Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No, We Still Haven't Found WMDs

Don't let them fool you -- the Washington Post did not report Iraq has chemical weapons.

New Study Says Ethanol Literally Kills People

In my reporting, I'm often confronted with dubious, incomplete and potentially inaccurate information. I have to decide what's verifiable and logically sound enough to include in a story. It's usually not that hard, but sometimes the value judgments about how to describe something can be tricky. That having been said, I don't think this study is one of those pieces of information. Hopefully sooner or later the ethanol craze will die and we'll move on to more practical solutions.
WASHINGTON - Switching from gasoline to ethanol — touted as a green alternative at the pump — may create dirtier air, causing slightly more smog-related deaths, a new study says.

Nearly 200 more people would die yearly from respiratory problems if all vehicles in the United States ran on a mostly ethanol fuel blend by 2020, the research concludes. Of course, the study author acknowledges that such a quick and monumental shift to plant-based fuels is next to impossible.

Each year, about 4,700 people, according to the study's author, die from respiratory problems from ozone, the unseen component of smog along with small particles. Ethanol would raise ozone levels, particularly in certain regions of the country, including the Northeast and Los Angeles.

"It's not green in terms of air pollution," said study author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor. "If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don't do it based on health grounds. It's no better than gasoline, apparently slightly worse."
If 200 a year doesn't sound like a lot, just stretch it out over a decade, and then over a person's lifetime, and then over centuries. It adds up quickly. "Deaths averted per year" is actually how the EPA measures the benefits of its regulations, as in, "Setting such-and-such a limit on the amount of mercury allowed from smokestacks saved X lives last year." It's usually in hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. It's very hard to measure with pinpoint accuracy, but this sort of study gibes with a lot of others I've written about. There's a huge debate going on right now at the EPA about whether ozone actually kills people, and if it does how to regulate it, but that's another story.

As a final thought, I'd just like to point out that turning the vast majority of the country into a cornfield will not only be an obscenely profitable boon to big agribusiness, it will take away land needed for other crops. Furthermore, corn demands a lot of nutrients to grow. No one has ever actually studied the economic implications of this.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Mother of All News Updates

This is a clearing of the decks, which have been piling up with unannounced news from around the world for a while now, but it's also a way to move the global warming ball forward a little. Bearing in mind that I drew attention to the fact in the first place (and don't think anyone occupies the moral high ground here) the implications of traveling by airplane are getting impossible to ignore in good conscience.

Demand For Travel Rising; Airplane CO2 Impact Sort of Explained

And the ball moves forward.

-- Surging use of cars and planes will push up greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades, making the transport sector a black spot in a fight against global warming, according to a draft U.N. report.


About 2 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions from human activities come from aviation. Emissions from this sector are likely to rise by 3-4 percent a year given projected annual traffic growth of 5 percent outpacing annual improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency of 1-2 percent, it says.

Planes also damage the climate in other ways, partly by emitting heat-trapping nitrous oxides at high altitude. "These effects are estimated to be about 2 to 4 times greater than those of aviation's CO2 alone," it says.

Extra charges for fuel or the inclusion of the aviation sector into a greenhouse gas trading system "would have the potential to reduce emissions considerably," it says.

Republican Florida Legislators Mandate Statues of Jeb Bush

No, this is not a joke.

-- Two weeks ago, the University of Florida voted to deny Jeb Bush an honorary degree. By a 38-28 vote, the faculty Senate rejected the former governor's nomination, citing concerns about some of Bush's education initiatives, including his dismantling of affirmative action programs in the state.


Upset by this lack of Jeb Bush adoration, the conservative-controlled House Schools & Learning Council voted yesterday to force the university to rename its education school the "Jeb Bush College of Education."

Over the faculty's opposition, the school will now have "to erect 'suitable markers' noting the college's new name and include the revised name in all university documents, including catalogues and brochures." The lawmakers acknowledge they "came up with the idea as an answer" to the faculty's denial of Bush's honorary degree.

EPA Nominees Withdraw Their Nominations

Suffice to say I know who these two are.

Russia Beats up Demonstrators, Arrests Kasparov

Remember when I pointed to an article about a month ago saying reigning world chess potentate Garry Kasparov had taken the reins of the Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin? Well, they're not going easy on him, whatever he might be doing for the tourism industry. (I don't have any hard numbers on that.)

-- ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Riot police beat and detained dozens of anti-Kremlin demonstrators Sunday on a second day of protests that tested the weak opposition's ability to challenge widely popular President Vladimir Putin.

As in Moscow a day earlier, only a few thousand people turned out in St. Petersburg to criticize the government. Opposition leaders called that a heartening response in the face of the huge police forces massed against both rallies.

Putin's foes said the harsh handling of demonstrators, who included many elderly people, would fuel a growing sense that the leader is strangling democracy ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next spring.

But the opposition is in severe straits. Opinion polls rate Putin as Russia's most popular political figure by far, thanks to newfound political stability and rapid economic growth fueled by high world oil prices. That popularity has cowed mainstream politicians in parliament and allowed Putin to strengthen the Kremlin's powers.


Opposition leaders said they were determined to push ahead. Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who has become the most prominent figure in opposition factions loosely allied in the Other Russia coalition, called it "truly amazing" that 2,000 protesters would turn out in Moscow to face 9,000 police and interior ministry troops.

"It shows that the apathy in Russian society is gradually being replaced by very active, vocal protest," he told The Associated Press.

Oil Operations Expanding Without More Safety Measures; Workers Keep Dying

This expose from High Country News is a perfect example of how the media should do its job. It reminds me of the series the Chicago Tribune ran on the Middle East traffic in moveable employees that often ends in poor but relatively well-educated Yemenis or Africans (or whatever) dying in Iraq working for contractors that don't look out for them.

-- Joe Laster’s death received almost no news coverage. The Associated Press published a few basics, a total of 101 words. Two investigators from Wyoming’s workplace overseer, the Department of Employment’s Workers’ Safety and Compensation Division, completed an investigation months later. The agency found that Tyvo LLC had violated safety regulations, citing the company for failing to have a guard on the driveshaft that grabbed Laster’s glove, for inadequate training, and for having no first-aid supplies at the site. The agency slapped Tyvo with a fine: $3,375.

That doesn’t begin to satisfy Peggy Laster. She is tormented by thoughts that her son’s death has been swept into the brush. She wants a lot more investigation. She talks of the Flight for Life helicopter landing in the wrong place and then doubling back, which a map in a sheriff’s report indicates. Joe had years of experience on drill rigs, she says; he knew this one was a disaster waiting to happen. “It was a Mickey Mouse operation,” says Ken Laster. “He called us (a few days before the accident) and said he wasn’t happy working there.”


Across town, bosses still swing by the corrections center and pick up inmates and then head out to all sorts of jobs, some of them in the oil and gas fields.


There is a federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, assigned to look out for worker safety. It either handles each state’s workplaces directly, or hands off the duty to state agencies. But the federal and state safety cops don’t seem particularly tough. They can’t do many workplace inspections, because typically there are no more of them now than 20 years ago, straining to cover an explosion in the numbers of workplaces of all types that comes with the West’s population growth. And when workers die in the oil and gas fields, the safety cops levy fines that are so low, compared to the profits being reaped, that families often view the penalties as insulting and outrageous.

Other aspects of state laws also appear to be rigged against accident victims and their families, making it all but impossible for them to sue even in the face of apparently extraordinary management negligence. At times, the industry and the whole government system treat tenaciously loyal workers as if they were as disposable as a broken drill bit. The victims’ own character traits — from stoicism to lack of formal education to a tendency to use alcohol or drugs or both — often set them up to take the hit.


Kaylee explains why she agreed to go through Colton’s story with me: “I just hope it does some good for other families.” She advises those who consider sending a loved one into the oil and gas fields: “Keep ’em out of it.” She sums up some companies’ philosophy, with no audible commas: “A big fat wallet.”

[By the way, the comment section following the article is notable for apparently being infiltrated by oil industry robots.]

Carbon Emissions: The Merits of Cap-And-Trade Vs. Taxing It

Never mind where carbon dioxide comes from -- what do we do about it?

-- "The prognosis isn't exactly terminal - Europe's still working to iron out the wrinkles, and U.S. policymakers are trying to learn from their mistakes - but it's clear that most carbon-trading programs will inevitably allow for a certain amount of monkey business.


I think, agree that if we want to reduce carbon emissions, a simple carbon tax would be easier to administer - and harder to cheat - than a cap-and-trade system (although lord knows companies are perfectly capable of lobbying for tax loopholes, too). The catch, though, is that most politicians see a carbon tax as a total non-starter, especially after the BTU-tax debacle in 1993. And legislators like the opacity of cap-and-trade, because it shields them from voter anger over price increases. That's why all the major climate-change bills in the Senate right now involve carbon trading."

[The post ends with the prospect of "some bizarre alliance between greens, right-wing economists, and libertarians on the issue," which actually doesn't sound impossible if you look at it from all sides.]

American Voters: A Zombie for President Before an Atheist?

We're told Christianity is under attack in this country. Is that true?

-- "American voters’ level of support for a hypothetical atheist president has doubled since 1959 but actually declined between 1999 and 2007, from 49 to 45 percent.


I know very well that some atheists can get downright annoying in their insistence that they have have objectively demonstrated the nonexistence of God using simple algebra and a household magnifying glass. Fine. I grant these things. But I see no evidence whatsoever that 'persons of faith' are discouraged in any way from testifying to their faith in American political life, which is why complaints about Democrats’ indifference or hostility to religion strike me as so very disingenuous. These complaints can’t possibly be about hostility to religion in American politics, I think. And when they come from the left side of the spectrum, they can’t possibly be about trying to win over voters on the religious right. Nor do they seem to be centrally concerned about issues of war and peace -- or even the minimum wage. Nor do I see religious progressives arguing for greater discrimination against gays and lesbians. So I’m left to wonder: is this conversation-stopping conversation all about abortion, in the end?"

On The Paranormal Front... Reincarnation Doesn't Happen

Whatever other crazy things I may think, I haven't bought reincarnation for a long time. In fact, if you look at Buddhism -- which is supposed to be reincarnation central -- it seems like Siddhartha Buddha never really talked about reincarnation as it's understood in the past life regression sense but of rebirth in a metaphorical sense (I'm sure anyone who wanted to throw the book at me could do so, and I'd have some homework to do to catch up). He said, for one thing, that even a soul was an illusion and never taught that it literally transferred to another living thing after death. You can take or leave it as you like, but the point is that a convincing new study on past life memories shows that, like many alien abductee reports, they're based on brain chemistry and suggestibility.

-- People who believe they have lived past lives as, say, Indian princesses or battlefield commanders are more likely to make certain types of memory errors, according to a new study.

The propensity to make these mistakes could, in part, explain why people cling to implausible reincarnation claims in the first place.

Subjects were asked to read aloud a list of 40 non-famous names, and then, after a two-hour wait, told that they were going to see a list consisting of three types of names: non-famous names they had already seen (from the earlier list), famous names, and names of non-famous people that they had not previously seen. Their task was to identify which names were famous.

The researchers found that, compared to control subjects who dismissed the idea of reincarnation, past-life believers were almost twice as likely to misidentify names. In particular, their tendency was to wrongly identify as famous the non-famous names they had seen in the first task. This kind of error, called a source-monitoring error, indicates that a person has difficulty recognizing where a memory came from.

John McCain's Trip to Baghdad: He Had an Army Behind Him

I sort of missed the details of the whole "McCain to Baghdad" flap when it first happened, so if you did too, here's the deal.

So, what's going on in your neck of the woods? Keep up the cat-blogging.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ah, But Would YOU Have Stopped That Morning?

This is one of the more interesting stories I've ever read in a weekend newspaper magazine. The New York Times Magazine is all well and good, but you have to read this Washington Post thing about Joshua Bell playing in a subway station. Alienated by not knowing who Joshua Bell is? Good. That's the point.

The Gentleman on The Left Needs to Update His Invective

Miklas (also known as mikeswanson) has called me out again -- see here -- for a pair of alleged sins, neither of which I feel warrant the sort of House of Commons abuse he is fond of hurling like so many cow pies. To whit: I did not respond to his latest comment about Ralph Nader, about whom, in my experience, it is absolutely pointless to converse. The subject draws an instant and uncrossable line between the conversants. I am willing to stipulate that on the level of speaking extemporaneously about issues rather than doing anything concrete, Ralph Nader is my favorite candidate. But this will require Miklas to stipulate that Ralph Nader fudged his way through the last seven years pretending that getting Bush elected was either a) a good thing because it made people realize how horrible the country had become, a horrendous and tautological position; or b) no big deal because electing Gore would have been no better. I could flood this blog with references to make my point, but the whole idea is that I don't want to and the "debate" isn't worth having.

The other issue he brings up is that I should not be willing to travel by airplane to South America, or anywhere, given the link I posted about the ecological horrors of air travel. Leaving aside that my erstwhile Motorcycle Diaries would likely be written via train anyway, I take his point that airplanes contribute to global warming. (At work, one of the energy reporters told me jet fuel is the waste product that no other industrial sector will take, not even the power companies, and they'll pretty much run on soiled wood chips and broken furniture.) Does that mean I'm going to swear off air travel? No. Should the government mandate better fuel standards? Yes. How many airplane trips do I take in a year? Maybe two. Will everyone sitting at home for the rest of their lives stop global warming? No. Does traveling have benefits other than frivolous passing of time? I'd argue yes, but I can't really prove that objectively. It does make you smarter about other cultures, and teaches you things you can't learn any other way. Anyway, think about it like this: you contribute to a lot of social ills every day without even realizing it. The best you can do is buy organic, pick up other peoples' trash, ride your bike everywhere (buses contribute to air pollution; so does light rail that runs on electricity), never eat food or drink coffee or tea that isn't farmed locally (otherwise it was shipped in, tsk tsk), don't read books printed on paper pulp, never use any lights in your house, etc. etc. etc. It goes on and on and on trying to do the right thing and be consumer conscious. On balance, I'd say I already waste less and contribute more environmentally than most people in my age and income brackets. I own almost nothing -- certainly not a car -- and do in fact pick up other peoples' trash. Ask around. So if taking a trip once every five years to see the world still makes me the bad guy, I'm going to bite a bullet and do it. We can't stop global warming singlehandedly. We can feel better about our choices for one reason or another. Other than that, it comes down to politics and commerce. Now what is Miklas doing on those fronts?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Because all the cool kids do it -- Friday cat blogging

Sunday, April 01, 2007

What News Am I Reading? What Should You Know?

The news dump is the one abiding "feature" of the House of Lapp. It's time.

EU Tells Everyone to Stop Traveling So Much

"In the near future, people are going to become increasingly aware that aircraft emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases, far more than cars or trains," said Manfred Stock, a researcher at the climate research centre in Potsdam outside Berlin.

"If we add to that the fact that in coming decades our summers are going to get warmer and warmer, holiday-makers would do better to head for Sylt, in the North Sea, than to fly to the Seychelles," he added.

Germans are the world leaders in expenditure on foreign travel, with 2006 figures showing they accounted for 11 percent of global spending on trips abroad, but they do not seem opposed to the suggestion.


Stephen Bakan, a researcher at the Max Planck institute who attended a round table discussion on the subject, predicted that the weather changes wrought by global warming would dramatically change people's preferred holiday travel destinations.

"Travellers are in for a change of scene," he said.

"The Alps will see less and less snow in the winter, so people will go skiing in Scandinavia instead, and the Mediterranean will have to compete with beach resorts in the north."

Full text here.

High School Students Are Bored Bored Bored

According to a new study, many high school students in the United States are bored in class and have considered dropping out. The High School Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by Indiana University, surveyed 81,000 students from 110 public and private schools.

Seventy-five percent of participants attributed their boredom to a lack of interest in the material presented in class. The study also revealed that nearly a third of respondents had no interaction with their teacher. Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, the project's director suggested that student boredom stems from the teaching style used in the classroom and recommended interactive methods of teaching to engage students, like discussion and debate instead of lectures.

Full text here.

One Conservative Literally Asks For Middle Ages To Come Back

"As D'Souza continues his campaign in op-eds, speaking engagements, and television appearances, you can see the coherence of his case. There is a difference only in degree, after all, between Islamism's view of the role of women and that of James Dobson or Tim LaHaye. Very, very few women control any religious institutions on the religious right. Patriarchy rules there as it rules in Pakistan. There is only a difference in degree between Islamism's view of the relationship between mosque and state and Christianism's view of the relationship between church and state. If law cannot be neutral between competing moral ideals, and if it must reflect God's will regardless of the views of religious minorities, then you can see why D'Souza is so affronted by Turkey's secularism, and why he sees the Declaration of Independence as an essentially religious document. Any space for non-believers is, in the Islamist and Christianist view, an assault on belief itself. The notion that blasphemy, pornography, or homosexuality should be protected, let alone celebrated, is anathema to Islamists and Christianists alike. D'Souza's sole sin is to say so publicly in a way no one can misunderstand. He has blown the medievals' cover."

Full text here (you have to register, but it's free and very much worth it).

Caring For The Fate of the Montagnards (See: Vietnam War)

I had a longish debate back in the day with charvakan about the relative merits of what he called "caring about the Montagnards," which he thinks is sort of the geopolitical equivalent of selling ice to the eskimos (if I'm wrong, I'm willing to hear about it in comments). Anyway, in my travels through the labyrinthine Iraq War spending bill now being "considered" by the president, I recently found the Senate had snuck this in (the Karen are an ethnic minority fighting the Burmese junta):

"In the Senate emergency war supplemental: AUTOMATIC RELIEF FOR THE HMONG AND OTHER GROUPS THAT DO NOT POSE A THREAT TO THE UNITED STATES- Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3)(B)) is amended-- (1) in clause (vi) in the matter preceding section (I), by striking 'As' and inserting 'Except as provided in clause (vii), as'; and (2) by adding at the end the following new clause:

'(vii) Notwithstanding clause (vi), for purposes of this section the Hmong, the Montagnards, the Karen National Union/Karen Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), the Chin National Front/Chin National Army (CNF/CNA), the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD), the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP), the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the Mustangs, the Alzados, and the Karenni National Progressive Party shall not be considered to be a terrorist organization on the basis of any act or event occurring before the date of enactment of this section. Nothing in this subsection may be construed to alter or limit the authority of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise their discretionary authority pursuant to 212(d)(3)(B)(i) (8 U.S.C.1182(d)(3)(B)(i)).); and the Karenni National Progressive Party shall not be considered to be a terrorist organization on the basis of any act or event occurring before the date of enactment of this section. Nothing in this subsection may be construed to alter or limit the authority of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise their discretionary authority pursuant to 212(d)(3)(B)(i) (8 U.S.C.1182(d)(3)(B)(i)).'."

Learning about the law is like watching sausage get made -- you may like the result, but you don't actually want to watch the process.

The Question of When To Do It And Where To Go

I don't always believe in the importance of "coincidence," especially because everything interesting happens more or less at random anyway and isn't part of a plan that we can't see -- thinking the universe is trying to tell you something smacks of being crazy, as far as I'm concerned -- but still, looking back on certain decisions, you have to wonder whether your subconscious is thinking further ahead than the rest of you. Yes, I just finished another book. The right book at the right time. But first the back story.

To make what could be a longer riff much shorter, my friend Philippe has been talking for a long time about taking a long trip through South America with me. He speaks Spanish, having learned it while spending a year down there after high school (never mind why he was able to do this), and it's always sounded fun, especially since the only South America I've ever seen was the stable, clean, tourist-friendly Costa Rica, and the rest of the hemisphere seems like a good place to really start in on a new era of traveling. We've always considered this idea in the context of me getting paid to write about the trip as it happens, or at least after we get back, to get a return on whatever it costs.

The hitch is that Philippe wants to be let in on whatever profits may accrue. I don't really know how I feel about this, but since the trip won't happen without him -- I'm in no shape with my Spanish to do it myself, and if I tried I would immediately be frustrated with how limited the trip would be -- I'm inclined to just go for it and see what happens. This has been floating in the back of my mind for a while, but I never really knew what shape such a trip would take, or had a good sense of what we'd do or see. I like the idea of wandering and going where the wind takes you, but you also need to know you won't just fall off the end of the earth.

Then, like a tiny nugget of wisdom tucked in a large pile of rags, I found Sara Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country. More on this shortly.

This was about five months ago in Tucson, when I was buying used books as usual and for no good reason (I have hundreds I haven't gotten to yet). Picking through masses of printed detritus for sale puts me in one of two moods: either elated in some strange way, as the very thought of "books" and "writers" gives me butterflies -- a feeling I can't justify without sounding like a dork -- or clapped-out and depressed, as I think of how I need to start writing myself pretty soon or else end up a beachcomber who rambles to anyone who will listen about the Big One he never finished. My last six months, at least, have mostly been devoted to a sitcom I'm still talking about with a friend from college. The scripts are fun and relatively easy to write (although, bad sign, they don't always make Stephanie laugh very much) and are the proverbial siren singing me the lures of Hollywood fame as I let my other projects gather dust. I know I could always be doing more. This travel book project has stood out in my mind as a saving grace in the distance. I'm good at keeping travel journals but have never made a trip long enough to make into a book. Things are supposed to work out differently next time. South America is a good setting. (I won't say subject -- I don't have much to add about the politics. We'd be, I expect, passive observers, not commentators.) I like getting around and getting lost. It's perfect.

But how to do it? What would I actually write? I've read travel books before, including a few by unofficial reigning master Paul Theroux, an appreciation for whom I share with mikeswanson, but have never really felt connected to the process I felt went into the making of them. They always seemed so improbably well-turned and guided by the author's ability to do whatever he or she felt like. Was it raining? Some spectral local turned up with an umbrella and an invitation to tea. (Why do these things happen in travel books?) Did you need help with a visa? Somebody the author "knew back home" comes through with a phone call to the embassy; problem solved. I dislike the idea that traveling worth writing about only happens if you have connections. Che Guevara is my kind of travel writer.

Now Sara Wheeler is too. Remarkably, she has connections in spades -- journalists, businessmen, diplomats even -- and yet she doesn't really trade on them to grease her path through Chile, at least not in this book. She uses her credentials as a writer/reporter (never really explained to the reader, although you gather she deserves them somehow), and her status as an unexpected sort of traveler wherever she turns up, to try to get on boats that don't originally intend to take her places, but I have no problem with this. Other than that, she writes about traveling the way it really feels to travel: the people you meet, the places you see, the friends you make and the annoying hangers-on that gather around any boarding house, it's all here. And she makes her territory sound real, even when she's blown away by it (the chapter on traveling to the glaciers near Tierra del Fuego is intimidatingly good) and especially when there's nothing spectacular to say (the top of the country is hundreds of miles of sand, which somehow sound enticing in her version). This is how you tell someone about a trip. This is how you make art out of it. I'd like to do this.

For those of you who like your coincidences, there's this, too: the other day Stephanie and I went to see "The Namesake," based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (who I've never read). The flashback sequence has a whole section on a young man being told on a train by this older fellow to "Pack your pillow and blanket. See the world. [Dramatic pause with a grin.] You will not regret it." It's not much, but these things do seem to happen in bunches to me all at once.