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Shock and Awe June 25, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, politics, war.
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Not in Afghanistan—where Stanley McChrystal is out and David Petraeus is in. Hey, that’s what happens when you badmouth the boss in the open rather than on WikiLeaks. In Canberra, Australia—where prime minister Kevin Rudd is out and form deputy Julia Gillard is in. Rudd is only the first Australian PM to be ousted in his first term since 1930. Gillard is only the first female Australian PM. But the real shock is the reason for the switch and the way it went down.

By most accounts—and, forgive me, but I don’t follow Australian politics closely or even remotely—Rudd’s first two years in office have been successful or at the very least non-disastrous. Hey, Australia is one of the few modernized countries which hasn’t been bludgeoned by the global recession! But Rudd ran on an environmental platform—he promised to be a leader in Copenhagen and to implement aggressive carbon measures at home. And he did neither. Rudd couldn’t have prevented Copenhagen from melting down—pun intended. With only 20 million people, separated by oceans from any other country, and unable to support forests, Australia is simply not a global carbon player of any consequence. But he could have implemented his national environmental strategy, starting with an energy cap-and-trade program. However, after the legislation was defeated in the Senate by a Conservative coalition, Rudd decided to table it until 2013. Infuriated by this “cowardly” political maneuver, many of Rudd’s supporters switched allegiance to the Green party. Rather than facing a humiliating defeat in the next election, Rudd’s own party’s power-brokers forced him out.

Ladies and gentlemen—we are witness to a historic moment. A political head of state has been removed for failing to implement climate change measures. I hope every head of every state was watching.

P.S. If you get a chance to read the The Runaway General—the Rolling Stone piece that got McChrystal “resignated”—you should. Not only to get a picture of McChrystal, but also to get a multi-dimensional view of the War in Afghanistan. First, the man. He’s essentially Jack Bauer. Now that “24” is over, FOX should pilot a follow-on series called “48” starring Stan. Stan could pull it off too—he doesn’t eat, sleeps four hours a night, and runs seven miles a day. Stan’s problem is that he’s a field seargent in a major general’s uniform. He likes the dirty work too much and has too little respect for civilians and politicians—and he resents having to deal with the latter at the expense of the former. He’s not a conventional modern general like Schwartzkopf or Powell or Petraeus—who have field experience, but largely rose up through the ranks of American military colleges. McChrystal is a former ranger and climbed the ladder in the field. He’s a “soldier’s soldier,” not a “politician’s soldier.” He’s trying to carry out his originally stated mission as best as he can—he can’t see that it’s mission impossible. He should never have been in this position in the first place. He’s almost a tragic figure.

As for the war, oy! If you didn’t think it was unwinnable before reading this article, you will afterwards. By the way, did you know that this is now the longest war in US history? We can only hope it doesn’t end up being the longest war in Afghan history too.

P.P.S. One of the few “funny” things in the article? McChrystal’s inner circle calls itself Team America and throws around more F-bombs than Team America does—if that’s possible. This reminds me, one of the saddest days for television in the last 25 years was the day MTV canceled Super Adventure Team. Sigh. At least we’ll always have YouTube.

P.P.S. The equivalent of this in baseball would be a 30-inning game. With no pitching changes.

P.P.P.S. It’s that time. Bluejay Jr. wants to know—”how big is the hole that babies come out of?” What do I say—”It’s small but stretchy, like SillyBandz?”

Post Father’s Day Post June 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in family, politics, sex, society, sports.
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A belated happy father’s day to all the fathers, dads, pops, papas, and old men out there! Bluejay Jr. and Little Miss Bluejay, thanks for making mine. You’re the cat’s pajamas and the cat’s whiskers! You can choose which one is which. And you Mrs. Bluejay, you’re the cat’s purr. I know you were behind the gifts, what with Jr. being only five and not having the wherewithal to find the security code on the Amex so that he could order them online.

Onwards. If there are two things I am fond of, they are double entendres and The Atlantic. Particularly interesting issue this month. I could do a post about each and every article. And I might eventually do one about neo-colonialism—Paul Romer’s idea for development in third-world countries. But the one I wanted to hit today is Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men.” The article is long, but the gist is short. The modern world—at least its developed third—is better suited to women than it is to men.

Everything starts with the economy. Traditional economic ballast sectors like agriculture, construction, and heavy manufacturing—with job descriptions that emphasize manual labor—are eroding. Modern economic growth is almost exclusively service-oriented. An ever increasing fraction of new and total jobs—many of these in areas like health care, education, finance, and law—do not value physical prowess at all. Today’s economy is all about intelligence. And Lawrence Summers’ arguments about gender differences in intelligence variance aside—and really, I still don’t know what quite to make of them—the relevant fact is that in the thick portion of the bell curve, men have no inherent advantage. In fact, they may be at an inherent disadvantage! Not only do today’s economic growth emphasize neurons over myofibrils, but the kind of synaptic skills it require—communication, inter-personal relations, cooperation, and the focus, maturity, and self-control needed to acquire formal credentials—are more developed in women! It’s that last bit which should really scare men. Forget about getting ahead in today’s economy. Even standing still requires a bachelor’s degree. And women are just better at getting these than men are—not to mention Masters degrees, MDs, and JDs. And not just slightly better. I think it’s a well-known fact that more women than men go to and graduate from college—what might be somewhat less known is that the ratio is much closer to 60/40 than to 51/49. 60/40! And as degrees go, jobs follow. More than 50 percent of today’s jobs are held by women. And this includes management jobs. Yes, executive management is still male dominated—Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are exceptions among Fortune 500 CEOs. But that dominance should start to fade given the changing demographics of mid-level management. And while growing the number of F500 CEOs from a handful to 250 may take a little time—especially if Meg and Carly leave the corporate ranks for congress—correcting another distortion should happen faster. The shelf life of unequal pay (for equal work) is getting shorter. If not by bottom-up market forces, than by top-down legal action. There are now a record number of women in the House (74) and Senate (17) and there is about to be a record number on the Supremes (3 if Elena Kagan is confirmed). The day in which women account for the bulk of economic output is coming. Soon.

Society both follows and reinforces the economy. As women gain economic power, they are asserting themselves to a greater degree in the family, pushing men further out to the margins. A staggering 40 percent of children are now born out of wedlock. But the really staggering part of that statistic is that a growing fraction of these are born to post-teenage, educated, working women who simply don’t want husbands or don’t want to settle for the kinds of husbands they can find. For women, it used to be that marriage was the only path to financial security and the freedom to rear children. No longer. With more workplaces flexing to accommodate the single mother, more women are choosing that path. If men aren’t providing financial security, why put up with the raised toilet seat? Even the old bromide that “every child needs a father” is losing leg. An involved father is obviously not necessary to become president of the most powerful country in the world—at least I think the US is still the most powerful country in the world. And recent research shows that lesbian couples may make the most effective parental units! Gender preference is also starting a heavy tilt towards girls. Nearly 75% of couples and women who use artificial insemination with gender selection choose XX chromosomes for their baby. And in Asia, the historic gender bias towards male children is starting to erode. Good news for China and India, which are currently staring at a surplus of 200,000,000 single men standing on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder.

Are we headed towards a society with a male to female gender ratio of 10/90? It’s not hard to imagine either the final state or the path to it. As demographics shift more and more towards women, heterosexual women will co-habitate and form quasi-familial platonic structures with other women. Most pregnancies will be the result of highly selective artificial insemination, with gender being only one of the criteria. A small number of men will be kept around to stock the sperm banks, satisfy residual demand for heterosexual intercourse, program the computers—although that may no longer be necessary either—and play professional football. Will Earth become Amazon? Or will it simply become Amazon? Both options are perhaps preferable, but less likely, than Earth becoming Eaarth. Either way, we should savor father’s day while we still have it.

P.S. Speaking of father’s day. I remember going to a 76ers game in the early 1990s with my dad to watch Manute Bol. At 7’7″, Manute was the tallest player in the history of the NBA. And now that I think of it, he may still be—although Gheorghe Muresan may also have been 7’7″. At 220 pounds, Manute was definitely the skinniest player in the history of the NBA. I remember cringing every time he tried to block a shot at the basket, fearing that the opposing player may snap his arm on the rim. I also remember my father and I talking about what Bol family pick-up games might have been like—Manute was a Dinka, his father was 7’10” and his older brother 7’8″. Finally, I remember talking about the fact that, sadly, Manute would probably not live a long life as his kind of extreme height often puts undue stress on the body’s core systems. Well, Manute died this weekend at the age of 47—succumbing to a combination of kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome—one of the most painful conditions imaginable. Like fellow African and former 76er Dikembe Mutombo, Manute was a humanitarian first and a basketball player second. Whereas other NBA players—Eddy Curry, Antoine Walker—go bankrupt spending their ridiculous salaries on even more ridiculous lifestyles, Manute used nearly all of his earnings to support peace, health, and education in his native Sudan. In the NBA, Manute was a novelty. A sideshow. But I always got the feeling that he knew that and that he was “using” the NBA—both financially as well as to gain figurative stature in his homeland—as much as the NBA was using him. There aren’t many happy days in Sudan, but today is especially sad.

P.P.S. General McChrystal, Sir! Haven’t you heard of WikiLeaks?

Pull The Plug On … June 16, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, economy, environment, football, politics, sustainability.
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Did you catch POTUS BO’s Oval Office speech last night? I missed it live, but just saw it on YouTube. I didn’t realize that this was the first Oval Office speech POTUS BO has given—an analysis in the NY Times pointed this out. Strange given how long he’s already been in office and the potentially national course altering agenda items he’s already pushed through or is pushing right now—the Wall Street bailout, the economic stimulus, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the health insurance reform bill. Just shows what a political hot button this disaster has become.

I’m a fan of POTUS BO—he’s center-left on Mount Crushmore—and enjoy his speeches. This one was fine. I would have written a similar speech myself. I wouldn’t have delievered it with that gravitas and that charisma but the contents would have been the same. Mostly. Yes, “we will make BP pay for the damage they have caused.” And yes, we must “seize the moment” and “end our century-long addiction to fossil fuels.” But, do we really “need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of the region?” and do we really have to “make a commitment to the Gulf Coast?” I don’t mean to sound callous, but I hope not.

“The sadness and the anger the [people of the Gulf] feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. It’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.” Technically speaking this is not an anxiety. Anxiety is apprehension about an imagined or intangible threat. This is fear of a known future. 30 years hence, Prince William Sound has not recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill. When it’s all said and done, BP will make EV look like a ketchup stain. Current estimates are that the well is spilling 65,000 barrels a day. That’s just a touch higher than the 15,000 barrels a day that was the official estimate just two weeks ago! We’ve deployed 5,500,000 feet of boom to contain the oil. But the first major storm will spread the oil all over the place, boom or no boom. Shoreline cleanup will be nearly impossible. Cleanup workers essentially “power-washed” the rocky coastline of PWS. The Gulf coast is marshy—power-washing will do more harm than good. And the number of people who make their living off Gulf waters? It’s many times over the number of people that made their living in the sound.

I hate to use this particular figure of speech in this particular case, but it’s time to “pull the plug” on the Gulf coast. The region has been taking a beating for years. Even before the BP spill, the oil and gas industry had robbed it of its “beauty”, “bounty”, and ecological value. As things stand now climate-wise, category 5—or will that be 7—storms will come with enough frequency that even communities that are not perpetually underwater will not be able to recover from one storm before the next one hits. Sustaining a sizeable human population on the Gulf coast—something that will require massive investment, endless cycles of rebuilding, and may not even work—is simply not sound strategy from a resource standpoint. Compensation followed by relocation—they can take the Saints with them wherever they go—and withdrawal is better. Some have suggested that the BP spill is “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s 9/11”. But maybe this crisis will and should become known by another moniker of a famous man-made disaster—maybe this is “Obama’s Chernobyl.” After all, Chernobyl not only turned the world away from nuclear power, it also turned the Soviet Union away from Chernobyl! If I were any more morbid and any less cheap, I would buy the domain name http://www.gulfcoastexclusionzone.gov. Alec Baldwin wants to let BP die. Perhaps we should consider letting the Gulf coast die—at least as the center of human activity we like to pretend it can still be. AIG was too big to fail. But the Gulf coast is smaller than AIG. Maybe it’s time to pull an Aron Ralston on the Gulf coast region—to amputate the already-dead flesh before the rest of us die from blood poisoning and dehydration.

P.S. Pulling the plug on the Gulf coast would have another side benefit—it would pull the plug on nutty first-generation-American Republican politicians. First, “Bobby” Jindal. Now, “Joseph” Cao. What is in the water in Baton Rouge? In case you hadn’t heard, Mr. Cao told BP America chief Lamar McKay to “commit hara-kiri” because “in ‘his’ culture, that’s how anyone who had so dishonored himself would ‘roll.'” By the way, if you have single-quotes inside double-quotes to end a sentence or a clause, does the period appear before both single-and double quotes or between them? Hmmm. Back to Mr. Cao. Evidently, this remark rendered many of his fellow Congressfolk speechless. I suppose that one third was stunned any politician should make such a comment in the first place. On the spectrum of George “makaka” Allen to Randy “baby killer” Neugebauer, to Helen “get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Germany” Thomas, it’s definitely between Neugebauer and Thomas. Another third was aghast that Mr. Cao—being a US Congressman and everything—would play the “Asian Culture” card. Does Mr. Cao suffer from Cultural Identity Disorder (CID)? The remaining third was probably dismayed that Mr. Cao —who is Vietnamese—would claim that Vietnam rolls by Samurai code. Perhaps, Mr. Cao suffers from not one but two cases of CID—dissociative CID (DCID) as it were. Mr. Cao, if I were you, I would put a golf-ball in my mouth and wait patiently for my congressional reprimand.

P.P.S. And for Mr. Boehner—who predictably reacted to POTUS BO’s call to non-inaction with “President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses”—I have only this to say. In Bluejay culture, we would just hand you a knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my two nickels for new offshore drilling regulations—and yes, offshore drilling will continue despite the bad karma now attached to it. My proposal is simple. No deep water well can operate without a ready-to-go relief well. Any existing deep water well without a relief well must suspend extraction until a relief well is drilled. How ’bout them golf-balls?

P.P.P.P.S. How in the name of “Joseph” Cao did North Korea make it into the World Cup tournament? North Koreans have nothing to eat! I suppose “Dear Leader” KJI divides his country’s limited resources exclusively among: i) the nuclear program, ii) the national soccer team, iii) his Courvoisier stash.

My Inner Coelacanth June 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, crime, politics, science, weird.
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The Penn Reading Project is a 20-year old tradition designed to introduce incoming freshman to “intellectual life at Penn.” Each spring, a small cabal of Penn faculty selects a book. In July, that book is sent—either as pulp or as DOI—to the matriculating class and to faculty discussion leader volunteers. Students are expected to participate in one or more faculty-led discussions about the book at several points during the year. It’s a neat idea. Having been a faculty member for nine years, I have yet to lead one of these discussions although I have read some of the books—Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” (PRP 2004), Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (PRP 2007), and just now, a few years late, Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” (PRP 2008). By the way, last year’s PRP was not a book, but a Philadelphia Museum of Art painting by Philly native Thomas Eakins—“The Gross Clinic.” The selection of a painting rather than a book “… as the PRP subject launched as [sic] special series of “Arts and the City” events sponsored by College Houses & Academic Services and other university departments.” I hope it isn’t also a concession to the sad fact that generation Z (?) doesn’t read books.

Back to “Inner Fish.” I don’t know what the class of 2011 learned from it, but I learned three things. First, I learned that the complexity of life may appear miraculous—with features from wings to eyes and all the way down to basic multi-cellularity possible only through the most serendipitous alignment of the stars and molecules—but the reality is much closer to a mundane and iterative arms race between predator and prey. Many of the “advanced” mechanisms we have now are straightforward variations and combinations of mechanisms present in far simpler creatures—including microbes! Microbes could always chemically attach to one another for the purposes of feeding. That same ability was repurposed to enable multi-cellularity—which itself was probably a defense mechanism against being eaten by single-celled microbes. And so on. And so on. La di da.

Second, I learned a sea of fascinating facts about anatomy, development, and genetics. For instance, did you know that fish can smell but can’t hear and dolphins can hear but can’t smell? I didn’t. I suppose if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are fish missing?” I would have guessed hearing because—”Finding Nemo” aside—that seems like that least useful sense in underwater life. But that would have been a guess. And if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are dolphins missing?” I would have guess none. After all, they are mammals—and highly evolved ones at that—why should they not have all five senses? But they don’t. Evidently, smelling in water is genetically different than smelling in air—makes sense from a chemical standpoint I suppose. When dolphins returned to the water—being mammals, they are descendents of terrestrial creatures—they were equipped only with air-smell genes and machinery. Because that machinery is useless in the water, mutations that disable or distort it are operationally benign. Over time, those mutations accumulated and the mechanism broke down entirely—does this mean that dolphins can’t taste also? Humans have gone down this road a ways too. Over 300 of our roughly 1,000 air-smelling genes—that’s right, a full 3% of our genome is devoted to making cellular protrusions that can bind to and thus detect different kinds of chemicals in the air—are already disabled by this same mechanism. You like this kind of stuff? There’s more in the book. Did you know that 70% of your sensory cells are in your retinas? Did you know that non-primate mammals only have two kinds of color receptors and cannot distinguish as many colors as primates? Did you know that dogs and bees can smell fear?

But the last thing I learned? Don’t try to write a book if you aren’t at least a semi-professional writer! Know why “Tipping Point” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” read so well? Because Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan are journalists! Neil Shubin is not a journalist and that’s why “Inner Fish” reads like a cross between a textbook and a Mr. Men book. And I like Mr. Men books! Maybe this doesn’t bother me as much as it would bother some other people, but when I read a book which uses big words and latin, I want to be “spoken to” like a grown-up. Neil, if this gets back to you, don’t take too much offense. It’s obviously easy for me to criticize having never written a book of my own—and not intending to in the forseeable future. You’ve obviously carved out an interesting and productive career for yourself. You’ve obviously made contributions to science. You obviously have many interesting things to say. But please, get a ghost-writer! I’m not looking forward to reading “Your Outer Geoduck.”

Anyways, it seems that Penn has learned its lesson. Fresh from my inbox, the 2010 PRP book is “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters” by Rose George, Penn alumna and thankfully—a journalist. It’s on the queue.

P.S. In the epilogue, Shubin mentions that the question he is asked most frequently about “Inner Fish” concerns climate change. Specifically, whether climate change will make Arctic paleontology easier. Really, people? That’s the most pressing climate change-related evolutionary question you have? I have a different one. Will climate change accelerate evolution by applying new external selection pressures? What new plant/animal/human variations are we going to see?

P.P.S. Don’t know what a Coelacanth is and too lazy to Wikipedia it? A Coelacanth—pronounced seal-a-kanth—is a lungfish with primitive arms and legs inside its fins. For a while, it was thought to be a link in the chain from fish to amphibians. For a while, it was also thought to be extinct seeing as the youngest specimen was a 60,000,000 year old fossil. Then in 1998, an Indonesian fishing trawler dragged one up. You can see why Bluejay likes Coelacanths—not only are they bluish, they are also quite handsome. Hey guys, where have you been hiding for the last 60,000,000 years?

P.P.P.S. Have your own idea about how to stop the BP oil spill? Contact this dude. detonating a nuke near the well to “squeeze it shut” has been suggested. Has anyone suggested trying to plug the leak with Joran van der Sloot? If he’s too small, maybe we could try Rush Limbaugh.

P.P.P.P.S. When I first read the headline, I thought this was a story about Sarah Palin.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I would have thought that fathering seven children with your own daughter was an isolated sickness. Apparently not.

Re(dis)membering Aron Ralston June 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in society, weird.
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Bluejay is mostly for political, social, and environmental rants. But that’s not all it’s for. Those of you who know me personally—and I apologize—also know that I am a junkie for all things … “unusual.” Warning: this post is not for the feint of stomach. Safta Bluejay, stop reading now!

Remember Aron Ralston? The Colorado mountain climber who in 2003 got trapped by an 800 pound boulder while hiking alone in Utah and had to amputate his own arm to escape? I do. Well, I didn’t actively remember him until I saw this story. Not to make light of the situation, but I don’t think Danny Boyle will be making a movie about this one. And no, I will not be going to see “127 hours”—I only enjoy reading about these things, not actually watching them.

The story about Aron Ralston 2.0—or maybe Aron Ralston 0.9—made me wonder. And wonder some more. First, I wondered how and what Aron is doing these days. I knew he went back to climbing, wrote the book, was on the “Man Law Program Committee,” and is “working” on this movie—but what else is going on? Has he amputated any other body parts? Sorry, that’s the dark underbelly of Philly Bluejay. Second, I wondered how many more Aron Ralstons there are out there. And what is the most extreme story in this “genre.” Figuring that Bluejay’s three readers must be as curious as I, I decided to do a little WWW research. Here’s what I found. No need to thank me.

Aron is doing fine, thanks. He’s married now and has a child. He makes up to $37,000 an hour giving inspirational talks at corporate gatherings and Bar Mitzvahs—Aron Ralston lights the menorah? I knew it! Other pre-fame facts you and I didn’t know about Aron? He went to Carnegie Mellon University—I went to CMU for geek summer camp back in the day! He graduated from CMU Phi Beta Kappa—I graduated Phi Beta Kappa! He worked at Intel as a mechanical engineer—I worked at Intel in microarchitecture reserach! Jewish? CMU? PBK? Intel? Wife? Child? The initials AR? Could Aron Ralston and Philly Bluejay have more in common? In fact, they could! The accident happened in Bluejohn canyon! Aron, text me! Actually, aside from these superficial similarities, Bluejay and Aron could not be more different. Bluejay has never been mountain climbing—in fact, he’s never even read about mountain climbing except in that it pertains to Aron or to that 13-year old kid who just climbed Mt. Everest. And Bluejay doesn’t have the stomach to sever a shoelace—much less an arm—in order to escape certain death. And Bluejay is overly fond of m-dashes and third-person self-reference!

But enough about Aron. And Bluejay. Let’s get to the real business of this post. How many Arons are there out there? And how many of them have out-Aron’ed Aron? Disclaimer: I have only superficially fact-checked many of these stories, for all I know they may all be apocryphal. And also, I only included stories about intentional amputation. There are many stories out there about accidents—including an especially nasty one about a carpenter, a saw, and a bathtub—which I am not counting.

In June 2007, a 66-year old California man amputated his own leg to escape from a fallen tree. Ironically, he screamed so loud during the procedure that a neighbor heard and came to his rescue! This immediately brings up memories of this Onion parody. More seriously, it begs the question—would he have thought of such a thing if this happened in June 2002?

In January 2008, an Idaho man, believing that his hand bore the “mark of the beast,” cut it off with a circular saw and microwaved it. I hope he didn’t leave his wedding ring on! Imagine the sparks!

In January 2009, a Portugese man cut off his own finger in court to prostest an unfavorable ruling. Just three months later, a Serbian man cut off his own finger and then ate it to protest overdue wages.

Then there are any number of stories about men cutting off their own genitals, either in a drunken stupor, in sober stupor, for love unrequited, or for love requited.

Finally, there is the ultimate amputation. In May 2007, a 24-year old German man cut off his own head with a chainsaw in the back-end of a murder-suicide. In November, 2008 a 50-year old British man did the same thing to avoid having his home repossessed.

Notice some themes? Here’s one—all of these stories are about men. And this isn’t because I only searched for “man cuts off own hand.” I searched for “woman cuts off own hand” too. I just didn’t find anything. One possible explanation—women don’t know how to work power tools! Another—women are less likely to be power tools themselves! Another theme, all of these stories post-date Ralston. Maybe 2003 was a tipping point for the Internet. Maybe pre-2003 only “important” stories were on the internet, and post-2003 every story was. Or maybe the Ralston story set a precedent, planted a cultural seed, and spawned copycats. The way a suicide tragically can. Maybe before Aron Ralston, self-amputation was the last thing you would think of doing in a given situation. After Ralston—and maybe the Saw movies have something to do with this also—it’s the fourth-from-last thing. Of course, the sequel is almost always less than the original. Ralston’s amputation was somewhere between heroism and hubris. It reminds me of the (Peanuts) baseball phrase “a spectacular catch of a routine fly ball” which implies that the outfielder had to make the spectacular catch because he was originally out of position or misread the ball off the bat. Ralston had to resort to spectacularly heroic measures because he took what an unnecessary risk—climbing alone. But that’s just him. This is the same man who gave up a job at Intel to pursue mountain climbing after all—an act which to me is actually more impressive. The sequels are somewhere between hubris and Darwin Award.

However, by far the creepiest/saddest thing I discovered during my research is Body Identity Integrity Disorder. People with BIID are physically healthy people who feel that being an amputee is their “true” identity—much like people with “Gender Identity Disorder” feel that their true identity is the opposite than their phenotype biological gender. And much like people with GID sometimes have surgery to actualize their true identity, people with BIID sometimes—although much more rarely and sometimes by their own hands—have healthy limbs amputated in order to actualize their true identity. There is a 2005 documentary about BIID called Whole.

Anyways, the thoughts of GID and BIID got me wondering. What kind of identity disorders are there? Look for a post soon!

P.S. If you search for “woman cuts off,” the Google auto-completion feature gives you a short list starting with “husband’s penis.” There are at least two pages worth of different stories here, and all of them post-date the John and Lorena Wayne Bobbitt story. Of course, that story is pre-Internet. Which begs the question—how is it that I know about it?

P.P.S. And speaking of hubris and unnecessary risk. All’s well that ends well, but … I wouldn’t have let my child do this. Then again, as my friend Jim once said to me: “What do you mean ‘let’? Obviously, you don’t have any children.”

Obama’s Katrina June 10, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, crime, drama, environment, politics.
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Several in the media—translation: mostly FOX “news”—have suggested that the BP oil spill is “Obama’s Katrina.” By this they mean that Obama’s milquetoast response to the disaster is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and is a similar indicator of weakness or an inability to lead. By the way, “Obama’s Katrina” is not to be confused with “Obama’s Vietnam” (the War in Afghanistan), “Obama’s Waterloo” (the Health care bill), “Obama’s Watergate” (the alleged White House job offered to Joe Sestak quid pro quo not opposing Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary), “Obama’s New Deal” (ARRA), “Obama’s Hindenburg” (ARRA or Healthcare reform), “Obama’s Rasputin” (first Jeremiah Wright then alternatingly David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel), “Obama’s Ginger Rogers” (first Hilary Clinton then Chris Matthews), or “Obama’s Exxon Valdez” (strangely, Jeremiah Wright and notthe BP spill). It is, however, to be confused with “Obama’s 9/11.

What is the biggest difference between “Obama’s Katrina” and the rest of them? At least the rest of them fit. Kind of. Other than the fact that it is happening in the Gulf, how is the BP spill anything like Katrina? And how is Obama’s response now deficient in a way that Bush’s deficient response then? Different op-eds I have read and watched have accused POTUS BO of: i) not being harsh enough with BP, ii) giving BP too much time to try and fix the problem on its own, iii) not doing enough to help Gulf communities, iv) not being harsh enough with deepwater offshore drilling, v) being too harsh on deepwater offshore drilling, vi) abetting the disaster by not enforcing offshore drilling regulations strictly enough, vii) paying too little attention to the disaster, viii) paying too much attention to it, and ix) not taking sufficient advantage of the disaster to pound the message of alternative energy sources and to push through alternative energy legislation. At least we can all agree that he wasn’t actually on the rig during the explosion.

First, what could POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—have done to prevent this disaster? Yes, they could have regulated offshore drilling more stringently and enforced safety measures more vigilently. But was there an outcry for this prior to the spill? I don’t recall one. Meanwhile, experts for years had warned that NOLA’s levees would not withstand a direct hit by a category 5 hurricane, but those warnings were ignored because that confluence was perceived to be a “100 year event” and 100 year events—perhaps incorrectly interpreted as “events that will only happen 100 years from now”—are a low priority item in the federal budget. Yes, the drilling industry has an overly cozy relationship with its oversight agency—and you can bet this will change—but this wasn’t perceived to be a bigger problem than the relationship any other industry has with its oversight agency. Or with congress for that matter.

Second, what is POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—supposed to do to help plug the leak or mitigate damage to coastal communities? Should POTUS BO don a deep sea diving suit and push golf balls into the leak by hand? Should the US Army Corps of Engineers get involved? Should other companies be allowed to try their hand? Who knows! But seemingly—as incompetent as they may appear—the entity with the best shot of fixing this problem—not to mention the entity most motivated to fix the problem—is still BP! And as for mitigation? There isn’t enough plastic boom to contain the spill and protect all the areas it will affect. Plastic boom doesn’t work in rough seas anyways—just in time for hurricane season! And there is doubt about whether any remediation actions make sense before the flow of new oil is stopped or safely diverted to container ships. In the meantime, all we can do is hose down birds. As for the human inhabitants of coastal Gulf communities? Their lives are not in danger. They have not been rendered homeless. They are not without adequate drinking water or medical supplies. They have lost livelihood and real estate value and for that they should be compensated. By BP! But the US government is not failing these communities now the way the Bush administration and FEMA failed the residents of NOLA in 2005.

And finally, what is to be the economic, regulatory, and political aftermath of this disaster? This is still to be played out of course, but a few outcomes are obvious. BP will emerge significantly diminished, if it emerges at all. You will not see me write a post with the title “BP Doesn’t Deserve This” the way I defended Toyota back in February. The Toyota scandal mushroomed quickly but blew over almost as fast because evidence of criminal negligence or malfeasance on Toyota’s part was scant. Toyota stock is down 20% off its one-year high but Toyota posted record earnings last quarter. I even got new floormats! Meanwhile, evidence that BP is guilty of criminal negligence is accumulating quickly. BP stock has lost over 60% of its value, shareholders have filed suit against the company, and Tony Hayward is holding on to his job simply because no one is willing to take his place—would you take over this mess? would you like to appear before congress to explain how this happened? BP can only hope that its payouts are not proportional to the amount of oil leaked. But things could be worse. If BP were an American company, it would probably ask for—and get—a Federal bailout! Offshore drilling safety should improve significantly. And this should happen with no revamping of the MMS. Eliminating the ridiculous 75,000,000 dollar Federal cap on liability—which may as well be a 75 cent cap for all practical purposes—will do the trick. The real question is will offshore drilling be scaled down in favor of more expensive but less EXPENSIVE energy sources. Moratorium or no moratorium, in the short term the answer is no. His outrage or lack thereof aside, POTUS BO will not pee on the embers of the economy by throwing an oil shortage on top of the current jobs crisis. But in the slightly longer term, one can only hope that this disaster is the final straw that turns the US away from oil and towards clean sustainable energy. That is the only possible silver lining in this brown plume. And it’s the only way in which Obama can detach the monikers of “Katrina” and “9/11” from it and replace them with one of his own choosing.

P.S. My favorite response to the BP oil spill so far has to be Rand Paul’s “accidents happen.” Is this guy really going to be a Senator? I might have to start DVR’ing CSPAN!

P.P.S. First, Al and Tipper call it quits. Now, Karenna and Andrew are on the rocks. At least Rush Limbaugh’s marital life is going well.

P.P.P.S. You know, Joran, you have to kill three people in order to officially be considered a serial killer. Looks like you’re only going to make it as far as “sick freak.”

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.