Saturday, August 4, 2007

You Can't Sell Out if You Never Fought The Man, Or Something

I always remember the line from SLC Punk:

"I didn't sell out, son. I bought in. Keep that in mind."

People - especially liberal white bloggers who really should know better by now - are pretty excited over the prospect of a Democratic Congress. They believe that Dems will right the wrongs of the Bush Administration and push back against some of the insane policies of the last seven years.

Or, you know, they'll make things worse. Whatever:

As you may know by now, last night the Senate, by a vote of 60-28, passed a Republican sponsored bill that was essentially written by the Bush administration, giving the President everything he wanted, including the right to issue warrantless wiretaps at the discretion of the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, the man who never met a lie he wasn't willing to tell if it protected the President's hindquarters.


How little has changed, despite all the rhetoric emanating from Harry Reid. When push came to shove, the bully in the bully pulpit still got a filibuster proof number of senators to vote for one more brick in the wall cordoning us off from our constitutional rights. More proof that the Democrats are scared of their own shadows, and interested only in keeping their butts firmly planted in their pitiful, and increasingly irrelevant, Congressional offices than they are in doing the people's business.

Bush has a 28% approval rating, and yet I'm not sure if this passed because the Dems are actually afraid of Bush or whether they just want the power for themselves.

It must be tough, seeing the Republicans run roughshod over everything and then realizing you'll be expected to be held to the higher standard of the existing law. Too tough for some, apparently.

I really, really miss Billmon right about now. He was one of the best writers I've ever seen, and he had a way of putting things in a context that made sense to me. Archives can be found here and here (WARNING: ZIP FILE).

Friday, August 3, 2007

In Which I Steal An Entire Post

Two reasons I like blogs:

1) They can provide more and better information that newspapers currently do. I'm not saying newspapers or magazines can't do this, just that they don't. Context is important.

2) Blogs allow for the democratization of skill in a way that I've never seen. It's pretty neat.

Ezra Klein says it much better:

Indeed, it turns out there's a large number of people who like to hear about, and be involved in, all sorts of policies. Blogs have matched them up with the technical information, experts, and primary source documents that, previously, they couldn't easily access. And this allows them to mobilize, and gain a voice in, obscure policy areas where even a bit of citizen involvement can exert a surprising amount of influence. This is why concerns that blogs will destroy political discourse are so silly. Here I am at the center of blogofascism, and the discourse is more serious, and more substantive, than anything I've ever seen in the media. When's the last time Wolf Blitzer spent an hour on the 700 megahertz spectrum auction?

This also explains why lots of big-name reporters can't seem to stand blogs (and maybe why more local reporters just seem confused and vaguely annoyed by them); it chips away at the myth that elite status is needed to understand and comment on policy & political debates. So when the idea that "blogging will destroy political discourse" is voiced, it almost always really means "blogging will destroy the privileged status all the talking heads have when it comes to political discourse."

None of this is to say that blogging is perfect, etc. etc., just that blogging can be good.

Note: It also speaks to the desire on the part of consumers for more in-depth reporting with more context.

Meta - Spacing Edition

I don't get it. The spacing is just getting worse. I think Blogger is picking up on the spacing from the stuff I blockquote.

This is pissing me off.

Hometown Insanity, Special Reader Edition

At the behest of commenter Michelle, I checked out the DH story on the school board meeting and the comments that folks have left.

Two words: Comedy Gold.

Some of my favorites:

Concerned Parent wrote on Aug 2, 2007 2:32 PM:

" Ok, could this Lebanon board be any more disfunctional?!!? It's emmbarassing to me as a parent of two children enrolled in the Lebanon School District to see how this supposed group of "caring" adults continuse to act. It's just appalling. It's time to clean house and start with an entirely new board in my opinion! "

I love spelling errors. Actually, I don't understand why the DH can't throw in a more advanced commenting system, one that has preview and spellchecking features. Seriously.

Moving on:

Concerned Lebonite wrote on Aug 2, 2007 10:36 PM:

" Over Joyed. I belive it's time to take a closer look at some of the other members of the school board, and the damage they may cause in the future. "

That one puts me at risk of some serious Godwin's Law violations. Someone's got a little fascist just waiting to come out.


And they actually spelled Lebanite wrong. Everyone knows it's Lebanite, not Lebonite. Geez.

But wait, there's more:

Lloyd - Parent wrote on Aug 2, 2007 3:35 PM:

" About time! Our children deserve the best education possible. Now the board needs to turn around the disasterous changes that Mr. Robinson has implemented. Lets get on with the job of changing the attitude of low acheivement in our system and rebuild it and gain back the respect of our students, parents, and the community. "

This one is interesting, and is more or less the dominant theme of the thread. Sadly, there is little evidence presented for this argument. Having talked to lots of folks in the high school, it's not at all clear that the changes are "disasterous." It is clear, however, that there are some teachers very interested in changing the attitude of low achievement, academy system or no.

My own take is that a lot of negative views of Robinson and the district are due to folks like Alexander and Wineteer spending lots of time talking trash. That's not to say that there aren't good reasons to oppose Robinson or his policies, but that those reasons aren't even making it into the debate.

Personally, if I lived in Lebanon and wanted to support the schools, I'd try to get the district more money, probably from the state or federal government. That would help immensely. The whole "funding via local property tax" thing is regressive and painful.

Finally, a commenter who is not looking to grab a pitchfork and join the mob:

Lebanon Teacher wrote on Aug 2, 2007 4:30 PM:

" I think the board's action is not appropriate or fair. To call a meeting to suspend the superintendent while he is unavailable to defend himself is wrong. I have disagreements with the superintendent but I would never stoop so low as to attack him in the manner this board has. "

Hm. Well said, Lebanon Teacher. Unfortunately, I think Alexander and Wineteer and Co. aren't really interested in good process or good relations. I think they are interested in power.

And finally, the tiny voice of sanity:

CSW again wrote on Aug 3, 2007 10:59 AM:

" Has anyone considered how much it will cost the school district to remove a superintendent who is under contract! His entire pay for at least one or two years and then we have to pay a new guy at the same time! Just when we finally get a budget which allows our distict to hire new teachers. "

Sound about right.

Oddly enough, there is one thing that I think could have prevented a lot of this mess, and as far as I know, it's arguably Robinson's fault. The one thing, not the current mess. The current fiasco can be laid squarely at the feet of Alexander and Wineteer.

1. The Superintendent is on a rolling three-year contract (a deal with is standard for almost all district superintendents), which means that each year the Board approves his contract for the third year out. So if they want to get rid of the guy without obvious grounds for termination, they have stop renewing and wait.

2. For the first several years, and I don't know the exact number, of Robinson's tenure, he was considered "provisional" or "probationary" or something, meaning they could fire him without cause - the old "he's not working out" thing. That seems pretty standard. When the time came for the School Board to renew his contract for the year that would push him beyond that probationary envelope, there was an effort to hide this information from board members. They renewed, locking him into the system. I think if they hadn't done that, this process might have been far more civil. Maybe.

Point being is that Robinson has quite a reputation for being authoritarian, and from what I can tell some of it is well-deserved. That doesn't mean his policies are bad, which is something I think many folks are conflating. Being authoritarian is a bad thing all by itself.

Get Off My Lawn, Part VI

If I'm reading the paper, and I see an editorial written by the lovely Mr. Hering, and it has the title of "Keep science in its place," what do you think happens?

Yup. I have a mental image of science in the kitchen in the 1950s, baking a pie, complete with apron.

Then I get annoyed.

Hering's latest attempt at making his readers dumb is on the decision made in 2001 regarding water levels in the Klamath River Basin.

(Note: Go read the first comment below the editorial. It's pretty good.)

This is his key point:

Science can never be allowed to substitute for political decision making. If it ever is, we might as well call off any further elections and turn every national question over to the people running the National Academy of Sciences.

In the case of the Klamath Basin and water levels, what's coming out is that the science regarding the necessary water levels for fish survival said that if the water level got low enough, farmers were going to have to lose some of the water they usually got to keep the fish alive. They didn't like it, and what happened is that Dick Cheney intervened. The result? The farmers got their water and something like 70,000 fish died that year because they didn't have enough water. The fishing industry is still recovering from that, six years later. Oh, and Cheney's political intervention resulted in bad science being used to create policy. (See this Washington Post story for more on Cheney's intervention.)

Getting back to Hering's point, I think he's quite consciously misrepresenting what happens when science and policy collide. In the Klamath case, this is what he says:

In 2001 federal agencies cut off irrigation water to the farming economy of the Klamath Basin. The farmers complained bitterly that they were losing their farms. They didn’t complain to the agency scientists; they complained to the people in elected federal offices. In 2002 the farmers were allocated more water, and there are continuing discussions among various interests on how to resolve the situation in the long run.

That’s the way our system is supposed to work.

Um, notice anything missing? I do - the fact that the result was the die-off of a massive number of fish. And the "discussion," as he labels it, is one of the most bitterly contested fights over water rights in the United States. I have a friend who was the first person in a long time to actually get all the parties to sit down and talk, and this is nowhere near over, and for a long time was nowhere near as civil as he makes it sound.

Anyway, Hering's strange conception of a system in which science is ignored when making policy - because that's what he describes as the system working in the above paragraph - is not good. There is one very, very big reason that scientists should be listened to when making policy: They are experts in their fields. I don't know very much about endangered species, or the science behind global climate change, and neither do elected public officials. That's why they rely on scientists to craft policy, especially at the minute level. "Saving endangered species" is a policy goal. Legislation that relies on science to determine when a species is endangered is a pretty straightforward result of that. But apparently that's not a good thing:

But some of our laws are not written that way. They require certain actions — such as listing a species as threatened, for example — in response to what the data show, not what the people want.

But voters still expect their elected officials to look out for them. An official can’t afford to say: “I’d like to help and I think you should have help, but the scientists tell me I should let you starve, so don’t bother me anymore.”

First of all, I'd be really surprised to see that Hering actually believes that "what the people want" matters. He only believes it when it matches his opinion. So that's just populist grandstanding.

Second, there's that strawman again. I can't believe I'm actually going to have to say this, but Hasso, no elected official is going to listen to a scientist that tells them they have to let people starve; for that matter, no scientist is going to say that - and certainly that's not what happened here with the Klamath farmers. That's just a stupid misrepresentation of what happened. I'm sure that in the case of an actual disaster for farmers, the federal government could provide aid in the form of emergency relief funding and subsidies to the farmers in the case they weren't able to irrigate. You know, like the aid that went to the fishing industry after the massive die-off that was the result of Cheney influencing policy to help his base?

Oh. Right. That. What about this:

The data show what they show, and unless they are manipulated, they should be taken as fact. But that doesn’t mean that politicians should have to do what the data show.

Do not wish for a country in which science rules without a political process that can act regardless of what the data show. In such a tyranny, science might say that the country can sustain 150 million people but not 300 million, and 150 million of us would have to go. (hh)

The first sentence....yes, Hering, you are correct. No one has to listen to the scientists, especially when they say things that make you feel bad and want to go to your room and cry. Just be aware that there can be massive consequences for ignoring science. Honestly, how can he expect people to believe this dreck? If we're supposed to ignore scientists when they say something we don't like - because that's all the rationale Hering ever provides for his "argument" - then how does he explain that computer he's typing on? The medications he takes? The glasses he wears? Any major scientific breakthrough is usually subject to attack and ridicule when it's new, since it usually requires people to change and/or challenges an established orthodoxy. By Hering's logic, we'd all by dead by now.

And don't even get me started on that last paragraph and its gas-chamber allusion. Let me ask this question: Hypothetically, what if the scientists who say that the carrying capacity of 150 million for the US land mass are correct? We'll ignore the science because it requires us to take radical, uncomfortable action, and then we'll all die due to resource depletion.

Hasso Hering is an idiot.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Hometown Insanity, Part One

I try to read the local papers on a daily basis now, something that I slacked off on for quite some time

Today, I found this, and my jaw dropped:

LEBANON — During a contentious special meeting, the Lebanon School Board voted 3-0 Wednesday to suspend, with pay, Superintendent Jim Robinson and arrange an outside review of his performance.

Robinson was out of town Wednesday because his mother had a stroke. Reached at home this morning, the superintendent said he had no comment for now.

First thing's first; the vote was 3-0, so that means the other two board members abstained. Good for them., what the hell is going on over there? After reading the article, I found another article on the Lebanon Express website that had more details and some explanation:

However, one board member claims the action against Robinson was really about the superintendent's removal of Bo Yates as the district's athletic director last week.

Turns out there's also some animosity regarding two employees of the Sand Ridge Charter School:

The school district's attorney, Paul A. Dakopolos, notified People Involved in Education (PIE) on July 10 that by operating a second charter school in Sweet Home, PIE is in breach of contract.

According to Dakopolos's letter, if PIE did not resolve the situation by July 30, district superintendent Jim Robinson would exercise the district's rights, which could include canceling Sand Ridge's contract with the LCSD to run a charter school.

The contract states that PIE must notify the Lebanon Community School District (LCSD) if it intends to run another charter school and if the two organizations cannot agree to mutually acceptable language, PIE must disengage from running any school other than Sand Ridge.


Two Sand Ridge teachers, Jessica Reynolds and Joanna Gosney, who are not licensed teachers and are not registered with the TSPC are causing concern because the district stands to lose state funding equivalent to what the two staff members have been paid in salary.

Robinson and the Oregon State Board of Education maintain there is no legal designation for instructor and Gosney's classroom responsibilities make her a teacher.

Yeah. In the case of Sand Ridge, it sounds like Robinson and the district are following the law. Following the law can sometimes be very distasteful, but it's generally a good idea for the Superintendent of a school district to do. And it's never a reason to to suspend him on such short notice. If the board members were really upset about this, or how it was handled, and not by something else, there are other ways to deal with it.

The other thing that stinks is that he was suspended for an outside "performance review." I see no reason a performance review can't be done while Robinson is working, since that's when performance reviews normally occur.

As for the thing with Athletic Director Bo Yates, it turns out that the reason he was removed from the AD position because he holds a full-time position as Assistant Principal at Seven Oaks Middle School. I can understand the LCSD not wanting to have one person holding two full-time jobs; it's really impossible to give both jobs the time they need. Therefore, having Yates in only one position strikes me as doing what's best for the district - and the students.

Now, depending on whether or not Yates was given a choice of what job he wanted to keep and what kind of process was used, I can maybe see the board members being angry. Maybe, but only if the process was bad. Thus far, there has been no evidence in either paper that this is the case; I hope that it's covered in future stories.

Finally, I can't see them voting to suspend the Superintendent at a special meeting while the Superintendent is out of town caring for his mother. That's just low and irresponsible.

Something else is going on.

I think this is the result of a long-standing animosity between two of the board members, Wineteer and Alexander; the Superintendent, Jim Robinson; the teachers' union, headed by the highly opinionated Kim Fandino; and the fact that Lebanon High School was switched to a small schools/academy system several years ago over the objections of some teachers, parents, and community members (there was and is lots of support for the idea as well).

However you cut it, what's listed in the various stories (there is another one here that contains some background, including a dust-up in which Robinson sued his own district over the poor behavior of Wineteer and Alexander) is not near enough to justify the actions of the school board members.

(And Debi Shimmin, you should really know better. You've had kids go through the schools there. Get a grip. I don't care who is whispering in your ear.)

I was a student in that district for 15 years, and a substitute for several months. The district, and the high school in particular, have a lot of problems (just like every school in a place with no money and a shaky industrial base). The academy system may or may not be one of them; that's something that it takes at least a shred of empirical evidence to debate, and thus far, I've seen nothing but complaints, platitudes, and whiny bullshit come from the mouth of its detractors. Personally, I have a whole host of concerns about the academy system, but they are based on spending 40 days at the school in question and talking to hundreds of students.

Besides, this whole mess is going to serve as a distraction from getting any actual work done. Again, not helpful for students.

It strikes me as humorous that I am passionately defending an institution and the law. Don't think I'm missing that particular irony. Based on my experience and understanding of Robinson, he's no genius, and he certainly comes across as very authoritarian. These are not good things. However, he is certainly better than the alternative.

Also, I have a habit and history of supporting guerilla politics like this - don't like the way the district is being run? Get elected and change things in a radical fashion! - but this is some seriously bad process, and it's headed towards nothing but bad outcomes. Ironically, I do support a more equitable balance of power between the Superintendent and the School Board, but I don't think a) these folks should be let anywhere near power, and b) the way they are going about this is going to result in anything good, especially a more equitable balance of power or division of authority. It's just going to destroy trust between three parties that desperately need to get along: The Superintendent, the School Board, and the Teachers' Union. (Don't even get me started on the fact that there are some teachers supporting Wineteer and Alexander; that's helping pull the trigger on a gun flamethrower that's pointed at your own goddamn union contract.)

What's going on here is pretty blatantly a power play on the part of some backwards-ass amateurs with nothing better to do than gorge their egos at the cost of students, and it needs to stop. Lebanon is succeeding in becoming the laughingstock of the valley, and with good reason: the needs of students are NOWHERE to be found in this entire debate. I know, because I've been following it for years. Lebanon and its residents need to get their collective heads out of their collective asses - and I'm referring specifically to you folks in the middle and professional classes who have avoided local politics because it's "ugly" - before ignorant, small-minded hacks like Wineteer and Alexander do anymore damage to the students of the district - students who happen to be your damn kids.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that I was a student in the district for 13 years, not 15. My bad. Apparently preschool didn't count.

In Which I Fail To Understand the World Yet Again

From Pandagon, some fucked-up shit:

ATLANTA — Emelina Ramirez called police to tell them her roommates were attacking her, punching and kicking her in the stomach. When the police arrived, they handcuffed her, took her to jail and ran her fingerprints through a federal database. She is now in an Alabama cell awaiting deportation.

Did they check and see if she was OK first? I could find no evidence in the story the police did. And it gets better:

Ramirez, 30, was three months' pregnant in June when, she says, her roommates attacked her. The Carrollton police officer who arrested her did not speak Spanish. He charged her with simple battery and took her to jail.

Justice, my ass. This looks like a really screwed-up sense of priorities to me: Racism and faux "national security" over the health of a pregnant woman.

But it gets better still. From Xicanopwr:

After further investigation, it seems like this is the case for Emelina. According to an old Google cache from, from, it appears that she was previously married to an US Citizen who abused her. Ironically, her former husband happens to be police officer. During their marriage, they never had her immigration status adjusted. The marriage ended in a divorce because he was an abusive towards her. Since her divorce, she is still stigmatized and branded as an “illegal.”

Yup. Racism in the United States is a thing of the past. Just like patriarchy.

Turns out that the original police officer is acting under a new Georgia law that instructs local officers to enforce federal immigration laws. That makes this institutionalized injustice rather than just personal.

And don't go pulling that "but she is illegal!" crap. She's still a human being, and if that doesn't trump her location on this planet, then you've got some thinking to do.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More On Newspapers

I love philosophy.

More than that, I love theory and analysis. It was once suggested to me that I'm not really a philosopher, but a theorist, and I think there's a lot of truth to that.

This piece from Adrian Holovaty provides lots of analysis (and a little bit of theory). And it's about newspapers. What's not to like?

For example:

Let me clarify. I don't mean "Display a newspaper story on a cell phone." I don't mean "Display a newspaper story in RSS." I don't mean "Display a newspaper story on my PDA." Those are fine goals, but they're examples of changing the format, not the information itself. Repurposing and aggregating information is a different story, and it requires the information to be stored atomically -- and in machine-readable format.

For example, say a newspaper has written a story about a local fire. Being able to read that story on a cell phone is fine and dandy. Hooray, technology! But what I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire -- date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive -- with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.

That is genius. Why hasn't this happened yet?

Except, of course, that is has - sort of. Anybody heard of, I don't know, Google Earth? I know it doesn't necessarily track the exact types of information that he's talking about, but it's a very well-known tool for doing the same type of thing. And I'm sure that there are plenty more tools of this type - database, aggregating, and mapping, as well as adding features like keywords, geographic locators and a halfway decent search engine. Hell, even Flickr lets users map their photos to geographic locations.

The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised Google hasn't actually done this yet, combining Google News and Google Earth. I wonder if Google News doesn't have the capacity at the hyperlocal level to do this (and I agree with Holovaty that the hyperlocal level is where this is the most useful).

I am so drooling with desire right now. Imagine this: Want to track your son's summer baseball league? Go to the local newspaper website. You could do stats and results, browse news stories about the games, and view the games via location - including breaking down stats by location, time, etc. It's not rocket science; in the case of baseball, I bet this is already being done, but probably just for the majors, minors, and maybe college ball. All it needs is a few very enterprising programmers to come along and create an (open source, please) template for this which local newspapers can then adapt for their own use.

Holovaty spends some time discussing why this would be a good idea for a newspaper to follow up on, and how this relates to/is journalism. I want to excerpt one point, because I think it nails the local papers and their use of the Internet to the wall (the possible exception being the G-T and Theresa Hogue's use of podcasts):

But the goal for me, a data person focused more on the long term, is to store information in the most valuable format possible. The problem is particularly frustrating to explain because it's not necessarily obvious; if you store everything on your Web site as a news article, the Web site is not necessarily hard to use. Rather, it's a problem of lost opportunity. If all of your information is stored in the same "news article" bucket, you can't easily pull out just the crimes and plot them on a map of the city. You can't easily grab the events to create an event calendar. You end up settling on the least common denominator: a Web site that knows how to display one type of content, a big blob of text. That Web site cannot do the cool things that readers are beginning to expect.

Sigh. I can't wait. Of course, I also don't expect the owner of the local papers to actually implement any of this in my lifetime. The three websites are all cloned from the same template, and it's not a good one. When it comes to multimedia and the use of the Internet, the Daily Barometer is years ahead of the local "real" newspapers.

A Dystopian Vision

H.E. over at The Enlightenment Project does something I've been wanting to see for a long time - they illustrates a scenario in which big business gets its way and rules the world.

Needless to say, it's not pretty, nor does the world last long:

The whole earth will be an engine for producing ever more wealth, on an endless upward spiral of more consumption and more work, until the earth is depleted and we are used up. The slag heaps will rise--human waste will accumulate: huddled masses of unproductive individuals who are burnt out and used up. But even the least productive citizens will be put to use as inmates, products of a growing privately-run prison industry on contract from the caretaker state, providing jobs for legions of guards, cafeteria ladies and other service workers, and handsome profits for stockholders.

About the only thing I think was left out is that morality will be super-repressive, as it would be based on a very specific reading of the Bible, and that trangressions would be punished severely. That means no abortion, no birth control, hell, no public acceptance or acknowledgment of the LGBT community, etc. etc.

Ah, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, taken to a very gruesome (but logical) end. H.E. does offer a succinct description of what's happening in the United States in terms of production and consumption:

This is, on a grossly inflated scale, the life most humans have lived until very recently in history: eat to work and work to eat--the endless cycle consumption and toil. It was only after the Industrial Revolution succeeded that a significant number of people could get off the treadmill, and buy time to enjoy themselves--to consume, and produce Culture in the old elitist sense: poetry, music and art for art's sake, literature, philosophy, crafts and pure science, the whole end and purpose of life. Now we're being told to get back on the treadmill and go even faster. Work harder and longer to produce more and consume more. If we achieved so much through those generations devoted to production and consumption, think of how much more we could produce and consume if we eliminated that unproductive leisure time, got back on the treadmill and devoted all our time and energy to production.

Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, indeed.

UPDATE: In a roundabout way, that second quote starts to get at why I don't like work.

Smarter People Have Less Sex

I feel compelled to point this one out, even thought it's in the Reader feed at the moment.

A study found a relationship between IQ and sexual activity.

As I read the post, I found that it actually responded to all the question I had about the study and the relationships. So I don't have any snarky comments.

Just go read it; it's really good.


Avedon Carol, posting at Eschaton, makes a really good point about corruption and the Democrats:

Lambert wants to ask the Democratic candidates, "What is the Democrats' plan to restore Constitutional Government?"

Hm. Maybe we should ask our reps, too.

She later added an update justifying her post; it seems that the commenters didn't like that idea:

Update: Look, I'm not saying we should bash the Dems. I'm saying it's a real issue and no one else is going to ask them, so we have to.

It's a question about one of the important issues of the day, and they should be able to answer it.

This left me a bit puzzled - why would people be afraid of asking Democrats that question? It's a freakin' gimme, since all you have to do is provide a semi-coherent answer promoting open government, and it implies that the current administration is behaving in a very unconstitutional fashion. So why the reticence to ask?

I think it's because people are afraid the Democrats won't actually behave consitutionally, or, at the least, won't be able to even provide a good answer to that question.

Which is pretty pathetic, if you ask me - people don't like the Republicans for being corrupt, but they are willing to overlook the same in the Democrats because they won't be as bad about it?

Seems like a limitation of an entrenched two-party system in which both parties are bound by the same structural limitations.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Newsflash: Hering Lacks Reasoning, Capacity to Write Editorials

He's managed to do it again. This time, in regards to a recent bill signed by the Governor designed to fight increasing obesity among children.

First, the bill according to Hering:

...the bill calls on schools to require students through the eighth grade to have gym classes, at least 150 hours a week for elementary schools and at least 225 minutes in grades six through eight.

I'm not actually sure what Hering is saying here, since this sentence doesn't even make sense. Does he mean to say that schools are required to have 150 hours/week of gym classes total? Per student? Per grade level? I've stared at this sentence for way too long, and I think it's making less sense now than it did the first time I read it.

Next, Hering's "argument" regarding this bill:

But taking gym, while certainly a good idea, is unlikely to make a dent in the obesity problem affecting the people of this state as a whole.

In order to solve that problem, the legislature would have to enact laws that go far beyond its power to impose or the willingness of citizens to obey.

Lawmakers would have to start by limiting the amount of time that we all are allowed to sit watching a video screen. This would include outlawing remote controls.

Then the legislature would have to ban or restrict fast food and other prepared food. This would be accompanied by a mandate to buy food that had to be cooked, preferably at home, before it can be consumed.

He goes on, but really, what's the point? This reads like another example of Hering's usual tortured attempts at logic, since I don't recall anyone seriously suggesting - and Hering doesn't provide evidence of this either, he just implies that it's the case - that gym classes alone will solve the obesity epidemic.

This is what's called a "strawman" argument: You set up a really bad, poorly constructed argument that's easy to take down, attribute it to your enemies (who would, of course, say no such thing), and when you take it down, you claim victory. Hering works it to perfection here, revealing once again his penchant for intellectually bankrupt hackery.

Note: This is not the same as trying to persuade people that your point of view is correct. This is a series of lies by omission, misattributions, and flat-out bullshit. It might be effective at persuading someone, but that doesn't make it ethically correct, especially for a newspaper editor. Does anyone at the Democrat-Herald, especially the publisher, ever read the crap he spews?

Seriously - if Hering is going to spin a tale about how "lawmakers" (notice he names no person or party, allowing the reader to attribute these nonsensical ideas to whomever they want) are planning to go on a rampage of authoritarian social control, he could at least try to make the claims a little more plausible.

Finally, there is a pair of assumptions that Hering makes, but never justifies or explains. The first is this: That gym classes will do NOTHING to increase the health of children. Honestly, depending on the way the class works, I could believe this - but it would require actually talking about what happens in a gym class, rather than just assuming he is correct. The second assumption is that since gym classes alone won't solve the problem, they should be rejected as a solution - yet Hering notes that any solution will have to be multifaceted. So why does he reject this one component?

I don't really know, but I can guess it's because he has an ideological aversion to public solutions to problems. An aversion that's grounded in some mistaken beliefs, but hey, at least he's consistent on this one.

On the other hand, there is the ending to his editorial:

In short, a legislative answer to Oregon’s weight problem would have to include changing our lifestyle for the better. Since in many ways this would require rolling back social, economic and technological developments of the last 50 years, you can guess yourself how soon this will come about.

Yes , it would require for us to change our lifestyle for the better. I don't see the problem with that, but I am very confused as to how it would require rolling back 50 years of development. Does he really think that the only way to be healthy is to emulate Leave it to Beaver or that television and cars necessarily make people obese? I hope not, though I would not be surprised.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Energy & Sustainability


With the upcoming oil supply crisis, there has been a lot of news, discussion, and old-fashioned bloviating about what humans should use for energy sources once oil is no longer viable.

Most of the discussion that I've seen has focused on several major technologies - electricity, ethanol, vegetable oil, solar power, etc. I like most of those ideas, but the one problem they all seem to have is that none of them can generate enough energy to replace the energy we get from oil.

The other problem, one that's common to most of the energy sources we have used historically, is that we use them in such a way and to such a degree that they become depleted, and once depleted, cause major problems when it comes to the maintenance of societies. Even worse, such large-scale use can cause massive damage to the planetary ecosystem - see global climate change for one example (this holds true for some of the proposed forms of energy as well).

Still more observers say that we shouldn't be looking for one single source, but a few major sources (like using all of the above instead of one). I think this approach at least puts us in the right direction, but that people are still thinking well inside the proverbial box. My own thinking, I hope, will provide the tiniest bit of insight towards a better path to so-called 'energy independence,' and more importantly, towards sustainability.

Part One

To really get at what I think is a better way of envisioning energy sustainability, I want to take a look at a very simplified version of, for lack of a more serious term, the circle of life.

I cannot say this enough: I don't really know shit about nature, so if I make some sort of egregious error, please let me know. Laughing at said error is also acceptable, even encouraged.

Energy in some form is present whenever almost anything happens. A plant takes in sunlight and grows? There is a form of energy there, and we harvest it for food. A plant dies and is decomposed via natural processes? We utilize that as well when we eat mushrooms or through methane reclamation from the organic materials in waste dumps. Water flows downhill, and we create barriers in the form of dams & turbines and convert the resulting force into energy. Tectonic plates move a fraction of an inch? Lots of energy there, we just don't know how to get to it. Lots of energy in ocean swells, too (just watch Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch), though I hear humans are pretty close to getting energy from that particular phenomenon as well.

The point is that there is energy all over the frackin' place if we could just get to it. Figuring out how to benefit from a much larger variety of types of energy transfer is one step towards a more sustainable base of energy. As well, energy flows in just about every direction around the planet; the only external source is the sun (as far as I know), but as for the rest, it just moves around to different places and takes different forms. To paraphrase (or perhaps mangle) some law of something or other: Energy can never be created or destroyed. At least that's the practical point of what I'm talking about.

Second, right now, we - especially in the so-called West, which is really what this piece is about - are obsessed with finding solutions to the upcoming oil shortage that are capable of scaling up to the hundreds of millions of people. I've read lots of news regarding how much ethanol or vegetable oil we can really produce without causing massive food shortages. The same goes for all the increased electricity we'd need for electric cars - as of today, I've not seen a reliable suggestion as to where we would get all that extra electricity-generating capacity. The point is that, as mentioned above, none of these solutions work because none of them can scale to the degree people think we need.

So that's where we are, more or less. The closer you get to the Establishment, the more conservative ideas get, and the less innovative. I suspect the threat of a post-peak oil world also manages to get lost in the shuffle, which takes the urgency out of the picture. The closer to the margin you get, the more innovative and radical the solutions, as well as the sense of urgency.

Part Two

I'd like to suggest a direction, if not a solution, one that I think is pretty radical (in the classic sense of gets-to-the-root-of-the-issue sense).

Basically, I think we're going about looking for solutions to the peak-oil-lack-of-energy-crisis all wrong, and to explain why, I need to talk about values.

The values I see espoused in the current mainstream-y energy debates are pretty standard American values: The necessity and desirability of massive scale (and the resultant consumption); the conception of nature as a giant machine; use of classic top-down hierarchies through central production and distribution facilities; and reliance on nature-dominating, mechanized, big-technology solutions (such as the mass farming of soybeans or corn for vegetable oil or hundreds-of-square-miles floating windfarms). It's not really a surprise that these values are present, but I do think it's a problem.

Why is it a problem? Because that's not how nature works. Not at all, in fact. That giant wave you see headed towards you is not, in fact, one giant wave. It's millions or billions of tiny water droplets all working in unison, each one exerting a tiny amount of force; a mechanical conception of nature often does see it as one wave.

The same goes for most natural phenomenon; they are not one large bundle of energy or force, but many small bundles working in unison. The human body is analogous here - it's one body, but billions of cells with a more-or-less coherent plan.

So, for me, rather than try to force the natural world to conform to typical American values, I think we should start thinking about how to draw energy from the world in a way that doesn't lead to cataclysmic crises when said energy source runs out. And, of course, in ways that are sustainable.

Basically, I think we should emulate nature in a few very specific ways:

1. Inverted economies of scale. Rather than have a type of energy production that relies on one giant device, like a dam, why not have types of energy production that siphon off tiny amounts of energy from a natural process without disrupting that process? Some of this is already happening - there is a house in Belgium I visited that has a small dam, solar panels, and a wind turbine on their property. Not all of this is feasible for everyone, especially in urban areas, but it is one way to generate power on a micro-level and in such a way that doesn't cause the disruption of natural processes.

2. Decentralization. This goes hand in hand with micro-generation. Rather than have one big windfarm, or a giant coal-burning facility, energy generation should be part and parcel of every building, be it residential, commercial, or industrial. Solar panels, rainwater collection, rooftop gardens, designing and placing the building for minimized heating/cooling costs, etc. - these all serve to create usable energy, and, if done well, don't cause any appreciable harm. This is happening to some extent, but I think it needs to happen more, and faster.

One great example of this, designed especially for urban areas, comes from this BoingBoing post. The idea is to utilize the mechanical energy people exert while walking on the floor by converting it to electricity. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing I think of when I think of micro-scale sustainable energy sources. It doesn't "take away" energy that is needed by nature, it's unobtrusive, (I hope) it's environmentally neutral, it occurs on a relatively micro-scale, and, as an added bonus it's perfect for high-density urban areas. (Can you imagine using the same technology on roads?)

I'm not as excited about this second example (via /.): Using nanotechnology to siphon energy from the flowing blood inside human bodies. I like the principles - micro, utilizing existing energy flows - but I'd much rather see this applied in a stream somewhere to power a house than in my veins. Nevertheless, it is a good example of thinking on a small scale.

Part Three


There are all sorts of benefits that come from thinking about energy generation like this; reducing environmental harm is just about at the top of the list. Second (or maybe even first) is the empowering nature of it. Can you imagine paying your last power bill ever? Or even getting money or earning power credits for putting power back into the grid (or simply giving it away to your neighbors when they need it in return for some fresh corn on the cob)?

Frankly, I think this idea embodies a somewhat anarchist value system; done well, it could do a pretty good job working within environmentalist values as well.

Another benefit is that it would require massive social reorganization. I call it a benefit because I think it's good and necessary. More specifically, it might require people to live in places that conform to the land a bit better, necessitating demographic shifts that are environmentally friendly (i.e. get more solar power or get the hell out of Phoenix, people).


Well, the one that I expect will come up often is sort of precisely the point of this post: "But you're undermining American values and/or the profit-motive system!"

Too bad. That's a feature, not a bug. It's also necessary, since it was relatively unfettered use of the profit motive and other American values that got us here in the first place. I'll take survival and sustainability over profit any day.

Such a system, done on a large scale (meaning not one big unit, but thousands of small units) would, of course, require substantial social reorganization. I am placing this here as well as above because I think it does take away privileges and advantages for some, and I want to be clear about that. I just think it's a good idea to rock the boat in favor of the masses, that's all.

Other downsides? Well, I don't know much about the environmental impact of many of these ideas. I suspect that given the principles as a starting point - and don't get me wrong, these principles and ideas are in use all over the place already by indigenous groups and other folks at the margins - I'm sure more low-tech and environmentally sustainable ideas could come out of a good brainstorming session. This is more of a vision thing than a blueprint, anyway.


Basically, I am really attracted to the idea of small-scale, empowering, sustainable ways to generate usable energy (an idea which comes straight of David Graeber and his point about ignoring the state entirely; I see this as one way to get around the need for materials that, thus far, only the state can provide). I can't imagine don't want to imagine a plausible future without substantial energy use and technology, but I can imagine one in which existing technology does a much better job working with the natural world rather than against it, and I think the advantages of moving towards making these values a reality now are immense.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

PZ Myers Can Kiss My Ass

I like militant atheists, at least most of the time; I'm of the opinion that atheism as a belief system (and it is one) gets dumped on in the public square in this country.

I used to like atheist and science blogger PZ Myers, who is a very sharp fellow, and not one to back down from defending his beliefs. Myers has also done an amazing amount of work debunking creationism and so-called intelligent design, something for which I am glad.

Apparently, however, he is also a giant fucking dickwad:

...I'm thinking of picking up a cheap copy of the Qu'ran. And I'm thinking … what to do, what to do. It will, of course, be something in the privacy of my home, with my very own copy — none of this public vandalism and veiled threats to people who believe. It will just be a demonstration of my right to treat my property as it deserves and of my opinion of this silly book.

Supposedly, Mr. Myers is planning on desecrating a Qu'ran (in the privacy of his own home) in response to someone in New York being arrested and charged with a hate crime for throwing a Qu'ran in a public toilet.

Myers doesn't think it's a hate crime, and I think he's making a stupid mistake. He makes no reference to the possibility that the case was, in fact, a hate crime. I don't think desecrating a religious book is automatically a hate crime, just as I don't think every instance of white-on-black violence is a hate crime. However, I also think people don't go around chucking books in toilets for shits and giggles, and that the possibility that this was a hate crime is therefore very real.

What makes something a hate crime is the motivation behind it. This is not news. Hate crimes, as usually understood, are designed to scare, terrorize, and dehumanize entire populations of people.

Furthermore, the very news story that Myers links to makes it very clear that this incident was part of a larger series of crimes with religious overtones, which suggests that the "hate crime" label is, at the least, within the realm of plausibility, if not completely correct.

Given that, I'm wondering - and I don't read Pharyngula enough to know the answer to this - if Myers actually thinks religion should not be covered under hate crimes law. I have trouble believing he would argue such a thing, but at least it would make this tirade of his consistent with his beliefs. If he actually believes that, then he's a fool. If not, then his actions make little sense.

In any case, I've stopped reading him as of today. It's unfortunate, because I liked his sense of humor and the fact that he posted on politics from his perspective (that and I don't read many science blogs as is). Given this most recent post, however, I can't continue to take him seriously. That kind of disrespect is not only stupid and counterproductive (if he's at all interested in anything other than annihilating people who believe different things), but, as far as I'm concerned, shows that his behavior and thinking mirrors that of the most reactionary and authoritarian religious fundamentalists out there, the very people he rails against: he doesn't like the respect accorded to the belief, so he's going to piss on it. Pathetic.

International Philosophy Or My Two Favorite Things Combined (Thanks to the British)

Yes, I realize posting has been light. Friends are down, etc. etc.

Also, I love this bit. Thanks to Luke for sending it along.

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