005

Political mess is a family crisis

The following was inspired by a post at Distance, where a version of it is also posted. It's admittedly speculative, but I think it suggests things that could in fact be scientifically tested...

Today's sociopolitical situation in the US is a lot like having a very weak parent (the Dems & moderate Repubs) to turn to when a strong parent (the right-wingers & corporate cronies) is brutalizing you.

In the past, such conditions would've sparked the growth of third parties, but corrupt electoral laws and widespread self-absorption today make such parties very difficult things to get off the ground. It doesn't help that the courts and government watchdog agencies have largely been corrupted, social services are underfunded, and the wingnuts are constantly screaming that liberals are "traitors" (or worse). That kind of atmosphere is much like that found when an abused child tries to run to an outside adult, only to have the door slammed in his face because the parent has already passed around word that the child is "a troublemaker" or just "making it up."

The right wingers often decry the common focus on self-improvement, therapy, psychological exploration, and the like, but they seem to be benefiting from it at least in the short-term. I'm sure, if such a study could be done, we'd find that those who are most likely to seek therapy & otherwise try to deal with their past are also most likely to be of a progressive bent culturally. In effect, such self-exploration takes progressives out of the loop ... but only temporarily. Often, they return with a vengeance to use the knowledge thus gained to help others, b/c it almost invariably results in finding common ground with lots of other people struggling with the effects of this dysfunctional society.

Our best hope is that we can forestall the right-wing agenda long enough to give a new generation of self-aware and socially/ecologically connected people a chance to act.

The right-wingers don't care about facing their demons -- in fact, they tend to deny they exist internally, thereby projecting them onto everyone else. They, however, are probably more likely than progressively-raised folks to have actually experienced serious trauma during childhood, not b/c conservatives are by nature more vicious than progressives (they're not), but b/c conservatives have a much greater tendency to keep other people out of "family business" and are more likely to see children as being subordinate to their parents. That attitude sometimes approaches paranoia the farther toward the right fringe you go, especially when it gets wrapped up in supposedly literal religious proscriptions, social isolation, and lack of education.

When abuse does exist in such an environment, it's much more likely to be hidden for longer -- and thereby have more severe impact -- than when children are raised "by a village" and seen as having rights separate from but dependent on their parents. In the latter case, openness gives the kids and stressed parents somewhere to turn and tends to minimize (although not entirely prevent) abuse.

Today's politics represent these two attitudes writ large: A "go it alone" view that cloaks itself in morality while projecting its pain onto other countries and segments of society and a "reach out" view that seeks to engage the outside and learn from it while accepting the real cost of our history to ourselves and others.

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Katrina presages energy woes?


Woke up this morning and caught some of the news. Although I didn't hear anyone say it before the hurricane hit land, today, NBC's Today Show talked about the possibility that Katrina could endanger the oil refining & shipment facilities in Louisiana that supply 25% of America's oil.

The NBC anchor said speculation on the storm would cause gas prices to climb 20 to 30 cents this week. If damage to those facilities is minor, that price will probably fall again; if not, we could be in for a very long winter.

New York Newsday reports roughly the same thing, saying that seven refineries have shut down in that area:

Wholesale gasoline prices in the New York and Gulf Coast markets soared by 25-35 cents a gallon on Monday following reports that about 8 percent of U.S. refining capacity had been shut down ahead of the storm. One analyst said pump prices nationwide would likely average more than $2.75 a gallon by week's end, up from about $2.60 a gallon Monday.


Unlike last year's Hurricane Ivan, which only hit the edge of the oil and natural-gas producing areas in the central Gulf of Mexico, Katrina is plowing right through the heart of that region.

PVM Oil Associates in Vienna, Austria, said Katrina had the potential to do more damage to southeastern Louisiana than Ivan, which damaged seven platforms, 100 underwater pipelines and shut down production at some facilities for several months.

Some analysts have said the only way to rein in surging prices would be for the United States to tap some of its petroleum reserves. A Department of Energy spokesman said the U.S. government was in touch with oil companies in the region and that a decision on whether to release oil from emergency stockpiles would likely be made in the next 24 to 48 hours. reports that Standard & Poor's initial estimates have put refinery shutdowns at 12% of U.S. capacity, while evacuated offshore facilities are expected to affect 42% of Gulf oil production.

That could be a major problem, since Reuters reports that "Dealers are particularly concerned about damage as the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is already pumping at near its full capacity, leaving it little room to make up for any lasting outages."

That doesn't leave the US much wiggle room, since our Strategic Petroleum Reserve has a capacity of just 727 million barrels. That may sound like a lot, but The Dept of Energy's own reports show that we consume about 20.7 million barrels per day and get 12.1 million BPD as imports while producing only 5.1 million BPD here at home. (By reading the chart, I'm not clear on what makes up the difference -- synthetics? recycled oil? oil shale and similar low-producing sources?-- but its something other than crude oil.)

That gives us a 35 day supply.

According to a different Reuters article, Katrina also affected natural gas production, which was reduced in preparation for the storm:

Natural gas pipeline operators reported that at least 5.6 billion cubic feet per day of offshore production had been cut from their systems, or nearly 60 percent of the 10 bcf total produced daily in the Gulf.

Gulf of Mexico natural gas output accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's total production.

And, as a footnote, Katrina also shut down three nuclear plants, but those will probably be up and running shortly.

Sounds like June's movie Oil Storm, which I wrote about here and here, might be coming true...

As if that's not enough, we still have nearly three months to go in the hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center warns "for the remainder of the season, we expect an additional 11-14 tropical storms, with 7-9 becoming hurricanes, and 3-5 of these becoming major hurricanes" (that is, category 3 or above). If they're right, we'll be into next year's name list before it ends...

Stay tuned, sports fans.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Development distress...

Today, I spent some time touring my old hometown (Grafton, MA) in preparation for a new job I'm starting 9/6. Although I already knew about it, it never ceases to amaze me how much development is going on there and in other communities around central Mass. What really stood out, though, were two things.

The first and most obvious: how cookie-cutter most of the subdivisions are becoming -- one development had dozens of townhouses that were almost exactly identical, every one of them huge and beige. Blech.

It must take a certain mindset to buy such a place, one I don't share, but that unfortunately seems to be widespread. While I was in Arizona (1997-2001), I remember seeing a story about this neighborhood that totally blew a gasket over one family's painting their house a different shade of stucco by accident. They claimed the paint they bought dried into a different color than they expected, one that wasn't very far from the typical beige everyone else had. IIRC, the color turned out yellowish; it wasn't like they selected bright red, blue, pink, or even white.

Here in Mass., you CAN find all of those colors side by side except in some newer developments... and nobody complains. It's your house, paint it however you like. There's also something called variety in styles: colonials beside Victorians beside capes beside duplexes beside Spanish villas, and I realized I missed it when I came home. Down there, whole blocks of the map are covered with identical Spanish style-homes#, each of them walled off from its neighbors as if the neighbors were planning a seige. In Mass., even though we coined the phrase "good fences make good neighbors," a large percentage of houses here have no fences at all, and most of those that do have fences that are no more than decorative.

The second point was a little more subtle... and that makes it that much more annoying. I am sick of people who build subdivisions and name the damn streets after themselves, their kids and their dog. Sure, some of that has happened for a long time, but it's become epidemic since 2000 in almost every town. When I went to high school, there were about a dozen first-name streets in Grafton; now there are about 50 of them. Just a look at the J names says it all: Janet Cir., Jay St., Jodi Ln, John Dr., Jordan Terr., Joy's Rd. Janet, Jay and Jordan were around when I lived there, the others are new. Or imagine how easily emergency services can confuse these names if spoken in panic: Ann Dr., Anthony Dr., Alana Dr., Mary Ann Dr. All but the last one are new.

It's long overdue time for some creativity in street names. What about tapping the volumes of mythology (other than Greek and Roman) for new names: Ceredwen Road (Celtic), Sedna Ave. (Inuit), Brahma Terr. (Hindu), etc? Or astronomy (except planets and Zodiac signs): Rigel Road, Antares Dr., Mizar Terr., Centauri Dr. Or oddly-named characters from books -- fantasy and scifi have thousands of them. Any of those would be easy to remember and interesting and might even prompt curious folks to find out what they actually mean. A handful of developers do this, but the majority don't and many local planning boards don't encourage thought about such things.

That's not surprising, since most towns haven't really thought about what they want in development since the 1970s or earlier. It shows in how the subdivisions form: lots of curving &/or dead end streets, garages, and cookie-cutter homes that take up as much space as possible, usually with the most beautiful lots built upon first... rather than left open as parks for the entire community to enjoy.

Again, there are exceptions. Some, like Woodstock, CT., are following a more eco-friendly path. In my day job, I recently wrote about the fact Woodstock's planning folks approved subdivision regulations that promote cluster development, in which all of the actual building is done in one section of the property near an existing road. Their regs had some other interesting features that other towns could duplicate, where possible:

* Developers must build with preservation of existing and future agricultural use in mind.

* A minimum of 50 percent of the buildable acreage must be set aside for conservation to be "protected in perpetuity." (They were talking about a 30 year plan to develop a trail network linking these lands.)

* "Streets shall be laid out with an east-west orientation so as to facilitate the use of solar collectors" whenever possible.

* Developers can get extra building lots if they include affordable housing or accessory apartments.

That sounds like a step in the right direction.


# The area these pictures depict is a particularly egregious example of corporate development run amok. Called Anthem, it was built where it is -- about 15 miles north of anything else in the Phoenix valley, in the middle of nowhere -- specifically because it was outside the city's jurisdiction and thus could avoid even the minimal development control Phoenix has. It's totally corporate-controlled; as far as I know, the place doesn't even have an elected government even though around 70,000 people live there. Of course, the developers expect the public to ultimately pay for extending things like water & sewer lines, to deal with the increased commuting traffic on I-17 & the subsequent increase in air pollution, and to accept further degradation of the desert. (That's unfortunately not unusual there; while I lived there, government in AZ was a corporate lackey, especially of developers and mining firms, and I doubt it's changed much.)

To be fair, though, I did find one of my favorite street names in AZ (not in Anthem, but Mesa) -- Magic Canyon Dr. Their naming issues don't involve using first names; what they overuse are numbers, but that's not unique to the Phoenix metro area.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Time for a little laughter

I know, this blog's subject matter can be kinda dark... so you might want to check out this revelation from central intelligence... (Thanks to Arms Control Wonk for leading me there)...


Friday, August 19, 2005

People’s Harvest targets hunger

The following article ran today in the Worcester MA Telegram & Gazette. I thought I'd post it here as an example of people trying to solve the problems many of my other posts discuss. The original article had a chart and photo, but those didn't pick up.

People's Harvest doesn't yet have a website, but I've added other links.


By Gus Steeves Correspondent

AUGUST 19, 2005

POMFRET (CT)— Food is something many people take for granted: Go to the store and it’s there.

Most people don’t see it quite the way Carl W. Asikainen and Lisa M. Hart do. They want others to consider how that food got there, where it came from, how those who can’t buy it will eat tonight, and what people can do locally to promote food security.

To help accomplish that, they founded People’s Harvest last spring. The all-volunteer group grows vegetables and collects produce from area farms to donate to local food kitchens, senior centers, shelters, and similar organizations that feed the needy. They made their first deliveries last month and have so far distributed about 700 pounds of produce, most of it donated by other farmers, to 15 nonprofit agencies.

“The average distance our food travels to get to the grocery store is 1,500 miles,” Mr. Asikainen said. “By emphasizing local (farming), we can call attention to hunger that exists close to home.”

Of Windham County’s 110,000 people, about “one in 10 are food-insecure, meaning they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal,” he said. About 3 percent occasionally go without that meal.

As site coordinator of the food kitchen at the North Grosvenordale Methodist Church in Thompson, Shirley A. Wilbur was one of the first recipients of the distributions by People’s Harvest. Her kitchen serves about 50 meals every Monday, one of five area kitchens that does so on an assigned day every week. The other four are Methodist churches in Moosup, Danielson and Putnam, and a retreat center in Wauregan.

“We don’t get many fresh vegetables” from places other than People’s Harvest, she said, although some of the other sites do.

“It’s a good project. They help spread (fresh food) around so everyone gets a little of it,” Ms. Wilbur said.

People’s Harvest has a small garden at the vacant Averill Farm in Wolf Den State Park. This year they are growing squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and a few other vegetables, and plan to expand that to include fruit trees, corn, and other crops over the next year or two. Eventually, Mr. Asikainen said, they might seek certification as an organic farm, but are satisfied at present with simply using natural farming methods without fertilizers or pesticides.

The crops themselves, however, take a back seat to the organization’s primary role: educating about hunger and how people can grow their own food.

“In a few years, we’d like to see discrete gardens all over the county,” Mr. Asikainen said. “I don’t really want to be a food bank or a shipping organization. I want it to be more of a model and an opportunity for education on these issues.

Mrs. Hart was more direct: “We hope to bring (people) back to what gardening is,” she said, by turning the site into a center for exhibits, classes, workshops, and hands-on experience with plants, and bringing some of those events to local schools and other agencies.

“You don’t need a very large garden,” she said. “Even a four-by-eight or a three-by-six (foot) garden can produce a lot of food.”

One of their donors, Wayne M. Hansen of Oneco, agreed, saying, “I wish more people would learn to grow stuff because if you do that, you’re less disconnected from the Earth and other people.”

Mr. Hansen runs Wayne’s Organic Garden, a hand-tilled vegetable farm. He likes the fact that People’s Harvest exists because it enables him to donate food that he cannot sell, either because he’s got too much of it or because it “doesn’t look quite right.”

“I hate to see stuff go to waste. Some years, I don’t have anything extra, but this year I did,” he said.

For both founders, this project is an effort of love. Neither intended to be farmers, but realized this idea combined their areas of expertise, according to both Mr. Asikainen and Mrs. Hart.

For Mr. Asikainen, of Eastford, this project is a natural outgrowth of his full-time job with End Hunger Connecticut; in fact, that organization gives him time off to do it, although he said they can’t afford to pay him to do it. For Mrs. Hart, of Woodstock, it’s a somewhat more focused expression of her experience as a math and science teacher and former 4-H farm educator.

The foray into farming was actually a stroke of luck. Both grew up in Pomfret and thought the inactive state-owned farm would be a great place for their project, but were afraid to ask for it specifically when they raised the subject with the park ranger.

Fortunately for them, the ranger offered it to them.

“It took so long to get the ground ready this year because it hasn’t been farmed in so long,” Mr. Asikainen said. With other volunteers, they had to rip out extensive tree roots and pull up large swaths of poison ivy, among other challenges, he said.

They also hope to get Historical Commission funds to renovate the farm and barn, which date back to 1796 but have been vacant for at least a decade.


Edited 8/20 to add: You'll notice three deleted comments. I appreciate comments from folks who actually READ my blog, or even just visit it out of curiosity, but not from spam-bloggers trying to get me or others to visit their junk sites.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

African hunters on US plains?

Today, the BBC ran an interesting story -- Cornell University scientists are seriously considering the idea of importing cheetahs, lions, wild horses, elephants and other big lifeforms to run wild on the Great Plains.

By introducing living counterparts to the extinct animals, the researchers say, these voids could be filled. So, by introducing free-ranging African cheetahs to the Southwest, strong interactions with pronghorns could be restored, while providing cheetahs with a new habitat. ...

Other living species that could "stand in" for Pleistocene-era animals in North America include feral horses (Equus caballus), wild asses (E. asinus), Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus), Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants and lions (Panthera leo).

"Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators," said lead author Josh Donlan, of Cornell University. "There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realising predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions."

Yeah, Dr. Donlan, it'll be a huge issue. Did you forgot that this is part of the country where people still object to the idea of reintroducing native predators like wolves... by killing them? Or that the big native herbivore, the bison, still only counts a small number of wild survivors in pockets of what was once a vast range, the vast majority being raised on private ranches?

I agree that average people need to learn that predation is a necessary part of the ecosystem, but we should focus on re-establishing the wolves first. I suspect introducing African species won't result in filling the voids, it will create more problems for a native species' population web that has stabilized without them. They have, after all, been gone around 13,000 years. While that time isn't enough to create significant genetic changes, it has certainly allowed for some behavioral adaptation that new predators will upset. Besides, the newcomers would most likely go after the easiest prey they can find... namely, domestic cattle. Why chase down an antelope at 60 mph when you can munch on much slower fare?

That said, I think the effort to save African species is important and the image of lions stalking prey in sight of New Mexico's I-40 would be an interesting one. But how would they react to the traffic? Today, their homeland has cars, sure, but not the kind of freeway network or the sheer traffic volume the US has. Likewise, these animals come from a climate that tends to be warmer than our plains are; although summers would probably be just fine, how well would they adapt to the Chinook blizzards of winter if they lived in Nebraska or Kansas? In Africa, some of them migrate seasonally, but that would be a problem on our Plains because of the fact that so much land is fenced up into farms and ranches, likely requiring those who get released in one area to stay there.

It's pretty obvious to me that this idea needs a little rethinking.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Debating the absurd

I came across a couple of very interesting blogs that discuss some of the issues I cover. They are Arms Control Wonk and DefenseTech.

Before reading this post, you should jump here for the start of this "thread" and here for the post I'm actually responding to.

At the latter site, 21st Century Schizoid Man (which, BTW, is a King Crimson song title), John Opie writes:

Target sets have nothing to do with deciding to use a nuclear weapon: rather, a decision to use a nuclear weapon is first and fundamentally a political decision that has nothing to do with target sets.

First off, I need to define "target sets." Simply, that's the list of targets a given nuclear attack plan will hit, as defined by the intended effect the attack will have on the people of the other country. Even if the intent is limited to, say, destroying their military capacity, the vast destructiveness of nuclear weapons dictates that a decision to use nukes SHOULD include agonizing over the effect on the people (esp. civilians) near the target. Taking into account the effects on people is the definition of a "political" decision, and refusing or being unable to do that may not be "inhuman," but it's certainly inhumane.

These devices are not and cannot be precision weapons whereby we can take out a tank factory next to a school (the example is from the DefenseTech article) with minimal civilian deaths. If a nuke goes off, it's all but guaranteed to vaporize that factory AND the school AND obliterate everything else within several square miles, minimum, with the VAST MAJORITY of the dead being civilians.

When nukes are in play, the expression "a minimum of force and destruction" is simply a denial of reality. Minimum destruction would be an attack that destroyed the tank factory without touching the school or any nearby homes, something that is impossible with nukes.

Mr. Opie later writes:

Target 69 weapons if you want to have a 94% kill probability of a hardened target under those conditions. Period.

What exactly is the point of such massive overkill? Doing that only serves to turn a wide swath of land into black glass forever and kicks up massive quantities of fallout that poisons millions downwind. That's not "minimal" destruction by any sane definition of the term (if there is one).

Even if the target is technically not destroyed, it only takes one or two explosions to ensure that nobody can use the place for the foreseeable future.... b/c anyone who tries will cook themselves getting there (or getting out). Survivors inside will be effectively trapped, probably until they starve or suffocate.

A perfect example is the US's own NORAD HQ -- The Russians or anyone else wouldn't need to pummel it into dust (which might indeed take dozens of warheads); they just have to drop one or two beside the main entrance and nobody inside is getting out. NORAD is, de facto, dead.

Of course, so is most of Colorado Springs, which goes right back to my original point. There is no such thing as a "nuanced" use of nuclear weapons. They are designed to destroy indiscriminately and to inflict as much terror as possible.

He's right when he says that everyone abstracts various aspects of life and decision-making to some degree, and it is almost necessary when comprehending geopolitical issues. But the level of abstraction and demonization necessary to actually use modern nuclear weapons is pathological given what we already know about the deaths, destruction, and long-term suffering "small" nukes caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hiroshima III: Never again

Quote from Alternet's "Hiroshima Cover-up Exposed" (emphasis mine):

...Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern ... directed the U.S. military filmmakers in 1945-1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept watch on all of the top-secret material for decades.

"I always had the sense," McGovern (said), "that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb. The Air Force -- it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn't want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. ... They didn't want the general public to know what their weapons had done -- at a time they were planning on more bomb tests. We didn't want the material out because ... we were sorry for our sins."

As the article goes on to point out, this past weekend some of those censored images are being broadcast for the first time. One of them is on the Sundance Channel.

The Discovery and History channels also have documentaries including older footage and some modern computer-created graphics depicting the horrors that happened in Hiroshima.

I caught some of two of them yesterday, flipping between the two channels during ads. There really are no words that do justice to such scenes as: the blast wave rolling over and demolishing everything in sight; the horribly burned victims staggering down blasted streets in creepy silence; the charred remains of the dead with just bones amid ashes; suffering survivors so desperate for water they drink the oily, lethal black rain of fallout; the summer sunshine instantly replaced by stygian darkness lit mostly by flames; doctors later describing people as "rotting" while alive from radiation sickness.

One survivor noted, "Suddenly, a strange creature appeared out of nowhere. Since it was summer, if it had been human, it would've been wearing white. But what I saw was black from top to bottom." That, of course, was one of the thousands charred by the bomb's intense heat, face and skin seared off, still alive at that moment but only to collapse and die at the speaker's feet.

Do we need to see these things for ourselves in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles before we wake up and demand the end of nuclear weapons? Before we treat those who advocate building more of them as the madmen they are?

If you haven't already read it, please read my earlier column on Bush's plan to build more nukes. I know it's long, but their own plans show just how dangerously blind these people are to this madness.

It's not just them, after all... if these weapons ever get used again and we haven't tried to stop it, we are responsible. They are being funded with our tax dollars, by our government, in our name. If we continue to roll over and play dead, eventually we will be.

Edited 8/10 to add: Apparently the French paper Liberation agrees with me: It writes, "Because the longer it lasts, the more likely the nuclear era is to pass from 'Never again!' to 'Sooner or later ...'" and that's exactly what I'm concerned about. They also link to some 1946 footage from Hiroshima and the Bikini tests, but it's not very useful & the sound cuts out a lot.


Friday, August 05, 2005

Skeptic's Circle

The latest issue of The Skeptic's Circle (lucky #13) is out over at Be Lambic or Green featuring my "Prophetic Nonsense" and links to a host of other freethinking articles casting light into dark corners of pseudoscience, mysticism, ignorance, and general weirdness. The circle beckons...

Also, I should've posted this weeks ago, but "The Big Chill" (also below) and a LOT of others are up for perusal as part of The Tangled Bank. Go check out the other contributors if you're interested in science (especially biology). TB "meets" every two weeks, with new articles, with a new host each time.