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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Technology and the trash can

There's a reason your iPod doesn't last a dozen years. It's not just the workmanship...
Electronics are being discarded almost as fast as they’re being made. And the innovators are largely to blame for that. While the effective lifespan of a new computer should be, in a sane world, a decade or more, realistically you’ve got a dinosaur if it’s been sitting on your desk longer than a couple of years. And our tax laws encourage this.


Because the innovators know that they need you coming back every few years to keep those coffers overflowing. If you’re visiting the Apple Store only once in a decade, then there might not be an Apple Store at all.

Read more on the role of technology and "planned obsolescence" in economic growth.

When Star Wars jumped the shark

To sum up, it was when being a Jedi became something less than democratic:

The first time I saw Star Wars, I wanted to be a Jedi (I was six, and hadn’t yet tuned into the princess-impressing coolness that was Han Solo.) Sure, I wasn’t a Skywalker and The Force wasn’t naturally strong with me, but a short hyperspace jaunt to Alderaan and some personal time with a Jedi master and I could take my first steps into a larger world...

Check out the rest here

Monday, November 19, 2007

"There's shit in the meat"

If you haven't seen "Fast Food Nation" on video, I don't recommend it over the book by Eric Schlosser. But this op-ed manages to summarize nicely why industrial-sized agriculture isn't always compatible with health and environmental well-being.

First, if you've missed the news:
over 30 million pounds of ground beef in 18 separate recalls have been necessary this year alone
Many of the leading public officials are calling for irradiation of the nation's food supply (bombardment with gamma rays) to kill harmful bacteria:
We should require that our entire food supply be subjected to irradiation before consuming it. Once again, we see a solution posed that is designed to treat the effect while ignoring the cause. It is somewhat akin to the cigarette smoker who would rather wait to develop cancer and then undergo treatment for it rather than just quit smoking.
See, the reason we have bacteria, on the shit, on the meat, is because of how we make meat:
Cattle are ruminants, and they have evolved to eat grasses and forbs. Feeding grain to cattle makes their digestive tracts abnormally acidic. Over time, the E. coli in their systems become acclimated to this environment, thereby rendering it more resistant to the acid shock of our digestive juices. However, few E. coli from grass-fed cattle will survive because they have not become acid-resistant. Consequently, when cattle are fed a diet of grass, our natural defenses are still capable of protecting us.
How much difference does the process make?
A study by Swedish researchers in 2001 found that 100 percent of calves raised in pens had some level of E. coli contamination, while those raised in pasture showed no signs of contamination at all.
Feedlot cattle stand around in dirt and fecal material. Grass-fed cattle stand on grass.

Maybe we should stop eating things that walk around in poop all day. Or at least get them out of the poop first. Just a thought.

Co-opting green

At the Los Angeles Auto Show this year, the Chevy Tahoe hybrid won the "green car of the year" award. The irony?

The Chevy Tahoe gets 20 miles to the gallon. Outside, several plug-in hybrid Toyota Priuses were featured: with capability to get over 100 miles per gallon.

Nice try, Tahoe.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

10 Ways to Counter Global Warming Idiots

Courtesy of the BBC

Reagan was no bigot...

...but he sure knew how to campaign like one.

When he went on about the welfare queen driving her Cadillac, and kept repeating the story years after it had been debunked, some people thought he was engaging in race-baiting. But it was all just an innocent mistake.

When, in 1976, he talked about working people angry about the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store, he didn’t mean to play into racial hostility. True, as The New York Times reported,

The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression “young buck,” which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.

But the appearance that Reagan was playing to Southern prejudice was just an innocent mistake.

Similarly, when Reagan declared in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the South,” he didn’t mean to signal sympathy with segregationists. It was all an innocent mistake.

In 1982, when Reagan intervened on the side of Bob Jones University, which was on the verge of losing its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating, he had no idea that the issue was so racially charged. It was all an innocent mistake.

And the next year, when Reagan fired three members of the Civil Rights Commission, it wasn’t intended as a gesture of support to Southern whites. It was all an innocent mistake.

Poor Reagan. He just kept on making those innocent mistakes, again and again and again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Inanity of Electability

Political writers like a good story, a horserace, a poll, which is why election coverage in this country resembles sports more than it does democracy. One artifact of this tendency is the "electability" issue, the supposed obsession of voters with which of their party's candidates is most able to win the general election.

Electability represents one thing:

The ability of the media to set the terms of the debate during an election. Instead of picking the candidate who best fits their political beliefs or inspires them, political writers like to think that the average voter spends his time like the backroom party leaders of old, smoking cigars and strategizing who can win. And since that's a more interesting story to write, when election time comes that's all people can remember hearing/reading about when they go to the polls - who the media thought was most electable.

The beautiful irony is that John Kerry was anointed the "more electable" candidate by the press prior to the 2004 general election. And he lost, worse than Al Gore (another electable guy). Candidates fit the requirements the electorate sets for them, whether in terms of experience, honesty, values, or inspiration. But these days, it seems like the press would have us use only one criteria - electable.

Monday, November 12, 2007

U.S. Health Care: It's not the private part that makes us innovative

A tip of the hat to Paul Krugman for this piece that debunks the idea that universal health care will undermine the U.S. lead in medical innovation.
The single biggest source of medical research funding, not just in the United States but in the entire world, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH): Last year, it spent more than $28 billion on research, accounting for about one-third of the total dollars spent on medical research and development in this country (and half the money spent at universities)...

As books like Marcia Angell's The Truth About the Drug Companies and Merrill Goozner's The $800 Million Pill point out, a lot of the alleged innovation we get from private industry just isn't all that innovative. Rather than concentrating on developing true blockbusters, for the last decade or so the pharmaceutical industry has poured the lion's share of its efforts into a parade of "me-too" drugs--close replicas of existing treatments that offer little in the way of new therapeutic advantages but generate enormous profits because they are patented and because companies have become exceedingly good at promoting their sales directly to consumers. (emphasis mine)

The most well-known example of this is Nexium, which AstraZeneca introduced several years ago as the successor to Prilosec...AstraZeneca promoted Nexium heavily through advertising--you may remember the ads for the new "purple pill"--and, as a result, millions of patients went to their doctors asking for it. Trouble was, the evidence suggested that Nexium's results were not much better than Prilosec's--if, indeed, they were better at all. And, since Prilosec was going off patent, competition from generic-brand copies was about to make it a much cheaper alternative. (The fact that Prilosec's price was about to plummet, needless to say, is precisely why AstraZeneca was so eager to roll out a new, patented drug for which it could charge a great deal more money.)

There's your private sector health care innovation - it's in the marketing department.

Which presidential candidate cares the most about the environment?

Find out their positions on carbon caps, fuel efficiency standards, renewable electricity and new coal power from the League of Conservation Voters.

You'll note there's a large gap between the Democratic and Republican candidates, with the exception of Senator McCain.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In short: objectivity kills truth

From Paul Krugman:
If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘’Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.'’
This tendency is particularly frustrating during national election campaigns, when I'd like to select candidates based on their honesty and policy.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Dark-sky initiative out to save stars, and energy

The International Dark Sky Association began from a desire to preserve the nighttime views of the sky, often obscured by urban light pollution (e.g. the Interstate gas station with enough sky-bound light to show the Apollo mission the way to the moon). Starting in Flagstaff, Arizona, where light pollution has encroached on the view from a nearby observatory, the dark sky aficionados are trying to convince other urban areas that light pollution doesn't just ruin beautiful star-scapes, it wastes energy.

This panel from their brochure highlights (pardon the pun) the difference:

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Blogging roundup

Once in a while I like to devote one post to several stories I've found interesting, but have been unable to find time to blog about.

1. When should rescue attempts be abandoned?
Mine collapses in the Rocky Mountain West two months ago led to the loss of several miners, and subsequently the death of several rescuers from an ensuing cave-in. Manned rescue attempts were stopped after the second collapse. Was that fair? What if the original miners were still trapped below earth and eventually died from starvation?

2. How "constant vigilance" for terrorists hands them a victory
This story has been repeated endlessly, both in the United States and in other countries. Someone -- these are all real -- notices a funny smell, or some white powder, or two people passing an envelope, or a dark-skinned man leaving boxes at the curb, or a cell phone in an airplane seat. The police cordon off the area, make arrests and/or evacuate airplanes, and in the end the cause of the alarm is revealed as a pot of Thai chili sauce, or flour, or a utility bill, or an English professor recycling or a cell phone in an airplane seat.
Read the story about the English professor - it's an embarrassment.

3. Care about privacy or the 4th Amendment? Here's a nice 2-page analysis of what we need when Congress passes amendments to the Policing America Act - the legislation passed as a stop-gap in August to give Democrats more time to cave in to the Bush Administration's demands for unscrutinized ability to police Americans. One thought:
  • The legislation currently allows a "blanket warrant" to wiretap (or otherwise surveil) conversations of a foreign national with any American citizen. This is expressly prohibited by the 4th Amendment, which requires "probable cause." I shudder to think that some Founders thought we didn't need a bill of rights and that the Constitution implied that only very limited powers accrued to the national government.
4. Popcorn suppliers finally decide to remove a toxic chemical from microwave popcorn. So now you can inhale the buttery aroma without permanently reducing your lung function. Too bad the government never bothered to step in to protect your food...

In May I noted how OSHA declined to regulate diacetyl despite several debilitating injuries to popcorn plant employees. In September, a man was diagnosed with "popcorn lung" after being a heavy consumer of microwave popcorn.

Blogging Sporadically

Life has recently held a lot of excitement, which is why the blogging volume is down. A sample:
  • A basement remodel (DIY) has consumed most weekday evenings and weekends. We have a framed bathroom, furnace room, and laundry room (less two studs). The contractor will be back next week - hopefully - to finish off the plumbing and maybe get our electrical upgraded.
  • Cats obtained fleas, adding biweekly vacuuming, weekly cats baths, and twice daily flea combing. I will be a master of lice when we have kids.
  • The former project has left laundry out of commission, moving our weekly (and massive) laundry detail to my parents' house. Thank god for nearby relatives. K, you are a hero!
  • Finished a policy brief on climate change for work, will be speaking at two conferences in the next week, and am writing a 50-page report on rural energy and economic development in my spare time. Did get another nice raise this week. Muchas gracias!
  • Am trying to be more than an observing board member on a nonprofit board I've served on. It means a lot more volunteering to help with events and planning, but at least I feel like I'm earning my seat.
Look for another post shortly with one of my periodic blogging roundups.

President Bush: a French terrorist?

Nothing like a little historical perspective on our "War on Terror" to make you think twice about who the terrorists are. A historian compares today's war with the French Revolution, defined by the Jacobins.
The stakes could not be higher, and on these matters there could be no nuance or hesitation. One was either for the Revolution or for tyranny.
Read on for more on how failing to understand history dooms us to repeat it.