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Just What Environmentalism Didn’t Need September 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, crime, environment.
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For the next year, Philly Bluejay will be multi-casting from the home office in Bethesda, MD. Bethesda Bluejay … Philly Terrapin … Philly Bluejay 20816 … is on hiatus from the glass and red-brick ivory tower and spending the year working for Uncle Sam. Both figuratively—I am working at the Department of Energy’s Building Techologies Program. And literally—my boss’ name is Sam, and he is certainly old enough to be an uncle.

Philly Bluejay saving the world one building at a time—just what environmentalism didn’t need? Well the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the title refers to something that happened just a few zip codes over at One Discovery Place, Silver Spring, MD 20910—Philly Bluejay wanted to live in either the 20910 or 20915 zip codes for the sole purpose of playing on 90120 or 90125 but alack, 20816 is closer to Mrs. Bluejay’s work. Yesterday morning, one James Lee walked into Discovery Communications Headquarters carrying a rifle, shells, and two pipe bombs. He allegedly fired a shot into the air before taking three hostages, making a list of demands, and negotiating with police for over four hours. He was finally shot and killed by a sniper when he pointed his weapon at one of the hostages. Mr. Lee claimed to be willing to die for his views. And he did. I am sure that he regretted that he had only one life—and 15 minutes of fame—to give.

Mr. Lee did have some valid aims—we do in fact need to find a way to stop global warming. Although his ways and means were less than practical—all human procreation and agriculture must cease immediately! And while some of his programming suggestions were good—enough with Kate+boobjob+eight and with the Duggars and their 19 children—others were just loony—can we really have enough shows about little people, the morbidly obese, or conjoined twins? I say no! But in the end, he was a nutball, peeved that Discovery Communications could not find a place for his television show in its lineup of stations—Discovery, TLC, Sc, PlanetGreen, Animal Planet, and the Military Channel to name six. Really, could we not get an hour of Mr. Lee rather than the umpteenth rerun of Shark Week or that insufferable Bryan Cox on Wonders of the Solar System?

The problem with nutballs is that they give legitimate causes a bad name and opponents of those causes ammunition. Is it bold to predict that in the coming days Beck/Hannity/Limbaugh or some TEA Partier will paint Mr. Lee as the face of the environmental movement? Environmentalists are nutballs! Drill baby drill! Kate Gosselin for congress! And nutballs never advance their chosen cause in any real way. Did the goofs at ELF (Earth Liberation Front)—the outfit that set a Seattle subdivision on fire several years back to protest over-development—stop northwest exurbia? Did this freak actually save any animals? Now, nutballs with their own ships are something else completely. If you have your own ship, you can do something! If you are a nutball with your own ship, Discovery Communications will beat a path to your door and put you on prime time! Mr. Lee, your biggest mistake was not plowing into headquarters with a ship!

But nutballs for good causes are not as harmful as respected critics of the same. There is a particularly good example in this case—the late Dr. Michael Crichton of of Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, and Disclosure fame. Bright, articulate, and successful as he was, Dr. Crichton was one of the most visible deniers of anthropogenic climate change and argued vociferously that we should spend our monies and energies on one hundred more important pursuits and problems before we turn to carbon dioxide. He even wrote a book called “State of Fear” about a band of environmental terrorists and the protagonists who foil them, presumably with the aim of calming down what he viewed as environmental hysteria. I’m not sure how much impact his writing and speaking had, but it’s fair to assume that he had some. He was a visible dude with the ear of important people. If only he were alive to see the shit that is going down today. In “State of Fear” the eco-terrorists try to set off strategic explosions in Antarctica in order to detach an ice sheet. Detaching ice sheets? Now that’s fiction.

My suggestion to would-be eco-nutballs? Forget about whales and squirrels and the red-bearded monkey and the four-assed monkey—but not the bluejay, no no—start protesting the fact that gas is still 2.73!

P.S. No P.S.’s today.

P.P.S. Oops!

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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.

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.”

Catholic Church Going Hard? It’s About Time! April 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in crime, religion, sex, society.
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A few weeks ago, I posted an entry with the title “Catholic Church Going Soft?” in which I wrote about A-West (the Archbishop of Westminster) talking about softening the church’s stance of contraception and family planning as a temporary measure to deal with the overpopulation crisis in Africa. Someone actually made a long comment on that post—yes, there have been comments, 9 of them to be precise—about the church and its sex scandals. I wasn’t even going to go there, but I will after the Vatican announced today that it is instituting “sex abuse reform.” Reformation 2.0!

The church hasn’t provided any details about this reform. Although presumably, it is going to take a harder stance on sex abuse by its own rank and file. Hence, the inter-post punny title. I’m nothing if not punny. Actually, this is a serious topic and so let me get all of the puns out of the way now. When I first read the words “sex abuse reform”, I thought of things like “the church will institute a sex abuse mandate which will kick in in 2014”, “priests will be able to abuse their parishioners, but there will also be a public option”, “starting in 90 days priests will no longer be able to deny abuse to children with pre-existing conditions”, and so on. If you think that’s not funny, I apologize. I personally don’t think it’s funny either. Nor do I think it is funny when someone compares the “persecution” the church is receiving over this scandal to anti-semitism. Really. I hadn’t realized that bad press is roughly equal to the Holocaust. Or that Jewish clergy molested young children.

Anyways, I am Jewish and I don’t go to church. I don’t even go to synagogue much. And so I don’t care whether abusive priests are defrocked or remain frocked. What I do care about is that they go to prison. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t child molestation a felony? For god’s sakes, even consensual sex with a minor is a felony. Just ask Stephanie Ragusa. By the way, here’s a good MTV top 50 countdown—Stephanie is number 7. Steph is going to do 10 years—well, probably 5—for consensual sex with two 14 year old boys. Why is the church hemming and hawing about defrocking? Forget church internal matters. The first call should be to the local police. The church can deal with the offending priest when he gets out of prison, where presumably he can have as much male sex as he wants. Maybe even more than he wants. Okay, I promised I won’t pun and that was the last one. Really, I don’t understand why the church doesn’t take the hardest line possible against this. Isn’t moral high ground essentially their only currency? How can they continue to devalue it like this? Even the NFL, lenient as it is (see Stallworth, Donte) is not this lenient (see Jones, Adam “Pacman”). By the way, would Adam Jones’ wife go by “Mrs. Pacman”? Would his son go by “Pacman Jr.”? Ooops, I did it again!

Speaking of sex-abuse reform, statutory rape, and Stephanie Ragusa. I don’t know, but the fact that male-by-female statutory rape is treated symmetrically to female-by-male statutory rape (forget male-by-male and female-by-female for now) seems a little disingenuous to me. I understand that there is gender-based double-standard for non-statutory rape. People tend to look at male-by-female rape as a novelty or curiosity more than as a crime. And that may not be right, but it’s understandable given the fact that male-by-female rape is rare—or maybe it’s common but even more under-reported than female-by-male rape, although I doubt it given that it’s probably much more difficult to pull off given usual ratios of strength and the mechanics of intercourse—and given common understanding of the roles played by males and females during sex.

But why isn’t there a similar double standard for statutory rape? I understand the whole adult taking advantage of child argument, but the same sexual mechanics argument still applies, the strength ratio argument also largely applies, and the fact is that sex to men is not the same thing as it is to women. Did you know that the area of the brain devoted to thinking about sex is three times larger in men than it is in women? Maybe not in Stephanie Ragusa, but in general? I don’t know anything about this, but I would venture to guess that male victims of statutory rape are psychologically wounded to a lesser degree than female victims (I tried Googling, but couldn’t find anything). And if that is the case, then male-by-female statutory rape should be downgraded to something less than it is. Not to nothing. Stephanie Ragusa, Mary Kay LeTourneau, and their ilk are predators. And they should not be allowed near children. But on the ground, the harm they cause is probably less than people think, and this means that the punishment is probably disproportionate.

Maybe I am completely off-base on this. This is just stuff that came to me as I was scanning today’s NYT, CNN, and BBC. And if it comes to me, it’s probably coming to PhillyBluejay. Either way, it’s posts like these that make me happy that I have a readership of five.

P.S. Whatever sentence Stephanie deserves, this lady deserves a longer one.

P.P.S. And still on the subject of sex-abuse reform … Thanks for sparing us, Hef. And way to play the sympathetic figure, Kate. Really, ever since the last episode of Jon and Kate plus eight plus Jon’s girlfriend plus Kate’s lawyer minus Jon, it’s hard to tell who has become the biggest loser. Kate, you are currently in the “lead.”

P.P.P.S. Climate change denial, evolution denial, quantum mechanics denial, 2nd law of thermodynamics denial, and gravity denial are all just micro-symptoms of a more general science denial.