Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It's Just a Little Cough

Unless you've been living under a stone somewhere, you've likely heard that the Centers for Disease Control issued the first federal government-ordered quarantine in more than 40 years because of a man who took two international flights and travelled around Europe while infected with an "extensively drug-resistant" form of tuberculosis. Since I'm guessing that you're already familiar with the case, I'm not going to belabor the details here.

But there is a part of the story that speaks to the way many Americans go about things, and I think that it's the sort of thing that colors people's perception of the United States.

"I'm a very well-educated, successful, intelligent person," he told the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]. "This is insane to me that I have an armed guard outside my door when I've cooperated with everything other than the whole solitary-confinement-in-Italy thing."
I don't think that it requires a degree in public policy studies to understand that the armed guard is there because this man has shown an unwillingness to comply with instructions that he considers unreasonable. And in this case, failure to comply could spread a really nasty strain of an already nasty disease. His inability or unwillingness to understand the simple cause-and-effect relationship between these things seems to be more and more common these days. The expectation that people should regard him as trustworthy, in the face of his previous actions, seems to be more than a little unrealistic.

On the other hand, the man had simply been "advised not to fly," rather than being told: "you'd bloody well better keep your ass away from other people until we get this sorted out." The CDC's unwillingness to be more forceful from the beginning allowed this guy to downplay the risks involved. While I can understand them not wanting to quarantine the guy right off the bat, they clearly left him enough wiggle room that he felt that he could travel.

Between indescisive instructions and an unwillingness to alter plans to make accomodations for risks posed to others, a number of people were needlessly put at risk. This is the sort of thing that makes people unwilling to work together to solve mutual problems.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Thousand Words

In the Seattle Times today were a pair of photographs of an Israeli missile attack on Gaza. These are striking photographs, and I find myself wanting the entire story behind them. You can do a lot with photographs these days, especially digital, and I'm curious to see what the raw images look like. Not that I suspect that anything funny has taken place, but because once cropped and aligned, the photos are different than they were when they were first taken. Was the photographer snapping these in a hurry, wanting to capture what was happening while moving to cover? Or was he confident that the missile would land far enough away that he wouldn't be injured? Was he holding the camera in trembling hands, relying on shutter speed and film sensitivity to freeze the action and eliminate blur, or was he solidly set up on a tripod? Was he close to the action, as the photos suggest, or was he a distance away, using a massive telephoto lens to bring the events closer to a safe vantage point?

While a picture is worth a thousand words, it's sometimes the ones you can't hear that are the most compelling.

The captions given here are the ones from the paper's website.

Palestinians run as a rocket falls at them during an Israeli air strike on the Hamas Executive Force building in Nusseirat refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza strip, Friday. Warplanes pounded the Gaza Strip for a ninth day as Palestinians continued to fire rockets into Israel despite a call from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for a truce.

(Note: I'm inclined to say that the incoming ordinance is a missile, possibly a Hellfire, rather than a rocket.)

An Israeli misslie strikes amongst Palestinians during an attack on Hamas's Executive Force building in Nusseirat refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza strip, Friday.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Can't Help Myself

A former IBM employee is suing the company after having been let go for accessing sexually explicit websites from his office computer. His argument is that he uses such sites as a form of self-medication for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition derived from having witnessed the death of a friend during the Viet Nam War.

His lawyers are arguing that his addiction should have been handled by the company in the same way as they would deal with an alcoholic or a drug addict, and that he should have been offered treatment for his condition.

This is an interesting case, and I wish that I knew more about it. On the surface, given just what I've been able to read so far, it seems a pretty open and shut case. Okay, let's accept that there is such a thing as "Sex Addiction." (It's still under debate, and I don't think that it's made it into the DSM yet.) And let's accept that this guy has it. Does that justify breaking company rules? I don't know the law well enough to know if a legitimate diagnosis of alcoholism would grant some sort of immunity to a company rule stating that you aren't allowed to drink on the premises. But I don't think that the common interpretation works that way.

It's tempting to view this as a somewhat creative excuse for bad behavior. Or yet another level of the "everybody's addicted to something" craze that never seems to go away. But this is going to be a case with pretty serious legal implications, and it will be interesting to see how it comes out in the end.

Friday, May 25, 2007

They Called Him MISTER Pig...

An 11 year-old boy shot and killed a giant wild boar with a .50 caliber revolver. It looks like a REALLY large animal, more like a small woolly rhinoceros than a pig. For a hunter, it's quite an achievement.

For everyone else, however, it seems to be either a travesty of barbarism and violence, or an outright hoax. I was tracking down the story, which I found on USAToday, and also found some a message board on Snopes that talks about it. And I was convinced that I could be snarky and judgmental. I guess because I grew up around people who hunted, I don't have a revulsion reflex that makes me upset or angry about this episode, or unwilling to give the story any credibility. (Although I would concede that the photograph seems to take advantage of forced perspective. I would have posed the boy in front of the animal, so you could get a better sense of their relative sizes. But we'll see if it turns out to be faked.)

If it is a hoax, I'm betting that it's really a Volkswagen wrapped in fur...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

But It's For The CHILDREN...

A number of Attorneys General from various states have filed subpoenas to force to turn over the names of those individuals who have had their profiles removed from the site through MySpace's "Sentinel Safe" software. MySpace, citing privacy laws, waited until the legal actions were taken to release the information.

Despite the breathless talk of "protecting children," this is really little more than a thinly veiled attempt for some politicians to score points at the expense of an unpopular group of people.

"I think once we find out the content of the messages — of course, it will depend on how long they retain that information — we may very well find that some of the messages included illegal enticement of a child," [Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood] said.
Then again, they very well may find - absolutely nothing. This is what the legal concept of "probable cause" is for. I mean, if law enforcement were allowed to search private homes whenever they wished - of course, depending on how long people keep things - they might very well find evidence of criminal activity. As useful as we might find the idea of allowing the police to randomly check people out on the off chance that a crime has been committed, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is usually construed to say you can't. To wit:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
I know that this makes me sound like some heartless weirdo who advocates for expanded rights for sexual predators, even if that results in death or injury to innocent children. [Yay, spin!] But that's not really what I'm getting at. In all honesty, I suspect that some of the people whose information is turned over are going to be found to have been in contact with children, leading to high-profile arrests. (Keep in mind, that I'm playing the cynic, here.) But you could say the same with a home-by-home search of a large apartment complex or subdivision. We don't want our legal system to get to the point where what stands bewteen a person and law-enforcement scouring their lives for evidence of criminality is a popularity contest, or political volume. When we start allowing the law to fall by the wayside when we're dealing with unpopular people, implicit in that is the idea that these people are justifiably unpopular. So are Hispanics justifiably unpopular enough that we shouldn't need probable cause before rounding them up? You'll likely find some illegal immigrants that way. How about Moslems? We might very well find some evidence of Islamist sympathies.

I've never been one for "slippery slope" arguments, and I'm not really attempting to make one here. Rather that laws should be followed, and if we don't like them, changed, so that we all know where we stand. If conviction for certain crimes carries with it the suspension of Fourth Amendment rights, let's put that out there, where people can see it, and know the score. Using scare tactics to convince people that their children are at risk from cyber-stranger-dangers (especially when you consider that 95% of sex-abuse crimes against children involve family members - who are unlikely to have met their targets through MySpace) don't do anything to solve the problem. Because almost anyone can be scary, if you can find the right arguments.

Anything For Money?

One of the arguments against allowing for payments to people for things like organ transplants or egg donations is that you can't trust people to make rational, considered decisions when any significant amount of money is on the line. The line of thinking goes that people (especially the poor) are so money-hungry that they'll do whatever it takes to get the cash, and worry about the consequences later. (Note that given the right lawyer, this might not be a bad strategy, really - but that's beside the point.)

But are we REALLY virtual slaves to money in this way? Or have the ideas that money makes the world go around, and is the root of all Evil taken hold to such a degree that it's simply become taken for granted that no one has any self-control or regard when there's cash on the line? It's a given that in most Western societies, and the United States in particular, money is very important. Most of us don't grow our own food, make our own clothing, build our own shelter or know enough about medicine to survive serious injuries or diseases. Therefore, we have to pay other people for these goods and services. And most people don't make enough money to be able to save for the future without (or, in some cases with) working a full-time job. So you can understand the allure that money holds.

I've seen people forgo money, or the chance to make more of it, in lots of cases. Sometimes it's as simple as turning down a promotion because you don't want to pull the kids out of school before they graduate. Or it's quitting a job that you've developed moral qualms about - in the middle of an economic downturn. The list goes on, and I won't try to list all of the examples that I can think of.

It's worthwhile, I think, to give people more credit for being thoughtful, and weighing the pros and cons of any given situation. While there's no doubt that there are people (and perhaps lots of them) that would take the money, and come to regret it later, I don't think that using that as a blanket starting point does anyone any favors.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Guilty Now, It Seems

Back in February, I wrote a piece about a man who had been exonerated after having spent 18 years in prison for a 1985 rape that he didn't commit, but stood accused of murder from 2005. I'd let the case slip my mind, and forgot to go back and see how things were shaping up until just today. Well, he was convicted of the 2005 killing back in March, and is now awaiting sentencing. But that's not the end. The man's 17 year old nephew was convicted last month of accepting his uncle's invitation to rape the victim (it seems this may have been the uncle's way of initiating the boy into sex), and helping the older man kill her. It turns out that he'd made a long confession, but later tried to recant it.

It's kind of a creepy case, and one that raises some questions. If we assume that he IS guilty this time, it becomes tempting to view the man's prior conviction as having SOME grounding in fact. While he wasn't guilty of the specific crime that he'd been convicted of, it seems possible that the police may have had valid reasons for suspecting him. Of course, on the other side of the coin you have the idea that the system "created" a sex criminal where there hadn't been one before, by placing him behind bars for nearly two decades. Once you've done the time, do you lose some inhibitions against doing the crime?

On the other hand, what if lightning has hit the same place twice? Okay, so they have the nephew's confession - police have been known to coerce or trick confessions out of suspects before, and teenagers seem to be more pliant in this way than adults. What if the man's defense was the truth? That the same Sheriff's department that helped put him away the first time went for another bite of the apple - and made sure they had an ironclad case this time around.

And is this going to make people think twice about exoneration projects? I wonder if this is the first case of someone who'd been found to be innocent was then later convicted of another equally or more serious offense? How many cases like would it take before the public began to look sideways at the effort?

I'm really curious as to what actually went down, in 1985 and in 2005. It's a pity that we'll never know.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Seattle, Visibly

I purchased a new digital camera recently. One of the nice things about digital photography is that you don't have to spend the money to develop your images, and THEN find out that you suck as a shutterbug - all you have to do is download the images to your computer. But over the past couple of days I have been wandering around Seattle and thereabouts, camera in hand. These are some of the things that I've seen. If you'd like to see more, you can check out the Piscasa gallery.

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Death of Democracy

So I saw a bumper sticker yesterday. It read as follows:

"Thank God for Presidential term limits."
The other stickers that were plastered across the back of the car made it pretty clear which President the driver was glad was being limited, but that doesn't matter for this discussion, so I won't bother you with it.

Term limits mean that any given person may only be President for a grand total of eight years - regardless of what the public has to say about the matter. They are yet another in a long series of un-democratic rules that are built into the American system. They were originally instituted after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, as a way of keeping a popular President from being re-elected over and over again, until he became too infirm to serve, or died in office - in other words, avoiding a de facto "President for life" situation.

And I always worry when I see people celebrating the un-democratic roadblocks that have been built into the system. Presidents in this country are elected by a somewhat bizarre system that plays (somewhat) off of the popular vote. It's possible to lose the popular vote, and still be elected President, but it's hard - the stars really have to line up properly for that to happen. So, for the most part, unless 50.00001% or more of people who bother to vote put a little check by your name, you're not getting into the office.

Once we get to the point where we've decided that the majority can't be trusted to make the "right" decision, so we have to take the choice out of their hands, we start walking down a path that leads only to tyranny. After all, Robert Mugabe thinks that he's doing the right thing for the people of Zimbabwe...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Listen to This...

The BBC World Service is running a radio documentary called "Death to America." They've put it out onine It explores anti-Americanism around the world. It starts in Venezuela, then moves to Turkey. It's really very enlightening and is a good thing to listen to. The United States is fairly isolated, all things considered. We have only Canada and Mexico as immediate neighbors, and we've tended to discount criticism from those quarters.

One of the strange ideas that I've encountered when talking to people is the idea that understanding of a viewpoint is synonymous with supporting that viewpoint. This makes it hard to talk about anti-Americanism with people, as being able to speak to the concept is often taken as having bought into it. This is a narrow view that should be shed, so that we can better understand the world that exists around us.

Friday, May 11, 2007

No Mother's Milk

Vegans sentenced in baby's death

A pair of vegan parents were sentenced in their baby's death. It appears the child starved to death on a diet of soy milk and apple juice.

I don't know anything about being vegan. Does the practice preclude breast-feeding a baby?

Free Paris?

Paris Hilton has been ordered to report to jail for a 45-day sentence for violating probation on a DUI charge (likely exacerbated by missing a court date). If she doesn't show, she could wind up doing 90 days in the Big House, although her lawyers are appealing. Now it appears that a group of her fans are circulating an online petition, asking Governor Schwarzenegger for an official pardon.

Whomever wrote this, they're certainly more savvy that most of us would expect the Paris-worshipping crowd to be. A number of names are trotted out, of other celebrities that have been arrested for DUI and never served any jail time. Conveniently left out is the fact that Hilton herself would never have served any jail time - if she'd completed her probationary period without incident. Her supporters are asking for a "second chance," without acknowledging that she'd already been given that second chance. (And, it appears, blew it by acting on the advice of her publicist, rather than her lawyers.)

They also cite the case of Brandy, noting that even though she was in a fatal accident, she didn't go to jail. Overlooked is the fact that being in a fatal accident is not, by itself, illegal in many places. In the absence of criminal charges pertaining to her conduct behind the wheel, Brandy shouldn't be in jail because of that accident. That's the way the legal system works.
Still, the cynic in me is impressed. I doubt that Governor Schwarzenegger is vapid enough to not understand some of the distinctions being made here, so there's a part of me that doubts that he's really the intended audience. Seems her newly rehired publicist is already working on earning his paycheck.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Hardly Working?

"While many still believe immigration takes U.S. jobs, a shrinking birth rate and history argue that economic misery is no more likely to be the result than it was during past immigration debates. As Bush said in Mexico, setting up legal, temporary work could be an alternative for 'doing jobs Americans aren't doing.'"
Americans aren't doing these jobs because they don't pay enough for the Americans who aren't doing them to find them worthwhile, not because there aren't enough Americans to do them. Were we really dealing with a labor shortage, there wouldn't be so much oppositon to a greater opening of the borders, except on the somewhat specious grounds of national security.

But still, it's not really accurate to say that immigrants (legal or otherwise) "take jobs away from Americans." They do, however, increase the competition for those jobs. By adding to the pool of "low-skill" workers, they make low-skill labor less valuable - just like finding new oil deposits lowers the price of crude.

Most Americans (and Westerners in general) live at a standard of living that is too high to make us competative in a 100% globalized marketplace. One reason is that western currencies buy more goods and/or services in poor countries than they do in their home countries, making it relatively cheaper to attain that standard of living. Another reason lower expectations for standard of living prevail in poorer countries around the world. As far as a couple billion people are concerned, even lower middle-class Americans live like kings. The day laborers standing on the corner can afford to work for low wages because they are more accepting of a standard of living that most of us would find completely unacceptable.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our understanding that common American expectations for standard of living are tied to a certain amount of technological literacy and skill, and not just long or hard work. My job requires a lot less physical effort (and usually time, as well) than working in the fields, but it requires a greater level of education. My standard of living is, in effect, a reward for being educated and experienced, rather than backbreaking labor. If the number of people at my education level were to suddenly swell, the demand for my labor would drop, and my current standard of living would become unsustainable, as wages declined.

Immigration enforcement policies that prevented unauthorized persons from working would squeeze the unskilled labor market, which would place upward pressure on both direct and indirect compensation. This would translate into higher prices, as corporations sought to preserve profits by passing those costs on. Most of us don't consider the low-skilled to be worthy of lowering our own standards of living (or risking inflation) to put more money in their pockets. Instead, we tolerate a thriving underground labor market that has the effect of linking access to what most of us consider an "acceptable" standard of living to a certain level of skill. Since what many Americans consider an unacceptable standard of living can still be a vast improvement over being dirt-poor in Latin America, many people find risking their lives to get to the United States to be worthwhile.

And while there might be any number of people who feel that they have a right to a better life, or that it's not compassionate to deny them, we have to remember that there is a price that someone is paying for their opportunity (Opportunities always cost!), and we shouldn't be so quick to disparage those who pay that price as lazy or dismiss them as non-existent.

Bussing It

On Sunday, both the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had stories about the changes that Seattle city government would like to make to reduce the number of cars in the city, and improve the utilization rates for public transportation.

The general plan seems to go something like this: reduce the city's overall "carrying capacity" for cars. Allow for more housing to be constructed without dedicated parking, make paid street parking 24-7, extend the reach of the zones where only local residents may use street parking, and similar measures. While not explicitly part of this plan, the idea of removing highway 99 where it travels along the downtown waterfront, and integrating into the present surface street (which would dramatically reduce capacity), seems to be a good fit with the rest of the ideas.

The formulation appears to be simple enough. Make driving into, in, and perhaps through Seattle more painful than using mass transit, thus making mass transit the better option by comparison. Assumed is the idea that greater ridership would mean increased revenues that would then be re-invested in the transit system. Supporters of this plan are fairly convinced that people we realize that they're better off in the long run. There will be less pollution, people will be healthier (since many of them will take up walking or bicycling to get around), and the situation will be better for those people who must still drive on occasion, et cetera.

I wonder about this logic. The goal here seems to be precisely creating a very specific pain point with limited resources. Pushing people to drive less, rather than drive elsewhere, seems like a very fine line to walk. If people don't drive less, there will simply be a general dissatisfaction with the whole thing. Life in Seattle will have become less convenient and more expensive, with no real benefit realized. If people simply drive elsewhere, it makes the suburbs better suited to both live and do business. This would come at the expense of the city and those businesses and people who can't afford to move. And, more importantly, without the increased revenue (and maybe with a decreased tax base), there won't be any money to improve transit services. I'd like to see the risk analysis that went into this.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Evolution, Spun

The Way I See It #224

Darwinism’s impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Darwinism’s connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.

-- Dr. Jonathan Wells
Biologist and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.
It's interesting how someone can make a true statement, yet have it, in common thought, be connected to a false idea.

Note that Doctor Wells did not say "Evolution" or even "Darwinian Theory" - he said "Darwinism." Evolution is a simple scientific theory that seeks to explain genetic variation between animals through a process of natural selection, where environmental factors favor those organisms that are the best adapted to thrive in any given environment. This is the concept known to us as "Survival of the Fittest," and is merely an explanation - it makes no judgments. Darwinism (as in Social Darwinism, for instance) is the idea that "Survival of the Fittest" means that the "Fit" have a greater natural and/or moral RIGHT to survive than some supposed "Unfit," and are thus justified in exercising that right at the direct expense of said "Unfit," or otherwise exploiting them. This concept does not appear once in the entire text of "On the Origin of Species." While people look to Darwin for support of both Eugenics (and other selective breeding programs) and Social Darwinism, Darwin himself supported neither of these concepts.

This underscores the importance of familiarity with those items that are have deep cultural and social meanings. Until I actually read, cover to cover, "On the Origin of Species," I didn't understand the difference either. While people such as Francis Galton and Thomas Malthus bear more direct responsibility for what we now term "Darwinism" in the social and economic spheres, common practice is to lay the blame at the feet of Darwin's evolutionary theory, even though the two are not equivalent.
"It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. [...] Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence." H. L. Mencken.
Similarly, even if it could be argued that the ills and evils brought about by "eugenics, abortion and racism" were directly attributable to Evolutionary theory, this would not make said theory any more or less accurate than we can determine scientifically. The happenstance that something might be, or be connected to, something loathsome does not make it inherently false.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Keep on Truckin'

I was sitting at a traffic light, just outside of the parking lot of the local Costco. A semi tractor-trailer rig was attempting to make the right turn into the driveway. It's something of a steep bend, the driveway isn't quite at a 90 degree angle to the curving cross street. The truck had already bowed out to the left somewhat, so that it would have the required clearance to make the turn. Expecting that it would be let into the parking lot, traffic quickly lined up behind it. Coming up the drive from the parking lot was a big blue four-door sport utility vehicle. From my vantage point, the second car behind the big rig, I could see that the driver was your stereotypical, middle-aged, suburban woman. She pulled all the way up to the stop line before the intersection, in the left-hand turn lane. This placed her pretty much exactly dead center of the mouth of the driveway. With her up that far, the truck could no longer make the turn, but unless the truck pulled into the driveway, the woman and her SUV were going to be unable to make the left turn. Two cars were on the driveway behind her. The first person stopped far back from the blue sport ute, about three car lengths. The second driver left some distance between themselves and the first person. Clearly, they were expecting that the woman in the SUV was going to back up a bit while their light was red, so the truck could get in. But she didn't. She just sat there. The truck was blocking both lanes of traffic were I was, and drivers started to honk their horns. After all, the woman had plenty of room to back up - the two drivers in the cars behind her had seen to that. She didn't budge. She threw up her hands in frustration, the classic: "What do you want ME to do?" gesture. "Back up, Lady!" was probably the universal answer. The big rig wasn't going ANYWHERE. There were too many cars behind it for it to reverse far enough to clear the lane, so the woman in the SUV could make a smooth left. In the meantime, other cars had pulled onto the driveway behind SUV. All of the drivers were careful to leave plenty of space for the her to back up enough to let the truck in. I think that some of the drivers there honked at her, to let her know that she had the room to roll back. She didn't. She just sat there, until her light turned green again. Then she wound up pulling over all the way to the right to squeeze around the truck (since everyone had left the lane next to her open), and making her left turn from the right hand lane, and a couple of cars followed her. Then the truck pulled into the parking lot driveway, and traffic started moving again.

Watching this all with a certain level of fascination, I realized that I was looking at the embodiment of why any number of people who don't drive sport utility vehicles have such a passionate dislike for both the vehicles and their drivers. Tractor-trailer trucks are huge, and they don't negotiate sharp corners well, especially when there are traffic signals, telephone poles, mailboxes, et cetera within a few feet of the curb. To clear these (and the curbs themselves), they have to make wide turns, and I've done my share of backing up, to make the tricky task of taking those corners easier. Everybody does it. It's common road courtesy. But this woman in the blue sport ute didn't budge. Forty or fifty cars, and the big rig, were held up by her standing her ground. Either because she didn't realize that she had the room to back up, or because she felt that she had the right of way, or some other reason that I can't begin to guess at. But I could see in some disgusted faces of other drivers a very simple attribution. They felt they'd been told: "Don't you see that I'm in a big car? I'm too important to be inconvenienced by this. YOU move."

The feeling, among people who don't drive them, that SUVs in urban and suburban areas are the preferred mode of transportation for self-important and self-absorbed prigs, people who need to buttress their tattered egos with massive, gas guzzling vehicles, is somewhat rooted in a disagreement over priorities, and often falls squarely into the "It's a sin to not be like me," mode of thinking that it's often very easy to fall prey to. But this anonymous woman in her massive vehicle played the role, intentionally or not, to the hilt. And provided a kernel of reality that (sometimes with the help of a LOT of distortion) so many stereotypes are predicated on.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Buy Some Carbon, Mister?

As I mentioned in the previous posting, Slate and are running a series of articles called "The Green Challenge." One of the things that I've noticed is a tendency to say: "When all else fails (or has been done), you can always buy Carbon Offsets!"

I've always wondered what good carbon offsets really did. Outside of the simply "pay your guilt away" model, something like modern day indulgences, they make little economic sense. The idea is that the companies that take your money use it to fund other companies that are developing cleaner technologies.

Why not just invest in the companies that are developing the technology up-front? Okay, so maybe they aren't making any money now - but if they make some in the future, you'll be positioned. And if they never earn a dime - so what? You're not making any return on your investment with carbon offsets - which, the last that I looked, paid neither interest nor dividends. If you're going to throw money up into the sky, doesn't it make sense to at least stand underneath it?

I try not to be a knee-jerk, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. After all, the free market isn't a solution to everything. But it seems that in this case, it's a pretty sensible idea. And I think that divorcing the idea of "Green" technology from some sort of charity funding scheme could lend the idea some needed credibility.

What Becomes of the Cows?

Slate, it seems, has joined the ranks of the environmentalists. To this end, they're running a series called "The Green Challenge," with help from some bunch called, who seem to get off on buying carbon offsets. Episode 3 in the Green Challenge: "Green Diet."

I've never been a fan of activism, in large part because activists tend to view the world in terms of getting people to act, rather than giving them actionable information. Okay, I'll accept that as a omnivore, I have a larger "Carbon Footprint" than the average herbivore. But do I really CAUSE "a ton and a half more carbon dioxide emissions for food production than the average vegetarian?" (And over what time frame is this being measured? A lifetime? If I only live to be 60, that comes out to 150 pounds a year. Is that a lot?)

The answer to that is "Yes," only, it seems, if you assume that none of the animals I eat would exist if they weren't destined to be food. My becoming a vegetarian won't make a ton and a half of CO2 go (ahem) up in smoke, unless every animal that I would have eaten magically disappears from existence. I will admit that I OWN a larger share of the United States' carbon emissions than the vegetarian crowd. But if I and a few thousand of my closest friends decided to give up meat tomorrow, it would still take some time for that "ton and a half" of carbon savings to materialize. And as long as people wear leather, it might never be completely realized. And if I'm the only one to make the change, all that I've done is shift the carbon footprint from me to someone else.

But let's say that a large number of people did make the switch. Where would the now-unemployed animals go? This is important because with large-scale shifts in the American diet, how long would it take for the food production sector to catch up? If 5% of omnivores went herbivore this year (or if everyone cut back by 5%), what would the overall reduction in the carbon footprint be, and how long would it take for you to really see it? Certainly, it wouldn't be overnight. And would it require killing off large segments of former farm animals to prevent them from living and breeding? How would we dispose of them? Who would pay for it? And what would happen to the farmers and ranchers? Do we care?

I don't know. But before I give up the occasional fillet mignon, I'd like to find out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

THAT Was Fast

The backstory - July 2005. Two men enter a barn near Enumclaw, Washington. Man A has anal sex with a horse, while Man B videotapes it. Man A dies from a ruptured colon. Washington is scandalized and the legislature works quickly to remove the state from the short list of states in which bestiality was not illegal.

Fast forward. The movie "Zoo," which is part documentary and part narrative drama, tells the story, and also delves into the zoophile community. It was first released earlier this year, and is coming to Seattle in the next fortnight. Unsurprisingly, a local newspaper does a story about the movie. There's a Soundoff attached to the story, with the tired question "What do you think?" (This is the default question, when no better one can be thought up, I guess.) There are seven comments in the reader forum, and then, at the bottom: "Commenting on this article has been disabled." The comments that are still there are fairly tame, and the timestamps only span a little more than two hours. If you read the paper first thing on Tuesday, you were already too late to post anything.

Suddenly, I'm dying to see just how south the discussion went, before the P-I pulled the plug, locked the doors, and sanitized the area.