moldybluecheesecurds 2

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Democracy and guns in the blogosphere

Note to self: want site traffic, post gun control screed. I did some off-the-cuff research on gun issues before that post and landed on a couple other blogs where gun control people go to die. At any rate, their readers came over to talk and the comments show the results:
  • I had my ass handed to me on the Brady Bill. Note to self, do not link to advocacy site for "data."
  • These guys are smart. They've read the research and have cogent things to say. When you are debating survey methodology, you are beyond a shouting match.
  • It made me think. Here's what one commenter had to say:
  • CRIME is the problem, not crime with guns. And the causes of crime are social, cultural and (probably mostly) economic. Treating one of the symptoms—gun crime—as the main problem is clearly the wrong approach.
Okay, so where does that leave me? First off, I need to do my homework. The internet is large and so there's a good chance someone on the "other side" did their homework.

Second, there's evidence in both directions. Some surveys show that gun ownership is higher in states with higher suicide rates and that gun suicide rates are higher in these states. And yet, countries with much tougher gun laws have compelling evidence that restrictive gun laws don't necessarily stop people from committing crimes with guns.

Third, the Second Amendment thing complicates the issue. I still firmly hold to the existing Supreme Court interpretation of the amendment, which to my understanding does not support the kind of individualized gun rights often advocated by groups like the NRA. However, neither does the 2nd Amendment preclude "conceal and carry." In other words, even if we all read the amendment as I'd like to, it doesn't really change the ground game (a gun control advocate can't argue that it's a right to carry a gun, but I can't argue that it's constitutionally prohibited).

Maybe we're left in the middle (like most good American public policy). You can own a gun, but we have restrictions and background checks. You can carry it in public, but are held responsible for the damage caused by it. You can demand more freedom to carry a gun and I can demand more no-gun areas.

In some ways, given the evidence, we're at the level of perception. I perceive that I am safer when I feel that nobody's packing than when anyone is. Others clearly feel either indifferent or the reverse - that they are safer being able to, or that we're generally safer. Of course, some feel it's a right, so who gives a hoot how anyone feels about it (much as I feel about speech).

How's that for equivocation?

Solving global warming: Give up on cap and trade

Courtesy of Energy Roundup, a new study examines the drawbacks of a cap-and-trade system (pdf) for reducing carbon emissions. Among the pitfalls:
  • It targets large, stationary sources of carbon only, such as power plants. This accounts for less than half of U.S. carbon emissions.
  • It traditionally takes up to 10 years for rule-making to establish such a regulatory system. And that's without an administration that has claimed it's not allowed to regulate carbon.
Cap-and-trade shares the same limitations as carbon offsets - they are incomplete solutions. One idea can target all emissions, and pour resources into solutions. A carbon tax.

Taxing carbon means that all sources of carbon in the economy are targeted. Carbon emission is directly linked to higher economic cost. And the revenue from carbon taxes can be used to offer low-income tax credits, revolving loans for energy efficiency improvements, and research into more energy efficiency and low-carbon energy generation. Furthermore, carbon taxes cut out the middleman of a carbon credit trading system or a carbon offset retailer. You emit, you pay. And best of all, the tax can be applied high up the food chain by slapping the carbon tax on fossil fuels based on their carbon content. So no individual will be filing a 1040-Carbon to the IRS at year's end.

NASA chief spaced out on global warming

Global warming is a scientific fact. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is perhaps one of the most science-dependent government agencies, since most of its activities are governed by scientific laws (gravity, thermodynamics, etc). So how is it that the NASA Administrator, chief of this science-based agency, can be so lackadaisical about global warming?

"I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists," Griffin told [NPR's Steve] Inskeep. "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with."

"To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change," Griffin said. "I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." (emphasis mine)

In other words, to reverse human-induced climate change would be arrogance, but allowing our carbon-hungry activity to substantially alter the climate for the next generation is the demure and proper path. I was always taught to "leave a place better than you found it," but if Griffin's right, I might as well just poop on your porch. Who's to say that's not how it should be?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Hope of College and the College of Hope

A graduation "lecture" presented this spring at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. It's good for any stage of life.

I’m deeply honored to be with you this afternoon. I’m also deeply curious, in both senses of the word. Very few of you have ever taken a class with me, and I have always considered this a sign of your wisdom. But now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Somebody in the senior class has a very peculiar sense of humor, because you have chosen a last lecturer who doesn’t really lecture very much. As some of you know, my standard operating procedure in class is to assign what my students call “too much reading” or to give them something strange to do—like counting all of the stuff in your dorm room—and then to come to class and ask “What do you think?” It’s so simple, and so stupid, that I’m always amazed that the college pays me to do it. Please don’t tell President Anderson.

Another curiosity about this honor is that almost all of you are substantially smarter than I am. When I went to college, way back in the last century, I was not a very good student. I had other things on my mind. So almost 80 percent of you have a GPA that is higher than mine was. When I applied to graduate school, one of my best recommendations read, in full, “I do not remember this man, but he got a B+ in my class.” Do you really need a last lecture from this man?

Finally, I think it’s curious that I’ve been asked to lecture today, since I specialize in stuff that people already know. One of my classes, for example, begins with a reading on “Why We Brush Our Teeth and Other Ideological Questions.” In my American Studies classes and in Campus Ecology, we read essays on cars and computers, condoms and clothes, hamburgers and French fries, TV and toilets, fun and Facebook, entertainment and wild parties, bodies and Bibles, good sex and the good life, work and play, private life and politics, the St. Olaf bubble and the so-called “real world.” Who needs a lecture from a person who only knows normal stuff? But need it or not, here it is.

Frankly, I’m not fond of graduation. While it’s definitely and deservedly a day of celebration, a day of honoring your good work at St. Olaf, it’s also a day when you leave St. Olaf, a day when I lose your presence, if not your friendship. It’s a commencement for you, but for me it’s just the end of some of the best conversations of my life. As I sit and watch the graduates cross the stage to get their degrees, I am always filled with questions.

You know a lot that you didn't know four years ago. You’ve all completed general education requirements, and specialized in a major. But I always wonder: is it enough? We know that you know a lot, because we’ve tested you on it. But we don’t really know if you’re wise, because we don’t know enough to know how to test you on it—and some of us aren’t wise anyhow. But if we were wise, here are some of the things we might ask about.

Here's what I hope you've been learning at St. Olaf:

I hope you're learning how the world works—biologically, socially, aesthetically, and spiritually. I hope you’re learning to ask the big questions of life. My favorite question is the title of one of Wendell Berry’s books, What Are People For? If you can answer that question, you’ve done well here at St. Olaf. But there are other important questions too. “What am I good at?” “What am I good for?” At graduation, we especially need to ask, “What in the world is my education good for?” But we also need to ask "What good is it for the world?" The answers to these questions aren’t easy, and most of us won’t have satisfactory answers today, but I hope you’re learning how to live comfortably with life’s cosmic questions.

I hope you’re learning to love language and to love the ways that our words affect our worlds, and vice versa. I hope you’ve noticed that when you use a word like “vocation” instead of a word like “job,” your expectations change. When you’re willing to use a word like “virtue” or to talk seriously about the “goodness” of the good life, you make it possible for people to re-think their lives and American life. So I hope you’re getting comfortable with the words that make it easier for people to be as good as they can be—words like virtue and frugality, friendship and love, commitment and community and communion and humility, and peace and justice and justice (it’s the word that needs to be said twice).

I hope you’re learning, as Wendell Berry says in Standing by Words, that “language is communal, and that its purpose is to tell the truth.” In this society, of course, a lot of language is designed to tell the half-truth, or to hide the truth. Hemingway said that a writer needs “a built-in, shockproof crap detector” to cope with the modern world. I think students and citizens need one too, so I hope you’ve developed that crap detector, and I even hope you’re using it now.

Dr. Seuss made the same argument, more artfully, in a commencement address that he gave at Lake Forest College in 1977. The title of the commencement address, which is my favorite of all time, was “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,” and here it is, in its entirety:

My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant's bill of fare.

And when they were served,

he regarded them with a penetrating stare . . .

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

``To eat these things,'' said my uncle,

``you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what's solid . . .

BUT . . .

you must spit out the air!''

And as you partake of the world's bill of fare,

That's darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air

And be careful what you swallow.

In addition to this ethics of language, I also hope you’re learning the beauties of language, noting that it’s functional not just when it’s good, but also when it affects us aesthetically. I hope that you’re learning that a good sentence is a good thing, that people love the lilt and the rhythms of evocative language. I hope you’ve learned the art of rhetoric, which is not the art of lying with a straight face, but the art of helping people hear the truths they need to know. Too often, I think, we think of ethics and aesthetics as luxuries. But I hope you’re learning that goodness and beauty are among the essentials of life.

As an American historian and a professor of American Studies, I hope you’re learning something about the moral ecology of everyday life, about American values—not just our expressed values, but our operative values. The expressed values of Americans are noble—freedom and equality, individualism and initiative, democracy and civic engagement, peace and prosperity—and they’re even more noble when we practice them. But the operative values of Americans are also important, and we practice most of them without preaching them. Environmentally, for example, we say we love nature and that we value conservation and efficiency. But our operative values—the ones we actually put into practice—say something else. When we look honestly at our lives, we basically buy into different values. When we look at the moral ecology of everyday life, our operative values include cheapness and novelty, fun and fashion, comfort and convenience, cool-ness and conformity. When push comes to shove, we’d rather look good than be good. We’d rather have low, low prices than high, high standards. Instead of acting out a preferential option for the poor, we exercise a preferential option for the affluent. And in the process, we endanger the earth’s ecosystems. When you look at the values that actually govern our actions, it’s pretty clear that—even though we never, never say it—Americans don’t actually practice the values we profess. We are often, as a recent survey suggests, “a society at odds with our values.”

Let’s look closer at one of our most important operative values, fun. In the 21st century, almost all Americans are fundamentalists—not religious people with strict beliefs—but people who believe that one of the primary purposes of life is to have fun. Martha Wolfenstein calls this “fun morality”—the idea that we’re obligated to have fun. Every week, we chant the great American interdenominational prayer, “Thank God it’s Friday!” And college life is no exception—it conforms to the shape of American life, in which people endure the workweek because they’re “waiting for the weekend.” To some extent, too, college students take classes from professors who are not boring, but entertaining. This implies that fun is the standard by which we measure our activity, and increasingly it is.

But as Thomas Pynchon suggests in Gravity's Rainbow, if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers. If we ask if something is fun—and not if it's fulfilling—we end up with radically different answers. Fun, for the most part, is episodic. We speak of a fun time, but not a fun life. We say we had fun at the concert, but not that all music is fun. Fulfillment, on the other hand, doesn't have to be episodic, nor is it necessarily fun. Fulfillment describes the satisfaction that comes from living a good life—not "the good life" of consumer culture, but a life characterized by a right relation to the world. Fulfillment comes from going deep instead of skimming the surface of life. It comes from service, not from selfishness. Fulfillment satisfies the soul as well as the senses. Good relationships are fulfilling, because they challenge us to be good, which is not always fun. Raising children is fulfilling, but it's not always fun. Learning to write well is fulfilling, but it isn't fun. And good work is fulfilling, even though it can be challenging. So the funny thing about fun morality—watching TV, playing video games, drinking hard like the people we see in beer ads—is how much it keeps us distracted from other possibilities of deeper pleasure. In your classes at St. Olaf, I hope you’ve experienced the intellectual play that’s involved in serious thinking, and the deep fulfillment that comes from doing good work.

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his co-authors contend that, in terms of values, Americans speak first and second languages—not English or Spanish or Somali, but words that reflect the different worlds of the American experience. These days, they suggest, our first languages are instrumental and expressive individualism. Instrumental individualism assumes that the world was created for the advancement of the individual; it’s expressed beautifully on the bumpersticker that says, “After me, you come first.” Expressive individualism is related, but it’s less competitive. It’s the idea, pervasive in American culture, that we need to express our own unique personalities. In both cases, our first language focuses our attention on self-interest and self-expression—and, to some extent, therefore, on selfishness.

But Bellah also suggests that we still resonate with older languages from the American experience, the languages of Biblical and republican individualism, languages that locate the self solidly in a community committed to the common good. These languages, when used by people like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson, have inspired Americans to consult what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” and to act, as King said, to create “the beloved community.” We never succeed at this, of course, and Lutherans know why: there’s evil and imperfection in the world. But we do have substantial traditions that call us forcefully to be good for each other, and—these days—to be good for the earth.

At St. Olaf, we speak the common languages of instrumental and expressive individualism. We still want to get ahead in the world. We do want a good job so we can lead the good life. We want individualized Facebook profiles and iPod playlists to express ourselves. We dress for success, or we wear clothes that seemingly express who we are—like my gaudy American Studies tie today. We wouldn’t be Americans if we didn’t understand that language. But at St. Olaf, we also speak the deeper languages. We speak of lives of worth and service, of a college whose vocation is vocation, of ideals to action, and—even more importantly—it’s not all bullshit. On our good days, we actually practice what we preach—not all the time, of course, but enough that students like you get some—and give some—examples of an alternative reality. Think of daily chapel, and choirs and bands and orchestras, and the volunteer network. Think of the wind turbine, and the composter, and local foods in the caf. Think Minnesota nice, and Northfield nice, and the genuine friendliness that attracted you here in the first place. Think about a staff that enforces the rules to create an institution where it’s easier for you to be good. Think about professors who are smart enough to get more lucrative jobs in the so-called “real world,” but who are wise enough to know that there’s no better work than spending time with you. Think about your friends who are going to Peace Corps or Lutheran Volunteer Corps or Teach for America.

So I trust you’ve been learning languages of solidarity and not selfishness, and I hope you’re learning to create community. In recent years, sociologists have focused attention on what they call “social capital,” which is, roughly speaking, the confidence and power that comes from communities. In a nation where social capital seems to be declining, you’ve just spent the last four years of your life in a social capital factory, as the Ole culture that you create encourages trust and collaboration and community. One important piece of evidence is the backpacks that you all drop on the floor before you enter Stav Hall, trusting that they’ll be there when you return.

I hope you're learning to define your community not just socially but ecologically. I hope you're flourishing in face-to-face communities of family, and friends, and faculty. But I also hope that you're learning more extensive definitions of community than you had when you arrived on the Hill. I hope you're learning to extend your understanding of community to people you don't see—some on the other side of the world—and to the community of plants and other animals that constitute a biotic community. I hope you are learning to act as if the biosphere were a community, for the very simple reason that it is.

I hope you're getting a sense of the sacramental imagination. Especially at a college of the church, I hope somebody has mentioned that some things are holy, and that you can’t screw around with the sacred. I hope that you’ve learned a sense of reverence, that synthesis of awe and connectedness that reaches us deep down where we really live.

I hope you're learning to go back to nature, and immediately, if not sooner. Usually when we talk about getting back to nature, we mean going to the wilderness. But I don't want you to leave for the Boundary Waters or the national parks immediately. I want you to pay attention to the nature that's already immediate—the nature that's right here right now. I want you to be like Thoreau, who went back to nature by paying attention to where he was. Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem called "Going to Walden," in which she thinks about taking a trip to Walden Woods, and, more broadly, about how to follow Thoreau’s example.

Going to Walden

Mary Oliver

It isn't very far as highways lie.

I might be back by nightfall, having seen

The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.

Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.

They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:

How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool

To miss a day in the cool country.

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

I hope you've learning that slow and difficult trick of living, and I hope you find it whereever you find yourself after graduation.

I hope you’re learning how small decisions make a big difference. Too often, we opt out of a good cause or a good action by saying that “it’s no big deal.” But many of our most pressing problems are the product of billions of decisions that are no big deal—in the case of global climate change, individual decisions to use fossil fuels in place of regenerative forms of energy. I don’t know how much you’ve been paying attention, but in your time here at St. Olaf, the college has been teaching you everyday how small decisions matter. The wind turbine is, of course, a big deal, teaching us that we can generate energy from moving air, and offering hope that we can eventually harness the vast power of professors’ boring lectures. But it also reminds us that we can conserve energy by small decisions, like turning off our computers and appliances, and reducing our energy demands. The college generates megawatts with its windmill, but each of us can generate negawatts by our own restraint and responsibility.

Another example. On the average, in the caf, students like you waste about 2 ounces of food per person per meal—no big deal. But that adds up to a quarter of a million pounds a year, and that is a big deal. We’re managing it beautifully with our composter, which is feeding all of the flower beds you see on campus today. But it would also be possible to generate less waste in the first place, taking less food and eating more of what we take.

Three times a day, in Stav Hall, Bon Appetit has also been teaching you how small decisions make a big difference. Each of us drinks a glass or two of milk a day, but all of us together drink about 250 gallons. Over the course of a year, that’s about $300,000 worth of milk that comes from the Hastings Dairy, a Minnesota business that delivers hormone-free and antibiotic-free milk to campus. We get good milk, we put our money in the local economy, and—most importantly—we put our money where our values are.

The same sort of thing is true of the STOGROW farm, St. Olaf’s organic garden. Three years ago, when she was getting started, your classmate Day Burtness asked Bon Appetit if they’d be willing to buy any organic vegetables she might grow. They said, “Sure, we’ll buy all of them,” and they started a productive partnership that culminated last week with a $3000 award to STOGROW from national Bon Appetit for doing the kind of work that brings good food—and not just food that tastes good—to consumers like us.

In this very room, there are small decisions that make a big difference. When we remodeled the chapel last year, we insulated the roof with a bio-foam sugar-based product that raises the R-value from about 1 to 24. As usual, we used quarry tiles on the roof, because they last almost forever, and because they have the lowest long-term life-cycle costs. When we put new wood on the ceiling inside, we used Minnesota poplar, both because it's local (and thus reduces the fossil fuels needed to transport it), but also because it grows so fast it's almost sustainable. The platform that I'm standing on has a parquet floor made of thousands of small pieces of birch-wood that we got not by cutting down trees, but by raising up sunken trees from Lake Superior. Come up take a look at it if I ever finish this lecture.

After you graduate tomorrow, you’ll get to make many small decisions—where to work, where to live, what to eat, what to wear, how to get around, how to spend your time when there’s no homework and no beer pong. Each of these small decisions offers you a chance to make a big difference, by putting your time and your money where your values are—and not just doing what everyone else does. I hope you’ve already figured out how to make these good decisions, but just in case you’ve been postponing thinking about that, let me recommend The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Ask for it as a graduation gift, and then pass it on to your parents. If they’re like me, it wasn’t a part of their college education.

In addition to these individual actions, I hope you’re learning to be institutionalized. Usually, when we use that word, we mean that people are locked up for being crazy. I’m not hoping for your incarceration, even though I do think that it’s perfectly rational to be considered crazy in an insane world. Instead, I hope you're learning how to be institutionalized by embedding your values in the standard operating procedures of American institutions. If you change an individual, including yourself, that’s wonderful. If you change an institution—which is nothing more than an established pattern of human behavior—you can affect all of the individuals who come in contact with it.

Therefore—and this is the perhaps weirdest one—I hope you’re learning to work on committees. I don’t know all that you’ve learned here, but one of the things I’ve learned in my experience at St. Olaf is that committees do the work of the world. If you think students ought to think about peace, you get on the Peace Prize Forum committee. If you have ideas about the purposes of college education, you get on the committee that’s writing the mission statement. If you want the college to become more sustainable, you get on the task force. Committees are thought to be boring—and some of them definitely are—but one person has more influence on a committee than just about anywhere else. The St. Olaf motto is “Ideals to Action,” and one important place where that happens is on committees.

Another place where it happens is in politics, so I hope you’re learning to be political. Many St. Olaf students tell me that they’re not political, but I don’t believe them. What that really means is that I’m not actively political, and what that means is I’ll let any idiot who is political determine my fate for me. The United States was founded on a robust ideal of citizenship (spelled with a c), but in recent years we’ve opted for “sitizenship” (spelled with an s), which is the act of sitting around, watching TV, and bitching about politics. This apathy and indifference and cynicism is un-American and unworthy of people like you, who know enough to know better. Politics is often understood as the art of the possible, the art of compromise—and that’s true. But when it’s practiced passionately and proactively, it’s also the art of making the impossible possible.

Let me give one example. During the 1850s, a self-taught Illinois lawyer, tall and gangly and aggressively ugly, began to think about slavery and the Constitution. He began to wonder if “we, the people” was inclusive enough. Against the very best political advice of his time, he began to speak about slavery as a moral issue. In 1858, he lost a campaign for the Senate in Illinois, and in 1860 he was elected President with just 40 percent of the vote. In 1863, he issued the emancipation proclamation, and in 1865 slavery was abolished. Abraham Lincoln—like Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King—practiced politics to make the impossible possible, and these histories of hope are our histories too.

As you work in the world, as you work on committees and on political campaigns, I hope you're also learning to fail like Lincoln. Most of you are really bright students, the ones who succeed in college classes because you're willing to commit your head and heart and hands to good work. I treasure all of your successes, but I still hope you learn to fail. The world's work—the work that will make the planet wild and precious and humane—is difficult work, and you won't always succeed. Success is pretty easy to handle, but it's harder to handle failure successfully. We need to learn how to absorb failure, to learn from it, and to leverage it in the direction of our hopes. And we need to learn how to make mistakes without mistaking them for failure.

I hope you’re learning your own life’s story, and the ways that it connects to bigger stories of creation and creativity, character and community. In his essay “Doing Good Work Together,” William Kittredge reminds us that “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.” I hope that you are learning to reinvent the reasons for your lives, and to live in larger stories of peace and justice, hope and charity. In Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael, a character contends that "you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in." So I hope you’re also learning to practice "prefigurative thinking,” creating positive stories of the future that are attractive enough to work for.

For this reason, I hope you’re learning the realism of idealism, which is that if you don’t imagine a new world, you’ll never get there. At St. Olaf, whether you liked it or not, you’ve been living in somebody else’s ideals. On campus, you’re living in the imagination of generations of builders and landscapers, and in the imagination of the hundreds of staff people who care for you in ways that are sometimes invisible, but never inconsequential. In all of your classes, you’re living to some extent in some professor’s imagination. Today’s real world is yesterday’s imaginary world, and the real world of tomorrow depends on the quality of our imagination. Therefore, I hope you're learning to imagine a new world, a better world, a world in which our institutions make it easier to be good.

I also hope you're learning how to change the world. I suspect you are, because many of you have changed my world. Even showing up for rituals like this is a way of changing the world because each of you gives support to all the rest of us. And small actions like this can have larger repercussions. As Robert Kennedy said in apartheid South Africa in 1966, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [or a woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [they send] forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Another way of saying this is that I hope you’re learning to love—and not just romantically. I hope you’re learning that making love doesn’t just happen behind closed doors, but also in the wider world. I hope you’re learning to do the hard things that love requires—like telling the truth to people who need to hear it, and doing the dirty work of organizations and relationships. They’re often a pain in the ass, but the heart isn’t the only organ involved in love. In your love life, I hope you’re becoming biophiliacs—people who love the intricate web of life that is one expression of God’s love. I hope you're learning to love this place, and I hope you're learning the skill of making a place for yourself, of making yourself at home on the planet—and at home with the planet.

As you've noticed if you’ve been paying attention, the verb of choice today is hope—and that's my final hope. I hope you're learning to hope. I hope you’re learning the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is often wishful thinking, an assumption that, sooner or later, things will get better. Hope is a virtue, rooted in a fundamental sense of rightness, which assumes that things will get better when people get active, sooner rather than later.

I hope that you’re learning how to be hope for each other. We live in a stressful society, and usually we’re advised to find “coping mechanisms” to deal with it—time management, exercise, drugs, and any number of electronic escapes from reality. But what we really need is “hoping mechanisms,” people and places that inspire our hope and help us realize it in the world. Hoping mechanisms can be institutional—St. Olaf is one of my hoping mechanisms, as is the radical Catholic church I attend. But hoping mechanisms can also be individual—family or friends or even public figures. They can be close or distant, dead or alive. Writers like Thoreau and Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard are hoping mechanisms for me. And so, quite frankly, are many of you.

In his wonderful book, Hunting for Hope, Scott Russell Sanders notes that hope comes from a word that means “leaping up in expectation.” I hope that you realize many of your hopes and dreams. But I also hope that you spend a lifetime “leaping up in expectation,” because there’s always more to hope for. As Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

I’d like to conclude with a meditation that appears on the internet as a prayer of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology. I doubt that St. Francis had anything to do with it, and I’m sure he didn’t upload it, but here it is anyway:

May God bless you with . . . . . discomfort
at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships
so that you will live deep in your heart.

May God bless you with . . . . . anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth
so that you will work for justice, equity and peace

May God bless you with . . . . . tears
to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out with your hands
to comfort them and change their pain into joy

And may God bless you with . . . . . . the foolishness
to think that you can make a difference in the world
so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.

Amen and thank you.

--Professor Jim Farrell

How video games could help us plan Iraq (and learn from our mistakes)

Historian Niall Ferguson likes to think counterfactually - imagining what the world would be like if certain historical events turned out differently. And he's recently discovered that a video game simulation led to deeper thinking about the possibilities in World War II:
For example, he'd often argued that World War II could have been prevented if Britain had confronted Germany over its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. France would have joined with Britain, he figured, pinching Germany between their combined might and that of the Russian army...But when he ran the simulation in Making History, everything fell to pieces. The French defected, leaving Britain's expeditionary force to fly solo -- and get crushed by Germany. His theory, as it turns out, didn't hold water. He hadn't realized that a 1938 attack would not leave Britain enough time to build the diplomatic case with France.
The simulation game allows players to try and see how different historical events might have turned out different. The game's creator, Muzzy Lane, envisions the game helping to model current global conflicts with Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Iran.

When we think about historical events, we have 20/20 hindsight -- so we forget how confusing and uncertain they were at the time. In 1943, nobody really knew how strong Germany was, or what Stalin was thinking. In modern conflicts, we often have a similarly false sense of surety -- too much confidence in our ability to predict the outcome of major events.

When we play with sims, they knock us off our pedestals -- because crazy things usually happen we don't predict. Yet the chaos is useful, because we can run the same situation again and again, changing one little thing each time, until we've war-gamed it deeply and understand it better than ever.

The United States used to be champions at this sort of strategic thinking, Ferguson notes, until Iraq came along. Much of America's failures in Iraq have been due to the overly rosy predictions of administration heads. They didn't have the healthy respect for chaos that was the original animating genius of conservatism -- the thinkers like Edmund Burke, who distrusted aggressive tinkering with economies, states or cultures, because they shuddered to think of what genies might be unleashed. (emphasis mine)

Solution? Video games for Republicans!

Guns = violence | gun control = less violence

The Virginia Tech shooting - 33 dead, 25 wounded - was another spark for the gun control debate in the United States. The National Rifle Association continues its campaign on the erroneous belief that the 2nd Amendment confers individual gun rights, and gun control advocates fight a rearguard action against some of the more heinous assault weapons (the linked gun can empty its 30-round magazine in 3 seconds).

I'd like to offer two thoughts on gun control:
  1. If gun control doesn't help reduce violence, then why was the Irish Republican Army asked to destroy its weapon caches as part of the peace process in Northern Ireland?
  2. If gun control doesn't help reduce violence, then why has the United States insisted that the Iraqi Prime Minister disarm the militias?
I'm sure those must be the wrong questions to ask - after all, guns are a matter of inalienable rights, not rationality. But what's the evidence? Here's a few tidbits from peer-reviewed scientific studies and economic analyses:
Despite the overwhelming evidence that guns are not a social good, lobbying groups like the NRA continue to advocate for "right to carry" or "concealed carry" legislation. While such legislation is unrelated to higher gun ownership rates, it also has no deterrent effect on crime.

The facts show that gun ownership is correlated with gun crime, homicide, suicide, and violent deaths of children. The judicial review of the 2nd Amendment says that there does not exist a Constitutional individual right to gun ownership (with one major case pending). What are we waiting for?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

In memory

For the more than 3,000 Americans killed in Iraq (to date).

May their President end this war of false pretense.
May their opposition party regain its antiwar backbone.
May their sacrifice for our country not be forgotten.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Iraq: What's the real cost?

The Iraq War is over four years old and has cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and the Republicans Congress. It has shattered dreams of Iraqis and American soldiers and demonstrated the depth of dishonesty to which a politician would sink to start a war.

In addition to the traditional casualty count and war spending tally, here's a few other ways to measure the cost of Iraq:

Making efficient lighting pretty, too

The compact fluorescent has gotten a lot of flack for buzz, flicker, stark color, and slow warm-up.* So what's getting the lighting industry to take more interest in this energy efficient incandescent replacement?

See the video at Energy Roundup

*Note: these problems have largely been solved.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Back to politics: Why Bush hasn't been impeached

Hopefully most of you are reading this on Tuesday morning after a relaxing Memorial Day weekend (or Monday morning, for you international readers - ha, I flatter myself).

Salon.com writer Gary Kamiya examines the criminal activity of the Bush administration and argues that there's plenty of evidence for impeachment but not much will to make it so.
His administration has been dogged by one massive scandal after the other, from the Katrina debacle, to Bush's approval of illegal wiretapping and torture, to his unparalleled use of "signing statements" to disobey laws he disagrees with, to the outrageous Gonzales and U.S. attorneys affair.
There's little popular support for keeping the President in office.
[President Bush] is extraordinarily unpopular. His approval ratings, which have been abysmal for about 18 months, have now sunk to their lowest ever, making him the most unpopular president in a generation. His 28 percent approval rating in a May 5 Newsweek poll ties that of Jimmy Carter in 1979 after the failed Iran rescue mission.
Kamiya asks, "Why was Clinton, who was never as unpopular as Bush, impeached for lying about sex, while Bush faces no sanction for the far more serious offense of lying about war?"

Bush's warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America's support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly...To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness -- come to terms with it, understand it and reject it...
The rest of the article examines the declining respect for rule of law in America, hypothesizing that Americans have simply embraced the brazen bellicosity of their President.

The unpleasant truth is that Bush did what a lot of Americans wanted him to. And when it became clear after the fact that Bush had lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, it made no sense for those Americans to turn on him. Truth was never their major concern anyway -- revenge was.

Anne Applebaum wrote on the subject of the rule of law in 2005, arguing that sticking to the rule of law will pay off in the "war on terror" as it did in the Cold War:

Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism is not merely a military conflict but a battle of ideas. And just as the Cold War was won when Eastern Europeans abandoned communism and joined the West, the war on terrorism will be over when moderate Muslims have transformed the Arab world -- abandoning the radicals to their tents and their caves -- and joined the global mainstream.

Kamiya notes - and I agree - that Democrats are likely hoping that Bush's continued popular free-fall will bring the Republican Party low in the 2008 election, but it misses the point. Elections do not reinforce the principle of law - after all, Bush won re-election in 2004 despite his many legal transgressions.

It makes me wonder if this is Vietnam, but with a twist. In Vietnam, we lost our faith in government as they lied us into war. This time, the President has again lied about the war (the rationale, the evidence, the "strategy," the purpose) and once again Americans bought in and got a lemon. The President, mangling the popular phrase, still got it right: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, you can't fool me again. Damn straight, Mr President. You're fired.






Physics question update: solved!

Thanks to mechanical engineer (and now canoe lift consultant) LH, we've learned several things:
  1. My existing pulley system offers "no mechanical advantage." That's a politically correct way of saying that it did squat. Less friction on the rope, but all the weight of the canoe. Great.
  2. My 12th grade physics class provided me with crackerjack abilities to predict the fall of a marble down a stairwell or launch a 2-liter bottle rocket 75 yards, but no actual life skills.
  3. Fortunately, there are much smarter people than I who do have a clue (example follows).
So, it turns out that the right way to lift a canoe without playing "spin the jff" or "crack the K" is diagrammed here:

You can tell this diagram was made by an intelligent person by the use of subscript to describe the "load." Even a science-dolt like myself can understand that I will be exerting one-third the physical force and 1/10th the mental energy by following this diagram. Thank you, LH.

Update 2, 12:07am: The new system worked and the canoe is currently suspended. Now we just hope that my knot-tying merit badge was legitimately earned. Wait, was I a Boy Scout?

May is the Month of Music for Moldy

May is apparently the month of music on Moldy, so my apologies to those of you wanting more traditional political commentary and nerdery. This phase will soon be over.

I got a free eMusic trial with my Netflix subscription (+10 free songs over the regular free trial) a couple weeks ago and decided to give it a whirl (heck, free DRM-free music!). The motivation was my discovery of the group The Good Luck Joes via Pandora - an excellent streaming music listening/recommenation engine. Several songs from their latest album - "What Do You Think of That Noise?" - came up on my mixed station and I'd liked them all.

Today I launched the eMusic free trial and decided to plung in by downloading the whole album. It's great. I haven't regretted a single one of the songs. You can get a sampling of their music listen to the whole album here.

In addition to enjoying the album, I'm also delighted to discover a band "on my own." Other than my longtime fascination with soundtracks, most of my musical tastes come from others: U2 (MD), Enya/Oasis/Green Day (PF), A*Teens (slummy), DMB (SH and the weekly math commute), BNL (Pho), bluegrass (the parents), Willy Porter and Martin Sexton (KF).

Anyway, today's a good day at work. I'm researching the carbon content of biomass and just finishing my first time through my new album. Fun!

Why we need more physics education

We got a canoe last weekend. A nice find via Craigslist, it even included some lifejackets (aka PFDs), paddles, and a little trailer. K drove 3 hours round-trip to pick it up and we're excited to have our own canoe at last.

Then came the storage issue. The garage door eliminated jff's brilliant plan to hang the canoe over the car, allowing for quick loading/unloading. Canoe must hang sideways. Okay, then we have to clear the rafters of all the accumulated junk from previous owners (hey, nice golf clubs!). Now jff applies his high school physics and gets a couple pulleys. Gee, for some reason, lifting a 60-pound canoe with a thin rope isn't as easy as you would think.

Jff goes advanced - looks up pulleys on Wikipedia. Purchases additional pulleys and constructs a basic "block and tackle" (and slicing thumb with utility knife). In theory, we now only need to exert 30 pounds of force to lift the canoe. (see image)

After a ferocious battle that succeeding in lifting the canoe to the garage ceiling (30 pounds, my ass!), team Canoe Lift could not cleat the rope without dropping the canoe. This failure despite jff wrapping himself in the lift rope like a mummy whilst K attempted to tie it down.

So, those who get physics - help! What's wrong with the pulley system? Is the solution more pulleys (see image below - bonus pulleys in red)? Counterweights? A patch of grass and a tarp?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

History is offensive

There's an article in the UK's Daily Mail, saying that a UK government study has shown that "Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils." As it turns out, this sexy headline from one of the UK's most conservative newspapers is only partly true. From Snopes.com, we find that the study references a single school that was worried about teaching the Holocaust to Muslim students whose local mosque had indoctrinated them with a different perspective on the Holocaust. The BBC also debunked the Daily Mail's flamebait.

So, having had my righteous anger extinguished by cold fact, I do wish to say this:
  • Sometimes history is offensive (e.g. European treatment of Native Americans, slavery, etc). Knowing the folly of our ancestors is how we learn.
  • Sometimes fact is in conflict with belief. Making fact-based decisions in life avoids major mistakes.
As the spouse of a teacher, I'm happy to hear when students have their parent/faith-based/adolescent assumptions shattered by the brick of reality. These students will learn to question and to think.

It's dishonest that the Daily Mail tried to blow this out of proportion, but it's a tragedy that even one cohort of Muslim and non-Muslim students might fail to learn their history.

Is Ubuntu Linux for you?

Fresh off my post on whether Ubuntu can replace Windows, the folks at Wired have posted a nice assessment on whether Ubuntu will work for you.

Here's a synopsis:
  1. You'll be able to do most things you do now. Ubuntu comes with software for office documents, web browsing, email/calendar, music playing, etc.
  2. You can use a digital camera or iPod with Ubuntu
  3. It takes some hoop-jumping (and some Terminal commands) to set up playback of proprietary audio/video formats such as AAC, MP3, DVD, etc.
Perhaps the most important question is this:
Can Ubuntu completely replace Windows or Mac OS X?
Probably not. Even after you get it working pretty smoothly with your peripherals, you may miss industry-standard professional programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, or entertainment software such as iTunes and video games. The best strategy for most people is to run Ubuntu on the side as a hobby, gradually learning its intricacies.
I used Ubuntu on an extra computer for a bit and found it really easy, especially compared to my other aborted Linux experience (Slackware). I still found it frustrating, however, to have to resort to online forums and Google searches to learn commands for simple things like setting my screen resolution to anything greater than 1024x768. Your mileage may vary.

President Bush gets his war bill

Congressional Democrats caved this week, giving the President Bush a war funding bill with no deadline. Let me count the ways this stinks:
  1. The American people sent the Democrats to Congress in a landslide victory in November 2006 because of two things: Republican corruption (Tom DeLay, Tom Foley, et al) and the War in Iraq.
  2. Congress has been reasserting its rightful constitutional authority by starting investigations of many highly corrupt activities in this administration (wiretapping, political nepotism, lying, cheating, stealing, et al). Taking control of the purse strings is part of that job.
  3. What really serves the troops better? Giving the President license to keep them fighting and dying or bringing them home?
Let's put it this way. The constitution expressly gives the power of warmaking to Congress. Here's a quick tutorial on war powers, for those whose last constitution-reading came in high school:
ARTICLE 1, SECTION 8

The Congress shall have Power:

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress....

ARTICLE II, SECTION 2

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States....

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur....
Notice where most of the bold type is? Congress - the people - rules the army. In other words, Congress decides how big the army is, when it should be called into action, how it shall be funded, and when it shall come home. The President's constitutional authority is to toot the horn.

Congress should pass a deadline for troop withdrawal by cutting off war funding. Then let President Bush decide whether to toot the horn for withdrawal - he either brings the troops home, or wants them to fight without money. Who supports the troops then?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sustainability is good business

Here's an excellent story of Interface, a carpet tile company driven to environmental excellence by its CEO Ray Anderson. In the 1990s, Anderson decided he wanted to make the company green.
He challenged his colleagues to set a deadline for Interface to become a “restorative enterprise,” a sustainable operation that takes nothing out of the earth that cannot be recycled or quickly regenerated, and that does no harm to the biosphere.
The deadline is 2020, but the payoffs have been more immediate.
Use of fossil fuels is down 45 percent (and net greenhouse gas production, by weight, is down 60 percent), he said, while sales are up 49 percent. Globally, the company’s carpet-making uses one-third the water it used to. The company’s worldwide contribution to landfills has been cut by 80 percent.
The savings aren't limited to the environment.
Interface sustainability efforts have saved the company more than $336 million since 1995.
The New York Times story also has a nice video on Anderson and the company's efforts.

Iran teaches us supply and demand

Iran is - ironically - providing the United States with a supply-and-demand lesson, if anyone's paying attention. Yesterday the Iranian government increased gas prices 25% (from the ridiculously low 40 cents per gallon) to help reign in surging demand for fuel. It's not sufficient, of course, when the rest of the world is paying 6-10 times that price, which is why Iranian fuel rationing will begin in two weeks.

So when Americans worry about price gouging, we need to consider the alternative. If we artificially limit the price of fuel, demand will stay artificially high, and we will run out. As R-Squared Energy blog puts it:
In times of shortage, price needs to rise to choke off demand. I may like to go visit my Aunt Bettie in the midst of this emergency, but I can put that trip off. However, if you have a dying relative, the price is not going to stop you. But you will be glad that it stopped me, and others whose need was not critical, from draining supplies.
The Iranians are going to learn very quickly that in a supply-constrained world, charging less than market price means there's not enough to go around.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tuesday roundup

I've been hit with my oft-acquired late spring cold, which in addition to my newly acquired (or acknowledged) allergies made for quite the cap on my weekend. All-in-all, it's created a less-than-stellar environment for blogging (staying home sick from work is an excuse to stay off the computer).

At any rate, here's a link or two to things I've found interesting while being unable to blog more thoroughly:

Monday, May 21, 2007

Of incompetent toadies, and other delights of this administration

There's been a recent revelation that Alberto Gonzales, when serving as White House Counsel, tried to pressure then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on warrantless wiretapping.
While Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft lay seriously ill in a Washington hospital in March 2004, Alberto Gonzales, then the top White House lawyer, tried to persuade him to sign papers reauthorizing President Bush's controversial warrantless domestic wiretapping program, the Justice Department's former No. 2 official said in congressional testimony Tuesday.
Ashcroft and his deputy refused, but President Bush eventually permitted the program to continue. Shadoweyes has this priceless analysis:
[by refusing to sign,] it turns out that Ashcroft has more respect for the Constitution than Bush. This is akin to saying that the Emperor was more destructive than Darth Vader.

Friday, May 18, 2007

When righteous judgment cometh down

Paul Wolfowitz has resigned, coming as most neocons do to ethical behiavor - under duress.

Courtesy of Queen, this ode's for you, Mr Wolfowitz:

The inanity of "price gouging"

I've blogged several times about the relationship between supply and demand and its effect on gas prices. Today I found (courtesy of R-Squared) two charts that should lay to rest any theory of price gouging (from testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy). The testimony also discusses how very low oil and gas prices in the 1980s led to underinvestment in refining infrastructure that is needed to meet today's surging demand. Without further ado, here are the charts which should explain why prices are high without "gouging."

Gasoline supply is historically low:

Gasoline demand is high:

Q.E.D.

Note: to my regular readers, apologies for the profuse use of the word 'inane' lately. It's a passing fad, I hope...

It's not boycotts that change gas prices, it's behavior

Americans are finally starting to grasp the meaning of higher gas prices, reducing driving and finding other ways to cut down fuel consumption.
Since 2005, Americans have driven 8 billion to 9 billion fewer miles per month than they would have if pre-2005 trends had continued, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal data...One-third of those polled by USA TODAY this month say they have shortened or canceled a planned car vacation.
And yet, just a few days ago some folks were still attempting the inane gesture of a one-day gas boycott. Proposed for May 15, here's a view of how the proposed boycott worked:
Below are the closing prices for June gasoline on the NYMEX starting on May 14th:

May 14 $2.30
May 15 $2.30
May 16 $2.34
May 17 $2.42
I'd explain a bit more why this was completely ineffective, but blogger Robert Rapier (who also gathered the above data) is worth quoting verbatim:
If you really want to impact gasoline prices, you have to cut demand. You must actually cut your consumption. Instead of not filling up for a day, ride your bike to work or take public transportation during the next boycott. Those are measures that actually reduce demand, and will affect prices. But that's too hard or inconvenient, isn't it? We want to hold on to solutions like boycotting Shell, which will bring them to their knees. Do people really have such a poor understanding of supply and demand?
Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Your music will be "free"

If you've joined the iPod (or "portable music player") revolution, then you've probably encountered digital rights management (DRM). It's that thing that asks you to "authorize" the playing of iTunes songs on different computers (if you paid for them via the iTunes store). The whole business is pretty much designed to make copying harder to do. It also has the side effect of making legitmate backups difficult, as well as sharing music with friends.

It's started with some individual artists, spread to iTunes, and now Amazon.com is planning to sell music without DRM. That means you'll buy an mp3 without any kind of copy protection. You'll be able to copy it to three of your home computers, two music players, and burn it to CD.

Many folks have argued that this sort of music copying falls under fair use provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the godfather of DRM. It seems that the argument's likely to become moot, since the Southern slaves of DRM will be able to escape to the free North of unprotected music.

So share in the free music revolution. Check out the music of Jonathan Coulton, an artist who's been providing his music free for a long time, and making money doing it.

A pile of plastic

Americans consume over 200 pounds of plastic per year, and a third of it (60 pounds) is simply discarded packaging. The financial total is equally staggering: 10 cents of every dollar, $400 billion dollars a year spent just to wrap, enclose and seal everything from bread to Batman toys.
The manufacturing industry alone sucks one-third of the energy and 13% of the water supply in the U.S., never mind all the waste -- 7.6 billion tons of it -- that's produced before products even reach our hands. And when those products do hit our homes, what is our first task? To extract whatever it is that we actually wanted to buy.
And what's the result of all this packaging? A tool designed just to help us liberate our consumer goods from the packaging. And you might want it.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, injuries from plastic packaging resulted in 6,400 visits to emergency rooms in 2004.
Hmm. Perhaps I'll go for the "open box" item.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Case in point: industry capture

Industry capture is a political term used to describe a regulatory agency that has been "captured" by the regulated industry. For example, the current Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, previously worked as a lobbyist for the mining industry.

The Bush Administration is going to continue its tradition of industry capture, putting a senior lobbyist from the National Association of Manufacturers in charge of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. From the NY Times article:
A senior lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers nominated by President Bush to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission will receive a $150,000 departing payment from the association when he takes his new government job, which involves enforcing consumer laws against members of the association...

...As a major trade organization for the largest companies in the country, the National Association of Manufacturers often has issues before the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It recently prevailed on the agency, for instance, to relax the requirements for when companies must notify the agency about defective products.
Yeah, he's going to be all about consumer safety, this one.

The men Bush defends

Paul Wolfowitz has been near the center of the neoconservative capture of Washington under President Bush, first as an architect of the Iraq invasion in the Defense Department and now as the head of the World Bank.

However, serious allegations have arisen that Mr Wolfowitz used his position at the head of the Bank to get a significant raise for his "companion," done while he was heading up an anti-corruption drive to weed out the bank's aid recipients.
A special committee [of the World Bank board of directors found] that Mr. Wolfowitz broke bank rules, ethics and governance standards in arranging for, and concealing, a pay and promotion package for his companion, Shaha Ali Riza, in 2005.
Wolfowitz has responded to the charges:
He promised to change his management approach by relying less on advisers from the Bush administration, restructuring his office, delegating more to managers and placing “more trust in the staff,” according to the text.

[However, he has also protested that] he has unfairly been "caricatured as a ‘boyfriend’ who used his position of power to help his ‘girlfriend...’" [Furthermore,] “I implore each of you to be fair in making your decision, because your decision will not only affect my life, it will affect how this institution is viewed in the United States and the world,” he said.
And how will it look to the world and reflect upon the World Bank if they don't fire a guy who has relied heavily on the Bush administration, placed too little "trust in the staff," and used his position of power to reward his girlfriend? Good riddance, Mr Wolfowitz. It's only a matter of time before you get your medal.

Relatively speaking, gas is cheap...so far

Cockeyed.com explores the "price of a gallon," and shows that gasoline still remains among the more inexpensive liquids that Americans use on a daily basis. A Budweiser, for example, sets you back almost $9/gallon and it won't get you near as far as a gallon of gas.

Despite the comparatively favorable economics, this week's petroleum update shows that gasoline inventories remain near historic lows, meaning Americans will likely continue to pay north of $3.00/gallon for gas all summer. This price level will be the minimum, however, and could surge significantly higher if hurricanes or breakdowns cause unplanned refinery outages.

For Americans feeling sorry for themselves, here's a second reality check. Gas prices in many European countries are hovering near $7.00/gallon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Is Ubuntu Linux ready to replace Windows?

Four years ago she went on the Clueless Newbie Linux Odyssey to see if Linux was ready for prime time and concluded that there was much work to be done. On the news that Dell is prepared to sell laptops with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed, she decided to revisit the most user friendly flavor of Linux.
My non-negotiable requirements for a new operating system center on simplicity for me:
1. It must have a GUI interface for installing and configuring the system.
2. Existing hardware must remain usable and the new operating system must make it "just work" without my having to edit text-based configuration files.
3. Existing software must remain usable unless the new operating system has equivalent features to the ones I use, and I can switch without losing data or doing much work.
4. Because I need to use software that has no Linux substitute, the Linux distribution must make it easy to create a dual-boot system. It has to recognize and preserve the existing operating system and its data during installation, and give me access to the data on the Windows drives after installation.
She walked through the installation process and was pleased to see that it was extremely user friendly. However, the second odyssey wasn't without hiccups.
Problem 1: The NVIDIA graphics card needs non-Linux drivers to get full benefit of the card's features. The Ubuntu help on their website explained how to install what they call "restricted drivers". Their solution was clear, easy to understand, and best of all, it worked. This is definitely an improvement.

Problem 2: Even after installing the correct drivers and rebooting, my 1280x1024 monitor could only be set to 1024x768 pixels. The answer is in the Ubuntu "community documents" area, and it works. It involved opening a terminal and using the command line (I cheat, I cut and paste instead of typing), but it also worked.

Problem 3: Although CDs played immediately, to play DVDs I had to locate and install some files that bypass content protection coding. The website I acquired them from, www.getautomatix.com , warned me that I might be installing something illegal, but I said, "Yarrr, matey", and clicked the install button. Automatix installed itself, then I selected what I needed. More files were downloaded and installed ... really automagically! After that DVDs worked. I have no clue what it did, and that's the way I like it.

Problem 4: The Linux Flash players did not work with YouTube, and Adobe's Flash video player was extremely difficult to install. I have a 64-bit microprocessor, and installed 64-bit Ubuntu. Although 64-bit Linux has been available for more than five years, Adobe hasn't bothered to develop 64-bit version of Flash for Linux yet. My live-in geek tracked the problem down for me, and Adobe is reportedly working on 64-bit software.

Problem 5: Google's Picasa does not work. Every time I launch Picasa it locks up my computer and sends the CPU utilization to 100%. The problem is Google, not Ubuntu. Instead of writing real Linux software, all Google did was take their Windows version and wrap it in WINE (fake Windows) to make it work in Linux. I expected Google to do better than that.
Note: My wife would second the criticism of Picasa, having had the program import the last batch of pictures from our camera to the "Exported Pictures" section. What?

I'd say that several of these issues are non-trivial. Problem #2 involves the terminal, which is verboten according to her own rules. I encountered the same problem when I installed Ubuntu and that immediately flunks easy user configuration. Problem #3 is also non-trivial, since it shouldn't require a hack to view a DVD on your computer. Finally, while the Picasa failing isn't a deal-killer (she's still got a Windows partition), the Flash bug is a problem. Increasingly, flash is the internet. You need a native solution. Adobe's to blame, but it doesn't make a difference to the Ubuntu user.

Verdict: You're probably more secure from malware, viruses and rootkits running Ubuntu, but if you can't view YouTube, will you care?

When overcoming disability becomes liability

This article shares the story of an Olympic hopeful, a man who has been running for years and who hopes to travel to China in 2008 with the South African Olympic team. There's one significant difference between Oscar Pistorius and your typical sprinter, however. He's got two prosthetic legs.

Despite the incredible feat of overcoming the loss of both his legs from a birth defect, the international track and field organization (IAAF) are now considering banning him from competition, because they postulate that his prosthetic limbs may give him a competitive advantage. However, the facts suggest otherwise:

According to Gailey [an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School], a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring...

...There are many disadvantages to sprinting on carbon-fiber legs, Pistorius and his coach said. After a cumbersome start, he needs about 30 meters to gain his rhythm. His knees do not flex as readily, limiting his power output. His grip can be unsure in the rain. And when he runs into a headwind or grows fatigued, he must fight rotational forces that turn his prosthetic devices sideways, said Ampie Louw, who coaches Pistorius.

In other words, Pistorius is actually at a disadvantage. The arguments get steadily more inane:
Foremost among the I.A.A.F.’s concerns is that Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs may make him taller than he would have been on natural legs and may unfairly lengthen his stride, allowing him to lower his best times by several seconds in the past three years, while most elite sprinters improve by hundredths of a second.
His legs aren't getting any longer, dummies. And Pistorius is hardly a giant, standing 6 feet, 1.25 inches with his prosthetics. Despite the science of the prosthetic and the inanity of the IAAF complaints, the typical slippery slope arguments follow:
A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “Given the arms race nature of competition,” will technological advantages cause “athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?” wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute’s board of directors. “Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?”
How about this rule. You can only compete in prosthetics that are used to replace bum legs (or no legs). And you can only sit on the IAAF if you've had your brain removed. So far we're batting .500.

The bandwagon nearly full, President Bush hops on

In a reversal of his long-expressed belief that the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to regulate carbon emissions, and on the heels of a Supreme Court decision explicitly overruling him, President Bush has hopped on the carbon regulation bandwagon.
President Bush yesterday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and three other federal departments to write new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and trucks, reversing his position that the federal government lacks the authority to mandate changes to curb one of the chief causes of global warming.
The turnaround is somewhat surprising, given Bush's slow conversion to fact-based theories on climate change. And yet, I've been baffled by the President's rationale for holding out so long. Since when has President Bush said he lacks the authority to do anything?*

*Note: see warrantless wiretapping, suspending habeus corpus, or condoning torture.

In international trade, food safety counts against you

Following up on my recent coverage of food safety, I saw another article this week discussing food safety in trade relations.
“The US has the most comprehensive regulations of anywhere in the world when it comes to consumable products…understandably there is a cost associated with that. It doesn’t come free….But it is a lot less expensive that the price we are paying now due to a product that has been brought into this country with questionable safety and integrity.”

Strangely enough, when it comes to trade negotiations, those safety regulations and food inspection services count against the US. For you see, inspection services that are a part of a system of “control of quality and safety of food, agricultural inputs, and the environment” are a part of the over $300 billion in farm subsidies that, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), industrialized countries pay to their farmers.
Food safety is considered a farm subsidy? Who are they kidding? It's an additional cost to farmers - a price consumers are willing to pay to keep melamine and other adulterated substances out of their food.

Whatever. Anything for a cheaper loaf of bread, eh?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Should revised mpg mean a revised CAFE standard?

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for American vehicles has required that each car manufacturer reach an average fuel economy standard for their fleet of vehicles: 27.5 mpg for cars, 22.2 mpg for light trucks. However, you may have noticed recent news about the EPA having overestimated - for some cars, drastically - the average fuel economy of the nation's vehicles.

Apparently, there are three different fuel economy figures. From the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA):
[There are] three different sets of fuel economy values- NHTSA’s CAFE values, EPA’s unadjusted dynamometer values, and EPA’s adjusted on-road values:
  • NHTSA’s CAFE values are used to determine manufacturers’ compliance with the applicable average fuel economy standards
  • The EPA's unadjusted dynamometer values are calculated from the emissions generated during the testing using a carbon balance equation. EPA knows the amount of carbon in the fuel, so by measuring the carbon compounds expelled in the exhaust they can calculate the fuel economy.
  • EPA’s adjusted on-road values are those values listed in the Fuel Economy Guide and on new vehicle labels, adjusted to account for the in-use shortfall of EPA dynamometer test values. (formatting mine)
The NHTSA values are the law for the manufacturer, but the manufacturer's fuel economy average is computed via one of two methods:
EPA is responsible for calculating the average fuel economy for each manufacturer. CAFE certification is done either one of two ways: 1) The manufacturer provides its own fuel economy test data, or 2) the EPA will obtain a vehicle and test it...using the same laboratory test that they use to measure exhaust emissions (fuel economy standard #2 from above).
This laboratory test has always been modified down to better mirror real world fuel economy (#3), so the CAFE standard has apparently been overestimating actual average fuel economy of the American fleet for years.

Bring that story up to date with this fact: the EPA estimate of on-road fuel economy has also been overestimating mpg for American cars, by as much as 50% (link discusses hybrids, but the overestimate applies to all vehicles). So, to summarize:

Actual fuel economy <>

If conserving fuel means saving fuel in the tank, not just on paper, then we need a CAFE test and a CAFE standard based on reality.