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Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Taxed October 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, taxes, weird.
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One of my favorite parts of my temporary new job is the commute. It’s between 30 and 40 minutes each way, but all on public transportation. This not only gives me the moral authority to browbeat people about their energy consumption—I’m not part of the problem! I use public transportation! My carbon footprint is only 12 times that of an average Indian, not 14 times!—it also gives me time to read in relative peace and while I am more or less awake. In fact, I am somewhat surprised by the relatively small number of people that read on the Metro. On any given day, I would say that fewer than 20% of the people on the Metro are reading, and most of those are reading that free magazine you can get as you come into the station. What are the other 80% doing? 20% are texting. 20% are listening to iPods. 20% are staring blankly into space. 19% staring blankly into space, listening to their iPods, texting in one hand, and holding the Metro newspaper in the other. 1% are trying to extricate themselves from the Metro doors.

The first book I read entirely on the Metro was Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” I won’t rehash Friedman’s thesis—the best thing America can do for itself and the world is to go seriously Green—Friedman does that just fine. I did want to say three things about the book though. First, I love that the cover is sampled from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch. Look no further than GoED for proof that they had very good psychotropes even in the 15th century! With publishing margins as slim as they are these days—although perhaps not for bankable stars like Friedman—why pay for cover art? Sample a renaissance painting for free!

Second, one of the things that struck me about “World Is Flat”—HF&C’s predecessor—was Friedman’s own itinerary. Bangalore. Shanghai. Doha. Copenhagen. Sao Paolo. Back to Bangalore. The most frequent refrain in WiF is “I just kept on moving.” Readers of Philly Bluejay know how I feel about business air travel. Friedman may fly more than any person on the planet! This was bad in an absolute sense but not hypocritical in the context of the book—WiF is about globalization. But HF&C is about climate and the Energy Era and yet the itinerary is similar. London. Mumbai. Dalian. Multiple visits to every continent except for Antarctica. I hope Mr. Friedman purchased carbon offsets for all of those air miles! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fly to San Francisco. For business. Tom, I kid because I love. And because I am a hypocrite.

Third and finally, I want to elaborate on Friedman’s point about the necessity of a carbon tax. One of Friedman’s sub-points is that a clean energy revolution will never truly take off without a clear, loud, consistent and projectable price signal on carbon. The market will not move away from carbon—at least not efficiently and at scale—unless they know what staying with carbon will cost and unless that price is sufficiently high. Short of privatizing the atmosphere, the fastest way to create this signal is by government regulation. And here he advocates a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Friedman views cap-and-trade as a kind of “hidden ball” trick—a way for the government to limit emissions in a way that does not result in direct costs for consumers or a direct trail of money back to itself. In a perfect world, the government hands out emissions credits, electric utilities buy and sell them amongst themselves and customers don’t see increased rates, and when they do, they don’t see that money going to the government. Friedman claims that this kind of shenanigan hides the true urgency of the problem from people—people are not going to change their habits unless they see how their actions translate directly into costs. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I think that a better and more accurate way to state this problem is that a cap-and-trade system isn’t an effective price signaling mechanism because it doesn’t behave like a traditional price!

A price is a constant. The price of the first unit of is the price of the millionth unit. With a price, cost is always proportional to consumption and you can safely map out the future. Not so with cap-and-trade. With cap-and-trade, the price of a unit purchased under the cap is far less—perhaps infinitely less—than that of a unit purchased over the cap. And whether a unit is over or under depends on overall demand, not on your demand. Which system do you reckon would be more conducive to economic growth? “Neither” is not an option!

Meanwhile, the real commodity here is not electricity—or even coal—it’s CO2. It’s easy enough to create a cap-and-trade system for coal or electricity. A CO2-emissions-from-coal exchange would consist of a relatively small number of individually large participants. A cap-and-trade makes some sense in this case. But oil companies do not operate like utilities and so the CO2-emissions-from-gasoline effectively consists of millions of small participants. Cap-and-trade is logistically much more difficult here! And remember, if cap-and-trade were a true pricing mechanism than it would be possible to trade gasoline emissions for electricity emissions. Anything short of a holistic economy-wide cap-and-trade will effectively create a market distortion, effectively subsidizing uncapped sources of emissions at the expense of capped ones. Market distortion—specifically, implicit subsidies for carbon emissions—is how we got ourselves in this mess to begin with!

Perhaps Tom and I can discuss these points en route to Sacramento. Or maybe at the checkout counter at the Whole Foods on River Road. Tom, Text me!

P.S. The cover art of HF&C contains several images from the Paradise and Earth panels of GoED, but none—as far as I can tell—from the Hell panel. Was this intentional? A better cover would have had a sample from “Paradise” on top and “Hell” on the bottom. No?

P.P.S. Another suitable cover for HF&C—although not renaissance and likely not royalty free either—would have been a pair of paintings by neo-Bosch Salvador Dali. Butterfly windmills on top and that-painting-with-a-giraffe-on-fire-which-I-swear-is-by-Dali-but-I-can’t-find-a-link-for-so-now-I-don’t-know on the bottom.

P.P.P.S. Wonder if the Taliban puts this on their recruiting posters.

P.P.P.P.S. If you drop something on an escalator, never shoot your hand down to try to catch it while it’s falling. I’m just saying.


Nuclear Football September 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in football, politics, transportation, war, weird.
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It’s football season. And I couldn’t be happier. Well, until the Eagles lost their opener plus four starters to injury anyways. But hey, Dallas lost also! Football is a game of war metaphors. Football players are “warriors.” Quarterbacks are “field generals.” Linemen play in the “trenches.” Quarterbacks get “sacked.” Running backs get “blown up.” “Bombs” get “intercepted.” It’s like the Middle East! With cheerleaders!

Three weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi “Benjamin” Netanyahu met with Fatah leader Mahmoud “The Tall One” Abbas in POTUS Lightning “Barry” Obama’s house for what was described as a hopeful opening round of peace talks. They met again this past week in Egypt accompanied by SOS Clinton. And they will continue to meet every two weeks thereafter. Until either a two state solution emerges. Or until next spring when when Mahmoud “Napoleon cum beard” Ahmadinejad wipes them both off the map with a nuclear warhead.

Most experts agree that Iran is about six months away from joining the nuclear club. The recent freeing of hiker/alleged-spy Sarah Shourd does not mean that Mahmoud suddenly gives a pigeon’s ass about what the West thinks. If it did, her male companions would be freed as well. It doesn’t even mean he has respect for women. If he did, there wouldn’t be this. Ahmadinejad sees twin openings in the Middle East/Central Asia and in the world of Islam and he is ready to pounce on both simultaneously. From a geopolitical standpoint, he is determined to make Iran a major world player—on par with the US, Russia, China, and the European Union, most of whom he repeatedly and deliberately thumbs his moustache at. From a religious standpoint, he sees an opportunity to leapfrog Saudi Arabia and to make Shiites the dominant Muslim sect. Nuclear armament is a quicker path to the first goal than social and economic reform. And it’s a quicker path to the second than decades of brainwashing-by-madrasah in Pakistan. And what a grander entrance to the world stage, holier ascension to the throne of Islam, and more absolute show of force and the will to use it than to eradicate the enemy of Islam—to finish off what the Holocaust couldn’t. It’s as if he’s trying to recreate the scene from Episode IV where Darth Vader forces Leia to watch as he tests the Death Star on her home planet—”Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station!” Actually, given that it’s Ahmadinejad, it would be more like Dark Helmet from Space Balls, but the fate of Alderaan would be the same. Ahmadinejad is six months away from the Muslim nutbag end zone. He’s at the 35. 30. He’s in the clear and he’s starting to high step it. 25. 20. He’s looking at the Jumbotron and holding the nuclear football over his head. 15. 10.

Some experts believe that Israel has a good tackling angle on Iran. That it is ready to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities the same way it took out Syria’s in 2007 and Iraq’s in 1981. Israel—itself unofficially nuclear for at least 35 years—has never let an Arab neighbor get to the end zone. And they are about to go Don Beebe all over Iran’s Leon Lett. The Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg’s has literally kept a running column/blog about this. It will happen. The world has enough problems without a nuclear Iran. The US is probably not going to take military action on its own—there may be a limit on the number of Arab countries that can be attacked in one decade—although it should. The world will applaud. And Israel’s other Arab neighbors will not protest. Saudi Arabia knows that once Iran is done with Israel, Riadh is next.

Which brings us back to the biweekly—bimonthly?—Israel/Fatah talks. Long term, an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank is a necessary component of any stable configuration in the region. Israel cannot keep barricading and illegally settling the West Bank indefinitely nor will it accept 2.5 million Muslims into what is at core a Jewish state. But until the Iran situation is resolved, Palestine 2.0 is a distraction. Peace with Fatah will not significantly change Israel’s security situation. Fatah is already not a security threat to Israel proper—as opposed to Israel improper, the Jewish settlements within the West Bank—neutralized partly by the wall and partly by its leadership. Hamas to the south and Hezbollah to the north operate independently of Fatah and will remain intermittent threats whether a West Bank Palestinian state is established or not. And so perhaps this is a misdirection play—Israel making the world look in the backfield while it sends fifty F-16s deep. Then again, if recent Israel has anything in common with Iran it’s that it doesn’t seem to care much for world opinion. Perhaps this is all political cover for POTUS Lightning. Israel needs to make nice with Lightning—it can’t wait until 2012 and hope that a militant pro-Israel anti-Arab Republican lands in the White House.

Disclaimer. Most of Philly Bluejay’s readers already know this, but I started out as Petah Tikva Starling—there are no Bluejays in Petah Tikva, but plenty of starlings. From what I can remember. This—and cousins—gives me more skin in this issue than the typical American bird, not to mention more cred. Ahem. Of course, I became Philly Bluejay at the age of eleven, never served in the Israeli army, and never lived in Israel as an adult during wartime or Intifada—I spent May-August 2000 in Haifa and the Second Intifada started that September. This gives me significantly less skin and cred than anyone who had actually spent significant time in the .il as an adult. My general stance is pro-Israel, but pro-Israel is not the primary criterion by which I judge US or other non-Israeli political figures. I’m glad we clarified this.

P.S. Sherley, you must be joking! I’m dead serious, and don’t call me Sherley!

P.P.S. Ummmmm … wow!

P.P.P.S. I love the DC Metro—never more than a three minute wait, never less than 80% full. Apparently, the feeling is not mutual. At approximately 8:50am this past Friday, at the Metro Center station, the Orange Line to New Carrolton grabbed me by the right ankle and refused to let go! Isn’t the door supposed to open automatically if it feels an obstruction? Fellow passengers tried to pry the door open but failed. Isn’t the door supposed to release if it feels people pulling on it? I was about to channel Aron Ralston, but I didn’t have my trusty Leatherman with me as it will not go through DOE metal detectors. Instead, I slipped off my shoe, used it to brace the doors while pulling my foot free, then turned it 90 degrees and pulled it through. Next station, Federal Triangle! Philly Bluejay 1-Orange Line 0! This morning, the Orange line to New Carrolton was waiting with doors open as I was heading down the escalator. Rather than run and risk another incident—why don’t train doors have the same countdown timers that most streetlights have these days?—I let the train go and waited three minutes for the next one. Buck, buck, brawwwck! Philly Bluejay 1-Orange Line 1.

P.P.P.P.S. Pastor Jones, how about this for a compromise? You call off the Koran burning and return James Hetfield’s moustache, and we move the planned Cordoba House mosque from Ground Zero to the Dove World parking lot. Haven’t you done enough damage?

P.P.P.P.P.S. What’s the first thing you learn in baseball? No, not “There’s no crying in baseball”—that’s the second thing you learn. It’s “When you get into a fight with a drunk, you don’t hit him with your pitching hand!”!

Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

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.”