Monday, June 30, 2008

The Heresy over The Gospel of Judas

The scholarly heresy, that is. In its desire to create a sensational story out of the discovery of The Gospel of Judas, National Geographic pushed a questionable interpretation of the text, which most scholars now agree flowed from a flawed (and since corrected) translation.

Iraqis Don't Sign Deal with Oil Companies

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani says that the companies wanted a cut of Iraqi oil, while the Iraqis want to pay them solely on a time and materials (consultancy) basis.

Expect the Iraqis to come under incredible pressure from the Bush administration to ink the existing agreement - or at least a "modified" version of the existing agreement that gives these five major players (Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total) what they want. British Petroleum (formerly the Anglo-American Oil Company) once toppled the Premier of Iran to get a share of that country's oil.

But, of course, we didn't go to war for the oil. To even imply that would be obscene!


One. Zero. Nine. Three. Five. Zero.

This MeFi post about number stations brought back some wonderful, creepy memories. I recall using my shortwave radio in my youth to comb the world for interesting stations. Often, I'd run across a "number station" - a station that consisted of nothing but a little music interspersed with a voice (often female) reading a series of digits, or an apparently random sequence of words. When I read William Poundstone's book Big Secrets, and confirmed what these were - transmissions used by spy agencies to send orders to field agents - I was even more freaked. And intrigued.

Having just finished Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow, which documents the history of American imperialism in the past century, I'm even more intrigued to revisit this subject. It'd be interesting (to say the least) to examine the ways that sound has been used both overtly and covertly in espionage and overthrow. Overt communication (propaganda) was a key tool utilized by the CIA with its Voice of Liberation broadcast in its war against Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Political Rule of Thumb

" a general rule of thumb if you see a large, powerful, well-organized lobby citing the needs of the poor as the rationale for something or other they're almost certainly full of it." - Matthew Yglesias

But then comes this sentence, which raises one's liberal back-hair:

In the real world, poor people have extremely little political clout and
anything that's attracting a lot of political attention is almost certainly
doing so because it's of concern to the non-poor.

Which I believe is factually true under our current system. Money talks, poverty walks. That's the reason for opposing our current electoral system, which centers around massive ad campaigns and 30-second soundbites. It's why Barack Obama's "people-powered" Internet fundraising campaign is not as revolutionary as the Democrats fancy it to be. It's still fueling the cycle of Big Money elections, which biases results towards an upper-middle class that can afford to max out its General Election donations.

Friday, June 27, 2008


When I ranted about "biker-wear" the other day, I wasn't aware that there was a name for the trend of riding in stylish street clothes: Velocouture.

On another note, I'm sure I was riding next to the woman in the picture for a part of tonight's Critical Mass in Seattle. I'd recognize those shoes anywhere!

On yet another note, kudos to the guy riding the brand new fixie for CM. I was amazed by the variety both of the cycles and of the cyclists. One of the leaders was a guy who kept darting through the Mass with his recumbent. A biker next to me saw him scream by and declared, "Okay - that guy has totally reclaimed those bikes in my eyes." Amen, brother. It's the rider, not the ride.

Only The Hand of Moscow

In Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer ponders why American Presidential administrations found it so easy to believe that the Soviets were behind nationalization programs in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, even though little evidence existed to back that up. (Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, in fact, was staunchly anti-Communist; he simply wanted to take control of Iran's oil back from foreign interests.)

The answer, says Kinzer, lies in these American administration's Eurocentric view of the world. He quotes Kissinger, who was accused by Chile's foreign minister, Gabriel Valdes, "of knowing nothing about the Souther Hemisphere."
"No, and I don't care," Kissinger replied. "Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance."

This attitude made it easy for powerful Americans to misunderstand why nationalist movements arose in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile. Behind these movements, they saw only the hand of Moscow. That made intervention seem almost a form of self-defense. (p. 198)
These countries and their people, in the minds of our leaders, were merely puppets. This marginalization and dehumanization made it easier for people like United Fruit's William Merriam, vice president for Washington relations (whose company's Chilean assets were under threat of nationalization) to outline an 18-point plan for plunging Chile into "economic chaos." And plunge it they did - straight into the waiting arms of General Augusto Pinochet, who ultimately killed more people than died in the attacks of September 11th.

Is Zimbabwe a Distraction from Our Own Crimes?

We talk a lot about low voter turnout in America, and mourn the passing interest most Americans appear to take in politics at any level. But thanks (I guess) to Robert Mugabe for reminding us that the right not to vote is the flip side of that freedom. Many citizens in Zimbabwe can't exercise that choice today - they're being led to polls to cast their ballots in a sham single-candidate run-off.
Residents said they were forced to vote, threatened by violence, arson or roving bands of government supporters searching for those without an ink-stained finger.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the runoff citing a campaign of state-sponsored violence, said the results would "reflect only the fear of the people."

"What is happening today is not an election. It is an exercise in mass intimidation," he said at a news conference.

Unfortunately, it seems that the US and EU are talking "sanctions". The US State Department has had a policy of targeted sanctions towards key Zimbabwe businesses associated with or run by the Mugabe regime for the better part of the 21st century. The EU has such an extensive list of sanctions against the Mugabe regime that they can't enumerate what they would add.

History has shown that sanctions don't work. They're particularly impotent against "self-isolating dictators" of the Mugabe strike. Sanctions further isolate and impoverish populations, often turning their sentiment against their self-styled saviors. Franklin Foer cites of a study from the Institute of International Economics, which argues that sanctions have "worked" 23 percent of the time. Their criteria for "worked", however, does not take into account the suffering that sanctions inflict upon the population. Foer himself highlights the economic "collateral damage" done by sanctions levied against Yugoslavia and South Africa. Low estimates on the "side effects" of the economic sanctions against Iraq put the death toll at over 100,000, with high estimates pegging the death toll at over 2 million.

It's frustrating to Westerners to accept that perhaps we can't be The Great White Hope that saves Zimbabwe. But that's reality. It's heartbreaking to watch from afar. But the restoration of democracy is in the hands of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, who are straddling the line of rebellion in hopes of minimizing bloodshed against their supporters.

Meanwhile, as Professor Gerald Horne reminds us, our own country continues to wage a war that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Does anyone outside of wonkish circles know what a bloody week this has been in Iraq for both US soldiers and Iraqis? Odds are they don't, because the media isn't telling them.

I don't blame the media for reporting on Zimbabwe; they need to. The American press is notable in world journalism for its lack of attention to what happens outside of our borders. But is it merely coincidental that the press is reporting in depth on a tragedy we can't affect, while ignoring the tragedy we can?

A Shout-Out to Vegan Athletes

Jen Christensen at Illinois' WHOI wrote up this favorable ditty about veganism and vegan athletes. It's great to see such blurbs - however small - busting the myth of the "ill and pasty" vegan.

The athletes she highlights are:
Carl Lewis, an Olympic track star; Brendan Brazier, a professional triathlete (Ironman), Martina Navratilova, a world champion tennis player and Tony Gonzalez, tight-end for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Don't forget marathoner Scott Jurek, who won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon on Tofu Power.

I've been at the best weight and in the best shape of my life since going vegan. Vegan eating combined with daily bike rides has me slipping in to a size 30, which I haven't done for years (leading my gay friend Michael to dagger-eye me and spit "Bitch!" - but hey, all progress comes at a cost). When I tell people I'm vegan, the universal first reaction is, "I could never do that!" They assume it's a bane. In truth, it's been nothing but a boon.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rochester Farmer's Market: Now Accepting Food Stamps

This is a wonderful development in my hometown. The Rochester (NY) Public Market now accepts food stamps via a machine that converts the paper vouchers into $1 wooden Market tokens. Now Rochester families living on assistance can get fresh, local produce, instead of spending it on packaged crud at a box chain.

Infinity MPG

My new favorite t-shirt. Sadly, all sold out.

Work Them All to Death - from The President on Down

It's a sign of our ongoing national sickness that we're supposed to be shocked (shocked!) to learn that John McCain "doesn't work on weekends."
McCain’s habit of weekends off is recognized by his small band of beat reporters, who are pleased by their good fortune but nevertheless find it puzzling.

Yet for insiders who follow the campaign closely, his streak has become increasingly tough to overlook.

As with so many issues surrounding his bid, McCain’s schedule is a sensitive topic because it is unavoidably suffused with the looming question of his age.
What? Resting, on your day off?! That's for old people, man!

For decades, most productivity gains made by Americans have gone, not into increased leisure time, but into increased consumption. We work longer than previous generations, and take little time off. We are one of the few countries in the world without mandated vacation time (and the time we do get from private employers is well below the world average).

Instead of finding remedies, we turn it back on one another. When someone asks us how we're doing, we launch into a diatribe about how "busy" we are - a self-pitying conversation meant to elicit sympathy, but also to show off what good people we are for putting in such long hours for a corporate employer who could fire us at any moment. Instead of demanding that our politicians pass mandatory vacation legislation, we mock them for failing to put in 80-hour work-weeks.

Thought of the Day

The problem with Internet porn is that you can't claim you were just looking at it for the articles.

Canadian Bicycling Heroine Claire Morissette Honored

Morissette's list of accomplishments shows that she didn't just talk cycling - she lived it:
For more than 30 years she tirelessly promoted bicycling in Canada and in the developing world. Morissette founded cycling lobby organization Le Monde à Bicyclette with Robert "Bicycle Bob" Silverman. As co-president from 1976 to 1997 she staged creative actions that included a "die-in" complete with ketchup "blood" and mangled bicycles and 100 people lying down playing dead at the corner of Ste-Catherine and University; to protest the ridiculousness of a metro no-bicycles rule, group members brought along skis, ladders and cardboard elephants - all allowed at a time when bicycles were barred from the metro. She fought for safer and better routes for cyclists and more bicycle paths, including the De Maisonneuve bike path.

To get people cutting their car use, she initiated the Montreal branch of car-sharing organization Communauto. In 1999, Morissette founded Cyclo Nord-Sud, a non-profit organization that has shipped more than 23,000 donated bicycles to the developing world, many of them to women who rely on the bicycles to get water or do the shopping for their families. In her book Deux roues, un avenir, published in 1994, Morissette not only reveals the state of bicycle facilities across the world but shares her passion for cycling and for cycling
The trail that Morissette fought for, the De Maisonneuve, will now be named after her.

Mormons Called Upon to Discriminate Against Gay Couples in God's Name

The Mormon Church - which has a long and proud history of defining marriage as a sacred union between one man and n women - is calling on its members to reject marriage equality. Not shocking, as the Church is still largely conservative, and has never been part of the social justice vanguard. Still, it's surprising that they would only sign on to the anti-marriage quality cause now, with the victory in California seeming to turn the public tide of opinion in that state.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Roughly Two Minutes of Coverage, Per Network, Per Week" (UPDATED)

That's what the major news networks believe the Iraq war warrants. Pepe Escobar from The Real News has more:

If you were led to believe by this paucity that nothing happened today, check out Juan Cole's read-ups and become disabused. For daily updates, join the Iraq Front News list.

UPDATE: The YouTube vid contains a snippet of CBS Foreign Affairs Chief Correspondent Lara Logan on The Daily Show, where she denounced American networks' crappy war coverage. As part of its continuing crusade to garner more hits by dishing gossip, Huffington Post has decided to run a story on Logan's personal life. I'm not linking to it. HuffPo is now gone from my feed reader. So much for providing an "alternative" to the mainstream media.

This is a protest, not a moral judgment. Those of you who know me know that I've covered celeb trash and gossip before. I don't any longer. I'd love to see HuffPo follow suit.

Progressives Must Keep Pressure - But Not Just on Obama

Good thoughts from Alternet's Kathy G on the work that progressives need to perform in order to drag Obama back to their side of the issues:

This is where we, as liberals, progressives, lefties, activists, whatever-you-want-to-call-us, come in. I do not believe that our interests are best served by the kind of cheap electioneering we saw over the primary campaign. What would be far more effective would be an independent movement that makes strategic alliances with various political candidates but is also distinctly separate from them.

Instead of shilling for Barack, or Hillary, or whoever, we should have been pressuring the candidates to work for our votes. We should have been pressing them to take firm, non-negotiable positions in favor of things like no immunity for the telecoms, or immediate withdrawal from Iraq with no residual troops. Instead, we were really cheap dates. And when you act like suckers, don't be surprised when something like Obama's support for the FISA compromise comes back and bites you in the ass.

If we want real change in this country, the place to look for it is not in our so-called leaders, but in ourselves. What we need, in short, is a movement. Without such a movement, President Obama is not going to be able to achieve a whole lot more than President Clinton or President Carter did. But with such a movement, we may actually get somewhere. FDR was able to achieve great things because he had the strong support of a powerful labor movement. Similarly, the civil rights movement was the wind at LBJ's back. But I ask you, what will President Obama have?

Sam Stein covers some of the same ground in his article "Serenity Lost: Obama and The Netroots".

One might argue that this is all empty rhetoric if there are zero consequences for not listening to the progressive cause. But the one time there were real consequences at the presidential level was in 2000, when disaffected progressives backed Ralph Nader and the Green Party. The result was eight years of an imperialist presidency that has steadily eroded our freedoms. No honest progressive, as upset as they may be with Obama's General Election moves, wants to open the floodgates to a third Bush term. Nader is wrong: there is virtue in electing the "least worst" candidate.

The key term there is "at the presidential level." Supporting Obama as the best presidential candidate (which he is) doesn't preclude fighting for just causes when his leadership veers off track. A lot more action on issues such as FISA can be taken at the level of individual Senators and Representatives. A great example: the robocalls being run in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's district by local activist Rev. Lenox Yearwood, lambasting Hoyer's FISA compromise. And you can bet that progressive activists will remember FISA when Hoyer's re-election comes due.

Obama to McCain: Screw Your X-Prize for Car Batteries!

I knew there was something amiss about McCain's $300 million free-market incentive to the individual (or monolithic corporation) who could invent a better electric car battery. Yes, such an achievement deserves reward. But I imagine many engineers and scientists already want to do this, and for nobler reasons. Dean Kamen could make tons of money cranking out cheap gee-whiz gadgets; instead, he's invented a device to bring cheap drinking water to impoverished nations.

That Wired comment thread brings up an excellent point vis a vis commercialization of necessary technologies. One commenter urged Kamen to turn his machine over to "greedy capitalists" to drive its production costs down to the $1,000-$2,000 target range needed to make Kamen's Slingshot viable for worldwide distribution. Another reader astutely noted that this is exactly what Kamen attempted with the Segway, an expensive toy whose real purpose was to drive down the costs of parts needed to make the iBot, Kamen's wheelchair that traverses stairs and puts disabled people at the same height as the abled. Markets aren't omnipotent; they're often short-sighted and blind to our higher motives.

Barack Obama, to his immense credit, recognizes this, and has called McCain out:
When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win -- he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people.
Other Gristmill readers take Obama to tack, however, for not going further than the traditional, free-market-oriented approaches. Still, after a horrid week in which Obama backtracked on both NAFTA and FISA, this was nice to see.

William James: American Traitor

For months, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was cursed as an anti-American traitor for pronouncing "god DAMN America!" for its treatment of African-Americans. With his words, Rev. Wright entered a proud heritage. In his excellent book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Stephen Kinzer discusses the United States' grisly war against Filipino rebels, during which our troops killed innocents and tortured POWs. As blogger Velvel noted two years ago, news of these atrocities sparked a backlash among American intellectuals:
There was a backlash for a while against some of this, at least among some of our prominent citizens. Noted anti imperialist “Mark Twain, whom some think is still our greatest writer, suggested that the time had come to redesign the American flag with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.” (Kinzer, p.54.) The great philosopher, William James, “said that Americans were guilty of ‘murdering another culture’ and concluded one of his speeches by declaring ‘God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines!’” (Kinzer, p.54.)
I wonder if any prominent politician felt the need to "dissociate" themselves from one of America's most innovative philosophers.

Rev. Wright has his flaws, and hsi thinking in many respects is bogged down by shadowy conspiracy theories unsupported by evidence. Some of his ideas ought to be rejected. The idea that America is stained by its treatment of minorities is not one of them. As James shows, the emotion Rev. Wright expressed wasn't even unique. Good citizens hold their governments and their cultures accountable.

You can read more excerpts from this chapter, "Bound for Goo-Goo Land", on Third World Traveler. I'll be highlighting more amazing excerpts as the week wears on. Kinzer provides a damning historical context that our so-called press never saw fit to highlight in the run-up to the Iraq occupation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bike Commuters: Come As You Are

In Seattle, bikers form a continuum anchored by two poles: the slackers and the racers.The slackers are hipsters, hardcore urbanites, and other folks who just don't give a fuck. Their bikes are cheap, environmentally friendly means of getting from Point A to Point B; when they need to go somewhere, they hop on and go.The racers are to the 21st century what yuppies were to the 80s: trendy professionals with money to blow - except instead of blowing it on cocaine, they're blowing it on bike shorts that "wick away" their sweat. Racers look, not like they're headed to work, but like they're competing for a slot on the Tour.

Now, settle down, racers. I'm not belittling you (much). It's not your fault you work in a culture where no one is supposed to see you sweat. In modern society the Puritan work ethic has melded with the aesthetic of the leisure classes: the beauty model of our culture is the person who works her brains out, but looks like she's barely twiddled her pinky. Cross that with the (healthy) trend towards bike commuting, and you get the ridiculous spectacle of people biking to work in get-up that says more about their access to lines of easy credit than it does about their dedication to sustainable transit.

As Tim Grahl laid out in The Slacker's Guide to Bike Commuting, it's all so unnecessary. Don't be intimidated by the Lycra cult; come to work as you are. If your work is tyrannized by strict dress codes, throw your "work" clothes in your backpack or pannier. If your work gives you hell about pulling in wearing jeans or shorts, given them hell right back for destroying the planet. If you're worried about sweating and stinking, bring deodorant. Bottom line: no one should feel they can't commute to work because they can't afford to sweat.

(P.S. I won't endorse Tim's calls to replace your patch kit and spare tube with a cell phone, because there's nothing so frustrating as waiting an hour for someone to pick you up when you could be back on the road in 20 minutes. Besides, if part of your motivation for biking is sustainability, calling for a ride defeats the purpose. I have puncture resistant tubes, but also have a spare and a bike pump just in case.)

McCain Back-Tracks His Party on The "Personal Virtue" of Energy Efficiency

This is laughable:

"Energy efficiency is no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue," he told a crowd gathered at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California on Tuesday morning, echoing language from his June 17 energy speech. "A smarter use of energy is part of a critical national effort to regain control of our own energy future."

It makes you wonder what ne'er-do-wells have been running around the country decrying energy efficiency as simply a matter of "personal virtue."

Oh, yes. That's right. Thanks, Google!

The fact is, conservation never was a matter of "personal virtue." While Republicans have been crafting plans to save the incandescent light bulb from extinction, we've brought our planet perilously closer to collapse. How bad is it? bad that even the Republican candidate for President can no longer deny the gravity of the problem.

Tonight (and Wednesday!): Nausicaa at Northwest Film Forum

If you're in Seattle, grab your ticket for tonight's showing of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's epic manga-turned-movie, at the Northwest Film Forum. It's part of their summer-long "Three by Miyazaki" series, which continues in July with My Neighbor Totoro and concludes in August with the excellent Spirited Away.

Even if I were just a tourist, this would be where I'd spend my Tuesday night. Community access to such cultural gems is a godsend. Sadly, it's the side of the city that the tourism bureau does little to promote. If you're just passing through the Emerald City today, say "shut the Duck UP!" and watch Miyazaki on the big screen instead.

P.S. It's playing Wednesday night as well.

Put Scott McClellan in...THE COMFY CHAIR!

Which is just what we did last night, according to the Seattle Times. McClellan's promotional talk at Town Hall was reportedly well received by a "forgiving" audience.

I'm all for forgiveness. We all make mistakes, even gigantic ones. McClellan has promised that he'll dedicate an unspecified "portion" of his profits to a fund for Iraq veterans. That will be the true test of his change of heart: will he donate the vast majority of his book loot, or live the high life off of blood money? Will he dedicate himself over the next several years to undoing the damage done by the Bush administration? Redemption has to be earned, and in my opinion, McClellan is still doin' time on the chain gang.

Noam Chomsky on William F. Buckey: "By Today's Standards...Pretty Moderate, I Suppose"

A great video of Chomsky deriding what "conservatism" has become.

Nader to Dems: Don't 'Scape Me, Bro!

Ralph Nader is pissed that Democrats are still pissed at him.

He said voters have allowed government to become overrun by corporate interests with no competing force to pull it in the other direction.

“If you don’t have a breaking point, you have no moral imperative in your attitude and that’s the one question they hate to be asked,” he said. “They have eternity working for them because forever there will be a least-worst party between the Democrats and the Republicans.”

I'm (partially) with Nader on this. If you take the angry Democratic logic to its extreme, this country will never have more than two dominant political parties. There will always be a "close election" that demands not "splitting" the vote. (Case in point: 2008 will be the third consecutive "close" election demanding party unity.)

And yet...sigh.
Mr. Nader called presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama a "waffler" who has abandoned principle to try to win. He added that the senator from Illinois offers little different from his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Prodded by The Times as to whether things would improve under a Democratic president, Mr. Nader stood firm.
Democrats aren't just angry at Nader for blowing the 2000 election (which is as much Al Gore's fault as anyone's). They're angry over his artless, tactically tone-deaf approach to politics.

Let's be honest: on one level, Nader's dead right. Obama's doled out some heavy panders to the coal industry and AIPAC, among others. But on another level, this is what politicians do. They dissemble. They suppress their real feelings and opinions on an issue if they feel the time isn't right to press for real change.

In reading Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara, I've been surprised how even Fidel Castro, up until the moment he consolidated power, toed a moderate line to hold together his fragile alliances with other anti-Batista groups. Castro also disavowed any Communist connection for years - even as one of his top comandantes, Che Guevara, was writing Marxist epistles - in order to keep the United States confused and sidelined. (It worked: CIA and State found themselves at odds over whether to support one or more rebel groups, or back Batista until the bitter end.) He only became a fire-breathing demagogue after he'd tightened his military grip on the island and shut out his allies.

My point isn't that Obama is Castro. (Goddess forbid.) My point is that this is what you do in a democracy, where power is shared across legislatures and throughout branches of the government. Demagoguery is the language of dictatorship. In a democracy, you pick your battles. For those of us who dedicate ourselves more to the causes than the candidates, that's painful to watch. There's wisdom behind that old adage about laws and sausages.

The questions isn't whether Obama does or doesn't pander. The question is, what will he do in the long haul? For example, is "clean coal" a serious policy initiative - or a tactical feint to keep the coal industry happy while he presses for real change? What does he really mean by an "undivided Jerusalem"? Will he really fight to strip the FISA bill of the telecom immunity provision, after abandoning his previous promise to filibuster immunity outright? Are these panders enough reason to hand John McCain the privilege of stacking the Supreme Court with conservatives, building permanent bases in Iraq, and presiding over the continued desecration of the environment? Those are serious questions, undeserving of the flip attitude with which Nader bats them aside.

Nader's right about the "least-worst" mentality, and the ossification of our two-party system. It'd be wonderful to have some serious thinkers and politicians spend their credibility on third-party candidacies. Unfortunately for Nader, he's already squandered all of his.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Say Goodbye to Bananas Now, Not Later

Bananas are a problematic fruit for we here in the States. Plenty of blood was spilled in the 20th century to ensure that we'd have a fresh, unending supply of this tropical fruit. Leaders suck as Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz have been deposed in its name. Whole rain forests have been cleared to plant more of the crop. Decades ago, the ravages of nature intertwined with the "ingenuity" of man to ensure that, today, our taste buds know only one strain of banana - the Cavendish.

Through all of this, the banana has survived as an American staple. But for how much longer? It was a viral infection that wiped out the Gros Michael variety of bananas, and steered us toward Cavendishes; and now, a new strain of Panama disease may take down the Cavendish as well.

The banana may be our ultimate un-sustainable food. Companies ship thousands of pounds of this fruit to our markets, across thousands of miles, in refrigerated storage. The maintenance of huge banana monocultures makes crops highly susceptible to disease, which require tons of chemical pesticides to keep at bay. It's a waste of resources our planet can ill afford.

In his talk on The End of Food, Paul Roberts thundered that Americans must acclimate to the idea that out-of-season fruits and vegetables are harmful luxuries. Judging by the piles of bananas sitting in the produce sections of our markets, it's obvious most Americans aren't getting that message. Most of us continue to ignore the real costs of our actions - the environmental waste, the topped governments, the striking workers shot dead in far-off countries - until the cost of the item spirals out of control. Even with prices going up, bananas are still relatively cheap (a fact that delights executives at Chiquita).

Ditch the banana. Give that money to local farmers instead.

The Shins Will Own Their Next Album

Good for them.

The Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say to Jesus Christ

And I'm sure he'll say 'em anyway.

Some of my cherished childhood memories consist of staying up until 4am so I could catch repeats of Carlin's concerts on HBO. In the days before we had a VCR (which cost real money back then), I would tape his acts onto cassette and spend the next several weeks learning them by heart. It beat the hell out of what they were teaching in algebra; I'd take "Cars and Driving" over the quadratic formula any day.

Here's Carlin on those seven pesky words:

Here's Carlin laying out the difference between the merely stupid, those who are full of shit, and those who are "fuckin' nuts."

Rest in peace, man. You were one of the good ones.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Finding a Spot on The Vegetarian/Vegan Continuum (Hint: AVOID THE FAKE CHEESE)

British foodie Jay Rayner went vegan for a week, and wrote up the "experience" for the Observer (reprinted here in The Guardian).

Rayner's a dedicated carnivore, convinced that nature had molded us to kill and consume flesh - and hey, who is he to buck evolution? His experiment wasn't what you'd call "noble". His motives included a "magazine commission", and a desire to lend his knocks against veganism more pedigree. That may explain why, five days into his "week-long" foray, he ran back into the arms of his bleeding animal carcasses.

But Mr. Rayner put the Observer's money where his mouth is. Two thumbs up. And he eked out a couple of interesting insights. First, there's a learning curve to going vegan. As Rayner found out, it's easy to fail to include enough oils and nuts and nut butters in your diet to substitute for the animal fat you've excised. That means not only less energy, but less of the essential fatty acids your body needs to remain healthy.

Rayner also has the misfortune of being European. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But as my wife found out during her two-week sprint at Cannes, even being vegetarian across the Atlantic can break a person. Europeans love their traditional food cultures, and are distrustful of any fad that would displace them. Perhap's that's one reason why we Americans - conscious as we are that our "heritage" is a Frankenstein pastische - are so susceptible to fad diets. The upshot is that Rayner found it a challenge to be impulsively vegan while out and about - much harder than it is here in Seattle, where even most Starbucks carry at least a token vegan pastry.

Second, "vegan" substitutes for meat and dairy fare can be abominable. Rayner:

I also have a special hatred for the kind of cookery such an eating regime tends to produce. I don't hate meat and dairy-free cookery per se. I love the southern Indian vegetarian culinary tradition which is mostly vegan - all those crisp puri filled with nuts and sweet chutneys; all those spiky curries and rotis and dhals. I also like much of the Japanese vegetarian repertoire which just happens to be dairy and egg-free. What I don't like are pretend meat dishes: the veggie burgers and sausages, the pretend lasagnes and moussaka, where ingredients go to die. I simply demand that a dish be good because it is meat-free, not in spite of the fact.

One concoction that garners Rayner's disdain is "cheese" made from "tortured" cashews. I've had the stuff on veggie hots from Seattle's Cyber Dogs; I'll second Rayner on this one. I'm not going to scamper aboard the mock-meat hate-train, though. Veggie "burgers" are great by me; I make my own using black beans, following a recipe from Veganomicon. There's nothing "fake meat" about that burger; the only "burger" quality it mocks is shape. Seitan breaded and deep fried makes a great mock-meat substitute. And I'm addicted to the mock links that Cyber Dogs dishes up.

But the cheese? Oh my God no. Save me from vegan cheese. That is one mock food that will never become part of my animal-free vocabulary. And yes, I've had some "mock-meat" at veggie and vegan restaurants that made me reconsider the entire enterprise.

It's a shame that, at the end of this spectacle, Rayner doesn't commit to reducing his meat consumption, even though he knows what havoc our carnivorus ways are wreaking on our pale blue dot. Still, Rayner's story reaffirms two principles I tell people who are considering a vegan diet.

First, do it because you're motivated to. Do it because you're compelled by the thought of suffering animals and of the environmental impact of animal slaughter - not because you'll feel it'll make you a "good person." Those are two different motivations. The former is about acting out your values; the latter, projecting a persona. It's the moralizers, who turn a simple question such as "would you like some cream with your coffee?" into an hour-long dissertation on the evils of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, who give other vegans a bad name. (True believers give any good idea a bad name.)

Second, take it slowly. Rayner's experiment is the equivalent of going cold turkey on coffee and cigarettes simultaneously. I know few folks who could survive that unscathed.

There's no crime in easing your way into a life of less meat. Start by vowing to get all of your meat from local producers, who can attest that their animals are raised humanely. (Well, you know, up until their throats are slit. You get my drift...) Then, eliminate meat from one, maybe two meals a day, a couple days a week. Move toward making this an everyday occurrence. When you feel you're ready, cut out meat altogether. Stay vegetarian for a while. If you reach a point where you feel like your values compel you to cut out dairy and other animal products as well, approach it the same way: minimize consumption until dropping those items from your diet feels natural.

If at any point along that process one point on the continuum feels "right" by you (e.g., you're good being ovo-lacto vegetarian, but veganism holds no enchantment), then stop where you are. Let it evolve. I wasn't ready to go vegan, for instance, until I'd discovered that I'd developed a taste for soy milk. I'd found the stuff revolting for years - a mixture of cultural prejudice and natural distaste. Once I'd acclimated to it, I was ready to sail "beyond vegetarian."

Try as I might, I can't sustain any militancy with my veganism. (And I've tried.) I was a carnivore for 35 years; to shoot fire and brimstone on the subject this late in life reeks of hypocrisy. I know that people can reasonably have differing views on animal welfare. Perhaps age and the scourge of surviving numerous intellectual spasms has robbed me of my revolutionary zeal, but I feel more inclined to extol moderation than to evangelize my newfound faith. Such missions always end up being more about the preacher than the message.

I'll push for the end of CAFO-style operations and for humane methods of slaughter; I won't insist that the world go vegan. That's not my place. It's also counterproductive: With food celebs like Alton Brown hopping aboard the sustainability bandwagon, it seems there's more to be gained at the moment from encouraging incrementalism than from screaming "MEAT IS MURDER!!!".

That said, I likely won't be having dinner at Rayner's pad anytime soon. His vegan neighbors sound like good folk, though. I wonder if they wouldn't mind a Yankee crashing on their couch for a week or so. I've always wanted to bum around England...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Paid Parental Leave Passes House - But Not by Veto-Proof Margin

Semi-good news here. The bill approves four weeks of both maternal and paternal leave - so wonderful news for dads. Sadly, the majority was large, but not large enough to pass Bush's veto pen.

Jim Webb (bless his heart) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, where I suspect the margin will be tighter. After all, who can afford paid parental leave when there are dictators to prop up the world over?

At least President Obama will have some decent legislation to sign after he's inaugurated.

Australia is the only other country besides the United States that offers no paid maternity leave. The bill would, however, still leave us behind the United Nations recommendations of 16 paid weeks for mothers. As USA Today notes, our lack of paid leave reflects "a radically different approach to maternity leave than the rest of the developed world" - one undertaken "with little public debate."

Isn't it time we debated it?

Why Bikers Flout The Rules

A recent Colorado Springs Gazette article about the competing needs of drivers and cyclists drew a flurry of irate responses from both sides. The chief complaint from drivers: those goddamn cyclists are always violating the rules of the road, and should get fat tickets just like us.

Four thoughts:

(1) Cyclists sometimes violate the rules because they can. Drivers do this, too: they ignore "no right on red"s, cut through corner paved lots, etc. It's human nature to cheat when you're convinced its consequence-free. So climb down off of your high horses, thanks so much.

(2) You're several tons larger than us. Your violations of the rules can kill us. Our violations of the rules can kill us.

(3) It's sometimes safer for cyclists to violate the rules. This is especially true at stops on streets with no marked bike lane. If a cyclist has a trail of cars behind her, she'll see if she can get a head start on them so she can get clearly out in view of the car(s) to her side.

(4) We weave back and forth between sidewalk and road (one of the way drivers say that cyclists violate the rules) because streets with no marked bike lane and minimal shoulder are fucking scary. Stopping at a light with a line of 2+ ton vehicles idling their engines is fucking scary. Trust me: no cyclist enjoys riding on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are for pedestrians. Most cyclists will only hop onto a sidewalk as a last resort.

Bottom line for cyclists: yes, we ought to follow the rules of the road just as drivers (often) do. We can cause grave injury or even death if our recklessness causes drivers to swerve into other traffic. But until our cities are better retro-fitted to accommodate two-wheeled commuting, we're going to bend the rules where our safety's concerned.

Bottom line for drivers: if you want cyclists out of your hair (and off of sidewalks!), campaign for better bike lanes and trails, and better demarcation of city cycling arterials. Work with us, not against us. The more we're in our own lanes, the faster you can get to your destination - and the safer it is for us.

PETA Gets Canadian KFC to Reform

After waging a long PR war using its "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" campaign, PETA and KFC have agreed to a truce. PETA will end its campaign; in exchange, KFC Canada will commit to buying chickens only from wholesalers who gas them (considered the most humane method of slaughter), and will sport a vegan "chicken" option on their menu.

While KFC would never be my first choice of vegan eats, I live in Seattle, where I have access to a wide range of meat-free options. Hopefully this will make it easier for folks across Canada outside of major metropolitan areas to dip their toe in the vegetarian and vegan waters.

PETA is now urging Yum Brands, the owners of KFC America and UK, to follow their Canadian counterparts' lead. Learn how you can help.

Greenwald: Don't Give Obama Pass on FISA Compromise

What he said.

FISA is bad law, even if (big IF at the moment) the telecom amnesty provision gets gutted.

As Greenwald and others note, what's so frustrating about this is not just that it's an example of Democrats caving to the right, but that it's Obama doing it. He's shown in spades that he can vigorously reject Republican framing when the need arises, and turn the tables on his opponents. (Cf. his evisceration of Giuliani et. al. over 9/11.) But when it came to defending our constitutional rights, Obama not only chose not to reject the framing, he embraced it. Greenwald:

Obama has embraced a bill that is not only redolent of many of the excesses of
Bush's executive power theories and surveillance state expansions, but worse,
has done so by embracing the underlying rationale of "Be-scared-and-give-up-your-rights." Note that the very first line of Obama's statement warns us that we face what he calls "grave threats," and that therefore, we must accept that our Leader needs more unlimited power, and the best we can do is trust that he will use it for our Good.

Friday, June 20, 2008

School District May Ban All Clubs to Shut Down Gay-Straight Alliance

My wife (who's still in Oklahoma City) marveled to me on the phone today about an African-American gentleman she saw standing at 23rd and Classen, dressed in a suit and tie in the 95-degree sun, holding a Bible and waving a sign declaring that homosexuality was a sin and that God would punish you for it. How deeply, she groaned, do you have to be immersed within your hate to stand on a corner in the punishing heat and advertise it?

Well, the Lexington-Richland 5 School District in South Carolina is so wrapped up in its own hate that it may ban all clubs and extracurricular activities in order to shut down the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance.

The parents are maintaining that the club is wrong because "sex has no place in school." Because that's all that gay relationships are about, right?

It's bad enough that these folks are preventing gay students from forming a save haven where they can work with their straight brothers and sisters to fight back against prejudice and violence directed against them because of their sexuality. It's even worse that they're doing it in a way that belittles all loving homosexual relationships, reducing them to nothing but physical acts.

What a shameful example to set for your kids.

(And yes, the school district teaches abstinence-only sex ed. Shocking, but true.)

Obama Backs "Compromise" (Read: Cave-In) on FISA

Let the excuse-making begin.

The presumptive Democratic nominee says he'll fight the telco amnesty provision in the Senate, so there's still hope that America's corporations won't get away scot-free with working hand in glove with the Bush police state. Once amnesty passes, that's all she wrote.

It's times like this that I consider why we have no viable parties outside of the Big Two in the United States. Ralph Nader and the Greens came close to having one in 2000 - but then we all dumped on them for "costing" Al Gore the election, effectively putting that movement to the sword. (The same folks should blame Gore instead for his schizophrenic performance in the GE.) Neither Ron Paul nor Bob Barr appear poised to make a true dent on the right (although Paul came the closest).

I like Obama, who does his best given the constraints of the system. But I wouldn't mind having richer political subdivisions than we have today. My preference would be to belong to a party where we spent more time defending principles, and less time justifying their compromise.

Paul Roberts Speaks in Seattle on "The End of Food"

I vowed that, once I got back to Seattle, I would take greater advantage of this city's intellectual offerings. Less drinking, more thinking. I made good on that promise last night by going to hear Paul Roberts speak at Seattle Town Hall about his new book, The End of Food.

Today's Solutions Becoming Tomorrow's Problems?

From the reviews I'd read, Roberts' book sounded like little more than a re-capitulation of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Whether consciously or not, Roberts laid out immediately how his work differed. His curiosity lay, he said, in researching how our current food system grew from the seeds of seemingly fortunate accidents. He cited some fishermen in the 1940s who noticed that the fish they were catching were getting bigger every year. Given that they were fishing downstream from a pharmaceuticals company, this concerned them. They alerted the company, who assigned biologist Thomas Jukes to ferret out the solution. It turns out the company had been dumping the mash used in making Tetracycline - an antibiotic - into the river. Jukes correctly hypothesized that the antibiotics were killing gut bacteria in the fish, which freed up calories that were normally diverted to immune system functions. Tada - bigger fish.

The rest is history: Jukes' discovery led to slaughter operations across the country feeding Tetracycline feed to their livestock to create cheap supplies of large meat.

At the time, Roberts emphasizes, this was a good thing. It was shortly after WWII; there was a meat shortage in the US, and hunger worldwide. These weren't "bad people"; these were good people making what seemed like good decisions that ended up having unintended consequences. (On the other hand, Jukes was known for his anti-environmentalist and libertarian streak, having defended the use of DDT in the 60s. Jukes defended the use of antibiotics in feed at late as 1980, crying that if it were truly a harmful practice the market would eventually sort it out. Like many of his ilk, Jukes couldn't accept that the market does a shitty job of accounting for secondary consequences.)

Roberts used this story to pronounce two insights: (1) yesterday's solutions have become today's problems; and (2) we mustn't let today's solutions become tomorrow's problems.

Corn Ethanol and Slaughterhouses

Roberts gave two examples of how today's solutions are becoming tomorrow's problems. The first was "biofuels" - by which he meant not all biofuels, but specifically corn ethanol. When the government began paying a $1.50 subsidy on bushels of corn to divert more of that resource into ethanol production, it contributed to today's crop price problems. Roberts refuses to believe that our quadrupling of corn ethanol production has had minimal effect on crop prices.

I lean toward believing Roberts. I'm more convinced by Michael Grunwald's article in Time, where he points out that "[t]he grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves." We need to switch rapidly to alternative modes of transport and to denser urban populations - not find new paths to "cheap gas". (Note: Grunwald says we've quadrupled our production of ethanol. I swear that Roberts said "quadrupled". Not sure who's right. It's a staggering increase either way.)

The second example brought Roberts back to antibiotics. Companies are now feeding less antibiotics to the captives in their CAFOs. This means the animals are smaller - i.e., are "yielding" less. (And yes, I find it disturbing to talk about another living creature in terms of its "yield".) But the machines that dice 'em and slice 'em are expecting larger animals. The result: more fecal contamination in our meat.

So Why Not Go Vegetarian, Mr. Roberts?

The current system was devised to be "scalable." But that's a laugh, says Roberts. He points to the 2007 beef recall by Topps Foods. Because a single batch of e. coli-contaminated beef got into our food supply, this massive distributor had to go out of business. Forget environmental sustainability, says Roberts - that's not even economically sustainable!

Unfortunately, like Michael Pollan and others, Roberts makes a great implicit case for going vegetarian or vegan - but is unwilling to make it explicitly. He did call on us to reduce our meat consumption, eliminating meat from our diet at least three days out of the week. Three cheers for that. But during the Q&A session, he derided the idea of using the currenty food crisis to promote one's own "ideology."

This was the same speaker who, 20 minutes before, had his audience audibly groaning as he described how Tyson and other large chicken distributors used the process of "mechanical separation" to turn chickens into a slurry, which was then shaped into patties and nuggets. The thought of turning living beings into Soylent White was obviously distasteful, both to him and his audience. So why defend it? Why not go for The Full Monty? Roberts was fully aware that "manufacturing" (ugh) a pound of beef requires 20 lbs. of grain - what he called "an enormous storehouse of calories locked away" inside of animals. If ceasing to eat meat three days a week is good, then ceasing to eat meat seven days a week is better, no? In the absence of an assertive defense of meat-eating, Roberts' refusal to endorse vegetarianism for those ready to make that leap rang hollow.


As for solutions, Roberts didn't have much of anything new to add. But who does? The real solutions lay in action, not in speaking or writing.

One interesting observation he did have was that we needed to find ways to make farming fun again. Farmers love to farm; they quit not because they hate it, but because agribusiness has rendered farming both dull and unprofitable. He lauded Farmer's Markets as being one of the only means that urban kids can have to meet real farmers, and learn more about how their food is made and where it comes from.

Roberts begged us all to learn to cook for ourselves - a recommendation I can't second strongly enough. He scoffed at the idea that we don't have time to cook. How can that be true, he said, when the average American watches TV four hours a day - some of which consists of watching cooking shows?! If you want time to cook, he scoffed, it's easy: spend less time watching other people do it.

I'm ashamed to say that, despite having lived in this city previously for eight years, this was my first time at a Town Hall event. It won't be my last. Although he was something of a rapid-fire speaker, Roberts was still fun to listen to - a knowledgeable author who could rattle off interesting facts and insights effortlessly. It's heartening to see folks like him fighting the good fight.

The Down Low Glow

Yeah, it's expensive. But useful. And hella-cool.

Still, expensive - especially considering I still need to invest in a rear rack and a set of saddle bags for grocery runs. I think I'll settle for one of those little handlebar-mounted flashers for the time being.

The Benefits of Being a Single-Vehicle Household

We've been one-car (but multi-bike!) for a while, and plan to remain that way. If I had my druthers, we'd get rid of the beast altogether - but I doubt that's in the cards until the kids get older.

Still driving two cars? Kate Sheppard at Gristmill, reporting on Congressional testimony before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, cites a compelling reason why pairing down to one is in your best interest (not to mention the environment's):
Goldberg and Winkleman spoke to the virtues of promoting denser, better-planned cities with good mass transit and pedestrian-friendly design. Goldberg noted that families in areas where you can get by with one or no car save an average of $6,000 a year, not to mention reducing their personal emissions.

Car Runs Down Bicycling Police Chief

Holy hell - even the cops aren't safe when biking to work. I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse.

LOCKPORT — Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert is expected to miss several weeks of work after he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle home from the police station Wednesday afternoon.

Traffic Capt. Michael Neithe will serve as acting chief as Eggert recovers from a broken left leg and several broken ribs.

Eggert is in a cast from his toe to his knee, Neithe said Thursday.

The police chief was thrown from his bike while riding home from work on High Street near Beattie Avenue.

The driver of the car, Rachael A. Cirello, 19, of Middleton Drive, was charged with failure to yield the right of way when Eggert crossed the intersection.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Please Forget Your Dairy

In a lazy article entitled "Don't Forget Your Dairy," Chris Sparling of That's Fit echoes a study "demonstrating" that women who eat more dairy have lower systolic blood pressure:
Harvard researchers found that women who consume little or no dairy as part of their daily diet are 11 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who ate at least two daily servings. So, if you're still hellbent on taking your coffee black, try to include a half cup of low-fat cottage cheese or a cup of yogurt to your diet at least twice a day.
Mr. Sperling neglected to include this minor qualifier from the original article:

What they didn't find was whether calcium in dairy is the key ingredient to lower blood pressure. The results were independent of how much calcium was consumed. They note in their report that other research has shown calcium supplementation has had little to no effect on blood pressure.

Instead, the researchers say potassium and magnesium may be partly responsible for their study results.

So, too, may be the diets of those who ate the least dairy. The study showed those participants ate more butter, hot dogs, burgers, and eggs, which might account in part for their overall higher blood pressure. [Emphasis mine]

So the study's real implication is that we should eat less animal products, not more. How that got twisted into "eat more dairy" is beyond my ken. I'd be curious to see if anyone ever completed a follow-up study that controlled for animal fat. How do these milk drinkers, for example, stock up against vegetarians and vegans?

The National Dairy Council was trumpeting the study back in 2006. Shocking, but true.

And yes, as a vegan, I will be forgetting my dairy.

Blog Open

I'm opening up the blog to all readers, but keeping comments moderated. We'll see how it goes. Don't be shocked if it goes private again without warning.

Yes, I'm nutty. I've learned to live with that.

Maine group drops anti-gay rights push

"Porqoui?", you may ask? From the horse's mouth:

"We're pulling the plug," said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. Heath said the evangelical group failed to attract voter, volunteer and financial support it needed to continue its campaign.

The group collected only a third of the 15,000 voters' signatures it had set as a goal for primary election day June 10, said Heath. He added said [sic] that potential volunteers "don't want to be aligned with bigotry and homophobia and hatred," tags their opponents had applied to the initiative backers.

Apparently bigotry, hatred and homophobia just don't move product like they used to.

In The Name of Freedom

Juan Cole brings together all of the recently published evidence documenting the Bush torture regime. Chilling.

Antiwar Voices Must Be More Radical, Not Less

A great argument for not letting the other side paint you as "extremist".
The powers that be will always try to claim that social movements are “out of touch” with “regular” people. But the movement can’t confront this accusation by adapting to it and excluding radical and left organizations and individuals.

This will only poison the atmosphere of open debate and dialogue that sustains any healthy and growing movement–and marginalize and alienate many experienced and committed activists. And activists will never be successful in mollifying those intent on wielding such criticisms in any case–they’ll make such claims anyway.

Eric Ruder argues that, faced with similar attempts to paint union support as "Communist," Martin Luther King Jr. refused to back down. He didn't compromise the principle that the struggle of blacks and the struggle of the working class were intertwined. Today's anti-war movement, says Ruder, must similarly refuse to compromise on related anti-war issues, such as speaking out against Muslim and Arab prejudice at home, or bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end.

Obama: "Bottom-Up" Growth Needed

Obama's not attacking the ideology of Growth and the cult of More, which is depressing. But he's re-structuring the argument in terms of "bottom-up" growth that directly benefits workers, as opposed to the wealthy 1%.

What I'd like to hear is that growth must also be sustainable, and it must flow locally - i.e., from the growth of communities on out. It's unclear whether Obama's opposition to "trickle-down" policies extends to whittling away the influence and power of huge multinationals. What's needed are more robust local economies working on concert with one another.

In that vain, Naomi Klein's article on Obama's economic advisors is disheartening.

I'm voting for Obama. Hell, I'd vote four times if I could. But an Obama presidency doesn't mean that we can become complacent. He's a politician, after all, and will require a lot of popular pressure to keep his administration's agenda from becoming corrupted against the peoples' interests.

Why Offshore Drilling is Idiotic

Not only will it ruin our environment, but as Bill Scher calculates, drilling in both ANWR and the offshore US would only reduce oil prices by $2.25 a 2025.

I'm praying Obama finally tells the American people that high oil prices are here to stay, and that our priorities must be to get off of oil - to favor public transit and cycling in the short term, and clean energy in the medium and long terms. He's shown the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the Republicans on their 9/11 lecturing. Will he lead in energy as well - or capitulate to destructive calls for Cheap Gas?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Naked Bike Ride, Portland-Style

The recent World Naked Bike Ride in Portland drew over 2,000 participants. Holy geez.

The WNBR folks are planning a noon ride at this weekend's Fremont Fair on Saturday. Bare if you dare!

Patients signing away right to sue nursing homes

A legal wrangle is underway regarding whether nursing homes should be allowed to include an "optional" arbitration agreement on their admission forms.

The industry emphasizes the "optional" side of such agreements. Whether they're presented as "optional" during the stressful admissions process, of course, is another bag o' chips entirely.

University of Kansas professor Stephen Ware is arguing to keep the arbitration clause, on the grounds that it can mean greater access to justice for patients who can't afford lawyers, and lower costs for other patients. He also maintains that courts can - and have - thrown out arbitration clauses when legal disputes arose.

We're a lawsuit-happy country. Too many individuals use lawsuits, not as an instrument of social justice, but as a means of profiting off of tragedy. To the extent that arbitration limits outrageous cash judgments to plaintiffs, it's good. But I suspect, on the whole, that its true effect is to weaken corrective action against a for-profit business. Arbitration is little more than a rigged game that gives the care provider a chance to bully the plaintiff into a resolution that furthers its interests, not the patients'.

Yet another reason why health care - for the elderly or anyone else - ought not to be a for-profit enterprise.

Kudos to Republican Sen. Mel Martinez for backing the anti-arbitration legislation.

Does Veganism Make You Ill?

Holly Paige claims it made her daughters sick. The Vegan Society helpfully points out that Paige was using a particular raw-foods diet that happened to be vegan, and not a standard vegan diet. And yet the "vegan" labels bears all the blame.

That's the thought (?) process that goes into these articles: vegans are weird; these people were vegan; ergo, being vegan harmed their kids. See? We told you vegans were weird!

In all such cases, the children are either (a) starved or (b) nutritionally deprived because of other beliefs the parents hold. We had a similar case here in the US, where Lamoy and Joseph Andressohn were tried for child abuse and neglect for feeding their kids nothing but wheat grass and juices. "Veganism" wasn't the issue - their calorie-restricted, nutritionally deficient raw foods diet was.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Most Ironic: Kansas City Sports Chairman Assaults Bikers. With His Hummer.

I couldn't make this up.
A road-rage incident near Longview Lake has former Jackson County Sports Authority Chairman John R. Bondon facing an assault charge and Kansas City’s bicycling community in an uproar.

“His behavior was just completely out of the norm,” cyclist Matt Maher said of an angry encounter with Bondon a couple of weeks ago. [...]

According to Maher, he and a fellow cyclist were riding north around 7:30 that night when a Hummer H2 sped around them and turned into a driveway directly in front of them.

“I spoke up and said, ‘Couldn’t you have given us 10 more seconds?’ ” is how Maher remembers it.

“More like two seconds,” his cycling partner said.

They kept going, muttering about being cut off, and then heard squealing tires and saw the Hummer barreling across the grass and back onto the street, Maher said.

Next thing they knew, the H2 was behind them, bumping their tires, he claims. Then the driver, later identified as Bondon, pulled alongside them and allegedly forced them off the road.

The vehicle stopped. And as Bondon approached the cyclists, he was swinging a leather sap, Maher said.

Words were exchanged. Maher, 27, said he started to dial 911 on his cell phone, but Bondon, 61, knocked it from his hand and slapped Maher’s face.

Bondon told Kansas City police a different story. He said he mistook the cell phone for a weapon and knocked it from Maher’s hand.

He claimed not to own a sap and said he didn’t strike Maher in the face. The only reason he tore out after the cyclists, he said, was because he thought they’d thrown a water bottle at his truck.

Maher denies throwing anything.

Because when someone throws something harmless at my 2-ton sport vehicle my natural reaction is to gun the ol' H2 and put their lives in danger.

We're a nation of children, driving expensive toys. As if we needed more proof that money doesn't buy morals.

I love seeing how many others are getting around Seattle these days via pedal power. At the same time, I fear that the Powers That be will find a way to turn on the cheap gas spigot again, and most folks will revert to polluting and road-raging.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Limits of Shopping as Political Revolt

There's been a lot of back and forth in the sustainability movement recently about "green shopping." The greenest shopping, critics point out, is no shopping at all, i.e., reduced consumption. Green products are nice - but if they're unnecessary or replace things that don't need replacing, they're just waste.

That argument gets reinforced (albeit indirectly) by Benjamin Barber in Consumed, where he discusses how marketers are using brands as a substitute for authentic democracy:
The intended consequence of the new totalism is that consumers buy consumables and services they do not necessarily need or want than they would in a traditional town square or agora where shopping was but one of a cornucopia of hhuman activities. In such an environment, consumers are more likely to think their citizenship begins and ends with how they spend their income in the marketplace, while corporations can believe that good deeds (or bragging about them) can turn them into [to quote Marc Gobé, Citizen Brand: 10 Commandments for Transforming Brands in a Consumer Democracy] "Citizen Brands, with aims of social responsibility as a core element of their corporate mission." Such strategies privatize democracy itself.
As Barber argues elsewhere, this is faux citizenship. The market only provides "choice" and "democracy" in limited forms. You can choose between different types of health plans - but you can't choose universal health care. You can choose a "green" car - but you can't choose to favor public transit and pedal power over automobiles in the construction of roadways. These are political decisions, not market decisions.

Either the polity makes these decisions as a collective, or corporations make them for us. These decisions require active involvement in local, state and national politics; they cannot be achieved by buying 50 different types of sustainable cleaning products.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Obama's Labor Shortage?

No, not on the campaign trail - a political shortage. AFL-CIO head John Sweeney is worried that Obama's choice of economic advisors means he's catering too much to corporate interests, and not enough to workers.

I need more time to digest this article, but it seems Mr. Sweeney has a solid gripe. Obama's employing Jason Furman, who has cited union-busting Wal-Mart as a good business model for the US economy. Furman claims that the Obama campaign is hiring him for his consulting expertise, and that his personal opinions are irrelevant to the campaign.

Here's hoping he's right.


Watching drunk people stumbling down Seattle sidewalks scolding the universe reminds me why I no longer drink.

Thomas Jefferson's Dilemma: Appealing to Second Order Wants

In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis considers Jefferson's curious attitudes towards slavery, which vacillated from abolition advocacy in his pre-Declaration days to active indifference in his later years. Jefferson knew that slavery was inimical to the republican principles he espoused. Why did he countenance it - not only through political action, but through his own ownership of people?

One reason was that Jefferson was in a severe debt hole, and only slave labor could dig him out. Ellis:

As the depth of his own indebtedness began to sink in, there were three ways to raise large amounts of capital to appease his creditors: He could sell off land, as he did somewhat reluctantly by disposing of holdings in Cumberland and Goochland counties; he could sell slaves outright; and he could rent or lease the labor of his slaves to neighboring planters. He expressed considerable guilt about pursuing the last two options, suggesting it was a betrayal of his paternal obligations to the black members of his extended "family." (p. 175)

Jefferson eventually found a fourth way of securing income, according to Ellis: using slave labor to manufacture nails.

There was, to be certain, other factors that pushed Jefferson later in life to push a strict "state's rights" interpretation of the Revolution that served as a Southern defense of slavery. For Jefferson, abolition and expatriation were tightly coupled. Whites were superior to Africans; the races could never intermingle. There could be no freeing of the slaves without a massive, financially ruinous scheme to ship them back to Africa. (A smaller-scale effort at expatriation led to the formation of Liberia.) But on a personal level, it's worth considering the degree to which greed and fear kept this radical idealist from winnowing down his holdings and living a simpler life, unsupported by human bondage. Like many of us today, Jefferson was enamored of the material life. His superiors in Philadelphia scolded him for living beyond his means while ambassador of France (Ellis, ibid., p. 135). He remodeled Monticello, even though the project guaranteed he would leave his children no inheritance. These choices left Jefferson with a stark dilemma: betray his anti-slavery ideals, or watch his creditors liquidate his legacy. So he kept Monticello and auctioned off his ideals instead.

The sad reality was that Jefferson died a debtor anyway. Even the sale of his library wasn't enough to throw off the yoke of his creditors. Jefferson betrayed his republican principles for nothing.

I don't raise this point to damn Jefferson ex post facto, but to draw a parallel between Jefferson's dilemma and our modern politics. Republican and Libertarian political demagoguery is built around the same material fear that led Jefferson to betray himself to save himself. If a Democrat proposes new taxes to fund public transportation or health care, Republicans decry it as thievery. "They're taking YOUR hard-earned money!" If a Democrat proposes caping carbon emissions or raising fuel efficiency standards, Republicans damn it as an assault on individual freedom and economic prosperity. "Who are they to tell you that YOU can't drive an SUV if you wanna?"

These aren't fears based on any foreseeable threat, such as an environmental catastrophe. These are primal fears, designed to leave the listener feeling as though his very existence is under assault.

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin R. Barber draws a line between what we want and what we want to want. What we want, says Barber, are our "first order wants," which are usually selfish and self-serving: we want to drive that big car, to have the best insurance plan money can buy, to build a high-powered career in marketing. What we want to want, our "second order wants," speak to the type of world we'd prefer to live in: we want to care for our planet, to ensure everyone has access to decent care, to protect our kids from coercive advertising. Rather than call these "selfish" and "altruistic," Barber calls them private and public. First order wants are what we want for ourselves; second order wants are what we want for all of us. (Barber, p. 136)

Barber contends that modern consumer capitalism encourages us to indulge our private wants at the expense of advocating for our public wants. Like Madison Avenue before it, the political Right in America has mastered the art of appealing to our first order wants. Universal health care? But there will be long lines! And you'll lose your top-flight private insurance! Social saftey net? We don't want some welfare queen living off of our hard work! Public transportation? They're making you pay for someone else's bus ride! Global warming? It's a hoax - those tax-and-spend liberals will say anything to fleece you!

(Rightists may complain that I'm saying government is the only solution - that I'm not "open to free-market solutions," which they honestly believe to be the best approach. Well, they're right. "The free market" is an abstraction. The real system we have, with its various laws and restrictions on commercial behavior, is what constitutes our capitalism. And our capitalism is what created these problems in the first place. The idea that doing nothing and praying for corporate beneficence constitutes some sort of solution is laughable.)

The Right wants us all trapped on the horns of Jefferson's dilemma, pitting what we know (or at least sense) is right and just versus our short-term gain. They have been playing this game for decades - and winning it. They have an entire class of voters insisting on their "right" to first-order wants, successfully short-circuiting any dialogue on how best to address the issues we face as a country. The reflexive hatred of the government nurtured by the Right leaves these problems up to "the free market" - i.e., the powerful, multinational corporations that manipulate our economy. In the name of preserving our "freedom" as spending consumers, we are robbed of our freedom as voting citizens.

It's all done in the name of fear. And it's the same sort of fear that kept our Founding Fathers ensnared in the gross contradiction of slavery. It's high time we citizens broke free of this legacy of fear and gave a little of ourselves so that everyone may prosper equally.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Seattle Update

I'm still alive. In fact, more alive than I've been in a while. I feel like I'm back where I belong. I'm in a head-space where I can engage with My City in a deeper, more meaningful way.

I'm working on some longer posts I haven't finished yet. It'll probably be the weekend before I post anything substantive, as my body is adjusting to (a) waking up at 5am, and (b) the 14-mile non-flatland ride into work. (Being in "top biking shape" in Oklahoma City means nothing to Seattle's hills.) Plus I'm still hunting up housing, which occupies the better part of my nights.

So, more later.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Cheap Food Sucks

The Real Cost of Cheap Food.

The vegetables, fruits and grains that grocers and agribusiness giants label "conventional" are actually loaded with systemic chemicals, which you cannot wash off. The meat is laced with hormones, antibiotics, prions and multiple resistant bacteria that are difficult or impossible to cook out of beef, lamb, chicken or pork.

Clearly, something in our food system has gone terribly amiss since a majority of the food is loaded with poisonous pesticides, laced with antibiotics and hormones and infused with genetically modified growth hormones or genes from rats, bacteria, viruses and antibiotics and then -- through some bizarre logic -- labeled "conventional." Once one realizes how toxic "conventional" food is, it doesn't look that cheap.

In other words, you get what you pay for.

But how to convince people that it's in their interest not to squander their fortunes on food that's killing them?

I think I just answered my own question.

The Age of Infotainment

I can't bring myself to write for anyone these days except a small, self-selected audience.

There's so much CRAP out there. So much writing that's a waste. People (and I'm "people", too) are tripping over themselves to rush out poorly written pieces - and for what? For nothing but to grab a small slice of Internet traffic for their own self-aggrandizement. We've concluded that, since disk space is a pittance, we can clog the Intertubes with our rantings and ravings as if they mattered. Who cares if 80% of what we excrete is redundant? Who cares if we're overstimulating the hapless surfer?

Sigh. Maybe this is just me. Maybe public, on-demand writing is too big of a draw on my ego's own selfish tendencies to flash its tits and shake its moneymaker. Okay, there's no doubt that that's true. But I also doubt I'm that atypical. And it doesn't alter the hard fact that we're awash in a sea of (mis)information, most of it unnecessary. Information has become entertainment. This is The Age of Infotainment. It's no wonder celebrity gossip is so popular when even our politics must be gussied up and re-served to us as smart-ass blog posts and YouTube remixes.

There are a lot of political and environmental writers out there producing unique, well-researched, intriguing pieces. And they share the same space as the garbage that seeks to bury them.

Genius or Crap?

I'm trying to decide whether Grant Cogswell's narrative of self-destruction from the making of his film Cthulhu is a riveting account of one man's descent into madness, or a self-indulgent pile of crap. I'm favoring the latter interpretation.

Ya know, we're all human. We all have our flaws. But it's one thing to be broken and injured; it's another to pick at your sores until they bleed. Pull yourself together, dude. Perhaps if you could manage to focus on a single relationship for more than 20 minutes at a stretch, you wouldn't be so lonely.