Friday, April 29, 2005

Energy analysis - we're hosed

Great and pessimistic post on energy alternatives, reposted by Mark Kleiman. I think it's overly down on wind power which has some real if limited promise. Technology investment in solar could solve a lot of our problems, although I expect it will always be expensive. As compared to the consequences of alternatives, however, solar's expense could be worth the price.

As an analysis of the Bush energy policy, it's pretty devastating.

Amazon replies to

(See my post directly below this one. Doesn't really change anything from my perspective.)

Thank you for taking the time to write to us.

Amazon's PAC does not support either party nor does it support
candidates for president. Instead, it contributes to congressional
and state candidates from both parties whose views are supportive on
policy issues important to customer experience on the web. For
example, we recently supported candidates from both major parties who
were instrumental in passing anti-spam legislation and extending the
moratorium on Internet access taxes. Amazon also belongs to groups,
such as the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, that
seek to protect free speech and consumer privacy. Amazon advocates
legislation to protect such rights.

We value your thoughts and are sorry to hear that you may not want to
shop with us. We hope to have the opportunity to serve you again in
the future but, if you choose to shop elsewhere, please know that
we've appreciated your patronage and respect your decision.

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UPDATE: as Kathy notes in the comments, there are other alternative, online booksellers,
Kepler's Books and Powells. I expect they both have good politics.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

An open email letter

Dear Barnes and Noble and Customer Service people,

I read on, a website that lists and categorizes corporate political donations, that 98% of Barnes and Noble-affiliated political donations went to Democrats last year, compared 58% for donations. Typically, entertainment-related businesses favor Democrats. My preference would be that no corporations give money to politicians, but if they are giving money, I want to see the general corporate bias towards Republicans balanced out as much as possible. My values and interests were more closely represented by Democrats than Republicans, so I intend to start purchasing from Barnes and Noble.

For what it's worth, I also have a small weblog called Backseat Driving. The website is

I occasionally review books on my blog, and have started switching my hot links of book titles to Barnes and Noble. I also plan to publish this email at my website to encourage readers to use and act on recommendations for purchases from your corporations and from others. Until we can get a fair system of campaign financing, individual efforts like my website and others will continue to push for Choosing the Blue.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

DU blues

After a heated conversation with a friend over my statement that anti-war groups were greatly exaggerating the effects of Depleted Uranium (DU) use by the US military in Iraq, I did some research. The information dump is below for whatever use you can have, but first, my conclusions:

1. It's not safe.
2. The war opponents have greatly exaggerated its danger.
3. It's probably a minor danger compared to say, lack of clean water due to infrastructure damage in Iraq.
4. DU used in weaponry needs to be cleaned up at least to some extent, and people need to be kept away from hot locations.
5. The US has done virtually nothing to clean up DU sites in Iraq, or even to warn people to keep their children away from blown-up tanks covered in DU dust.
6. Once again, our post-war Iraq management lies in the overlapping area between evil indifference and mind-numbing stupidity. I don't know or care which is the cause here.
7. The US should probably stop using DU in weapons, with the possible exception of anti-tank weapons. Use of DU in armoring US military vehicles is fine.

Info dump below:

From the World Health Organization:

"Exposure to uranium and depleted uranium

* Under most circumstances, use of DU will make a
negligible contribution to the overall natural
background levels of uranium in the environment.
Probably the greatest potential for DU exposure will
follow conflict where DU munitions are used.
* A recent United Nations Environment Programme
(UNEP) report giving field measurements taken around
selected impact sites in Kosovo (Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia) indicates that contamination by DU in the
environment was localized to a few tens of metres
around impact sites. Contamination by DU dusts of
local vegetation and water supplies was found to be
extremely low. Thus, the probability of significant
exposure to local populations was considered to be
very low.
* A UN expert team reported in November 2002 that
they found traces of DU in three locations among 14
sites investigated in Bosnia following NATO airstrikes
in 1995. A full report is expected to be published by
UNEP in March 2003."

good collection of links here:

with this linked quote:

"But DU health concerns are very often wrapped up in
politics. Saddam Hussein's regime blamed DU used in
1991 for causing a spike in the cancer rate and birth
defects in southern Iraq.

And the Pentagon often overstates its case - in terms
of DU effectiveness on the battlefield, or declaring
the absence of health problems, according to Dan
Fahey, an American veterans advocate who has monitored
the shrill arguments from both sides since the

"DU munitions are neither the benign wonder weapons
promoted by Pentagon propagandists nor the instruments
of genocide decried by hyperbolic anti-DU activists,"
Mr. Fahey writes in a March report, called "Science or
Science Fiction: Facts, Myth and Propaganda in the
Debate Over DU Weapons."



BBC News Online environment correspondent Alex Kirby
says scientists disagree about the ability of DU to
cause the horrific problems that have been reported.

The World Health Organisation recommends cleaning
areas with high concentrations of radioactive

"There is real controversy, and real uncertainty," he

There have also been various health warnings. A 1995
report from the US Army Environmental Policy
Institute, for example, said: "If DU enters the body,
it has the potential to generate significant medical

Alex Kirby says the Pentagon claim that criticisms of
DU come only from Iraq and "other countries that are
not friendly to the US" is demonstrably untrue.

"To sum up, I guess the Iraqis have got much worse
things than DU to worry about in the immediate future,
and any risk to environment and health over the longer
term remains unproven and perhaps circumstantial.

"But that does not mean the risk is proven not to


New Scientist:

During the Gulf war in 1991, the US and Britain fired
an estimated 350 tonnes of DU at Iraqi tanks, a figure
likely to be matched in the course of the current
conflict. In the years since then, doctors in southern
Iraq have reported a marked increase in cancers and
birth defects, and suspicion has grown that they were
caused by DU contamination from tank battles on
farmland west of Basra.

As the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence point out,
this claim has not been substantiated. Iraq did not
allow the World Health Organization to carry out an
independent assessment.
(includes more back and forth)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Lakoff responds to the Backseat Driver

Last night I went to hear George Lakoff, author of the book "Don't Think of an Elephant" that tries to reframe the left-right debate to help the progressive movement. (My review of the book is here.)

Lakoff's an excellent speaker, talking slowly and clearly but without the feeling of condescension I get from other speakers who "dumb down" whatever they're talking about. He took written questions from the crowd of 1,500, and one that he answered was mine, which went something like this:

Libertarians are found on both the left and the right, and as a libertarian sympathizer, I find myself rebelling against both of the parent models you've described. Is this evidence that the "nurturant parent/strict father" political model you've described is not all-encompassing?

Lakoff responded that the models are a metaphor, they don't map an adult parent- minor child relationship between society and individuals. He said that the nurturant parent cares about but does not control the adult child.

His response is fine if you're just trying to sell the progressive agenda to libertarians, but I'm not sure it really answers my question. If the progressive model works so well for libertarians, why are so many of them conservatives? I think the nurturant parent/strict father model works well as a metaphor for many but not all people. The libertarian/communitarian divide might also split people in a different direction that doesn't match left/right viewpoints. Environmentalism, to a lesser extent, also crosses traditional political divides.

I think Lakoff has some great points, which he can argue without trying to have the One Theory That Describes Everything.

UPDATE: Just wanted to add that Lakoff had a great reframing method for tort "reform": focusing on tort lawyers as the "police and prosecutors" of the civil justice system. That connotation will play favorably to moderate conservatives wondering if they should believe what BushCo people have to say.

keywords: Lakoff, politics, tort reform, libertarian

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Volokh Correction #6

Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy cites approvingly to the following quote:

Pre-Columbian peoples lived simply, to be sure, but let’s stop mistaking ignorance and poverty with harmony. It’s an utter myth –- we might say an urban myth -– that primitive peoples lived with nature harmoniously.

Nature devastated them. Nature battered them into early graves. Their ignorance of nature prevented them from achieving much material wealth. To dance to imaginary rain gods or to chant and pray for a child dying of bacterial infection is not to live harmoniously with nature; it is to live most inharmoniously. Nature is doing its thing -– failing to water the crops, growing bacteria within a child’s lungs -– while human beings who are as ignorant of nature as nature is of human beings, moan, chant, pray, dance, build totems, burn leaves and twigs, all in fruitless, inharmonious efforts to solve the problems. . . .

This is as ignorant as pretending that hunter-gatherers were a bunch of peaceful naked hippies. First, it's not clear that Volokh or the original author had a clear idea of what "primitive" peoples they're talking about - the pre-Columbian Incan and Aztec empires weren't primitive and weren't living simply. If we're just referring to hunter-gatherers, wherever and whenever they can be found, then their lifestyle beat agricultural and industrial lifestyles all the way through the early part of the 20th Century. Hunter-gatherers were healthier, better-nourished, and had longer adult life-spans than farmers and city-dwellers with their restricted food range and constant epidemics. Jared Diamond makes this very clear in Guns, Germs, and Steel. What hunter-gatherers did NOT have was numbers - farming could support ten times the population density, and ten malnourished farmers can outfight one healthy hunter-gatherer. Hunter-gatherers couldn't compete because of numbers, not because their lifestyle was inferior.

As for whether they understand nature, I will bet that a typical hunter-gatherer's understanding of how to hunt animals, where to find edible plants, and how to construct a shelter from natural materials far exceeds Eugene Volokh's understanding of natural sciences. Just a guess, but my money's going on the tribesman.

Saying "while human beings who are as ignorant of nature as nature is of human beings, moan, chant, pray, dance, build totems, burn leaves and twigs, all in fruitless, inharmonious efforts to solve the problems" includes a weird statement (nature is ignorant of human beings?). More relevant, it applies to our oh-so-modern society. Totems are every gigantic church and temple in American cities, sticks and leaves are what incense is made from, and the moaning etc. can be seen on cable television faith-healing channels any hour of the day.

This isn't intended to glorify hunter-gatherers, who could only maintain their low population density through inter-tribal violence and infanticide, but Volokh's post is not a different perspective - it's just wrong.

keywords: Volokh Correction, history

Friday, April 15, 2005

What's your blood type?

I'm a big fan of Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and other good science books. Just finished his latest book, The Ancestor's Tale, all 600-plus pages. Yet another good book if you're into that science/evolution kind of thing. A little heavier into the explanation of how science is done than I need, but some people will like those parts, and the rest of us can skip to what they learned as a result.

Some random thoughts:

*Do you have type A, B, or O blood? I have type A blood, determined by a certain gene in my DNA, a gene that has a shared common ancestor with everyone else with type A blood. If your gene gave you type B or type O blood, that gene is also related to me, but only in a far more distant common ancestor that diverged into the three types. Here's the fascinating thing Dawkins points out: chimps also have type A, B, and O blood. The divergence into different genes long preceded our species' divergence, six million years ago. As far as my type A gene is concerned, it's more closely related (maybe I'm more closely related) to a chimp with type A blood than a human with type B blood. Wrap your mind around that.

*Another relationship that's surprising: sharks, trout, and us - which two of the three are most closely related? George Bush and a rainbow trout have a more recent common ancestor than the rainbow trout has with Jaws.

*Dawkins describes an evolutionary arms race between species as a kind of treadmill where no one gets ahead: prey get faster, predators get faster. Predators develop venom, prey develop venom resistance. Dawkins says there is no way to call a truce in the race, according to the rules of natural selection. I'm not sure that's completely true though. At a certain point, the efficiency trade-off in the arms race is outweighed by putting effort in other directions that could actually reduce the arms race. Territorial predators spend energy and risk death by excluding and killing other predators, when the predators could be hunting prey and having more babies. The prey species, facing reduced pressure, survives by getting better at growing and reproducing, more so than by getting better at evading predators. Another example would be trees converting leaf-eating monkeys into fruit-eating monkeys, or parasites converting into symbiotes. I expect Dawkins wouldn't disagree with this, but just say it's obvious that no trend can go on forever.

One more thought about the arms race: to the extent it's true, you should expect populations of both species to decrease. It takes more energy to conduct a hunt at 40 miles an hour than at 20 miles an hour. Resources spent on the chase, on building heavier body armor or stronger fangs than one's ancestors have to come at a price - you either get worse at something else, or you have fewer babies. This seems like it should be a testable proposition over a broad range of species, at least in theory.

Anyway, an excellent book - check it out.

Keywords: evolution, Dawkins, apes

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The pro-evolution wedge, part 2

Following up on the previous post below, we have evidence that the wedge works for us - an internal battle among conservatives over a medium-prominent conservative blogsite, called Wizbang, partly because one of the site authors insists on creationism (backed up with a fair amount of dishonesty). Battleground shows up right here.

It's a problem for conservatives, not for us.

Via Pharyngula.

Keywords: evolution, wedge

Monday, April 11, 2005

Evolution is OUR wedge, thank you

Creationism and its thinly-disguised counterpart, Intelligent Design, uses a "wedge" argument that refers to creating a wedge of doubt in the scientific consensus that evolution is as proven a fact as any scientific theory can be proven. On the scientific level, they've gone nowhere - two of my linked blogs, Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer, talk about this in detail, along with many other great science websites. Some religious conservatives who hate science have clutched to the idea, however.

I have an alternative suggestion, that the evolution "wedge" belongs to those of us who want significant change in the progressive direction for American society, a wedge in the sense that George Lakoff might use the term. Here's the argument: America is more conservative than other western nations in large part because of religious conservatives who believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Very few people on the progressive side of the spectrum have trouble with teaching evolution as a proven theory, but the conservative side is strongly split on the issue. To the extent we emphasize the evolution in debates against creationists, conservatives become split and progressives unite. To the extent that evolution wins that debate, which is pretty obvious that it does, then people cannot remain Biblical literalists. The evolution wedge opens people up to other ways of thinking, say regarding homosexual rights, that they might otherwise have ignored.

I'm not saying that being religious is wrong or inherently conservative, just that Biblical literalism tends to support conservative ideas. Evolution can open things up.

So what to do with this? I think movement conservatives may care less about teaching Intelligent Design in schools and more about minimizing ANY discussion of evolution in schools, for the exact reasons I've mentioned. One response would be to advocate "teaching the controversy", to set evolution theory against the mush that is I.D. and show how fantastically much better evolution is in explaining the world. The problem is most evolution advocates oppose teaching the controversy, partly because there is no scientific reason to teach I.D., and partly because any mention of I.D. would get distorted by religious conservatives in politically-conservative school districts.

I disagree and think the benefits of greater exposure to evolution would outweigh the costs, but still I have an alternative suggestion: design school curricula that focus heavily on evolution in ways that answer the bogus challenges from creationists, without ever using the words "Intelligent Design" or creationism. The curriculum could answer questions like "are there transitional fossils between different species" with perfect examples of transitional fossils, or explain why evolution is NOT like a tornado passing through a junkyard and assembling an airplane, without talking about the religious motivations that lie behind these questions. This curriculum could be waved in front of the face of anyone who says their concerns about evolution are not being addressed. I know, they'll have bogus responses, but I believe it can help a great deal to move the debate in the right direction, and open up the wedge that we need.

keywords: evolution, wedge, Lakoff, homosexuality

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Volokh correction #5

Responding to Paul Krugman's argument that hard-science university professors are liberal-leaning partly because many conservatives are anti-science, Volokh contributor Zywicki writes, "my impression is that contra Krugman, most of those who are consistent evolutionary analysts tend to be libertarians and conservatives (often Hayek-influenced)."

"Evolutionary analyst" is a strange term, but I'd consider "most of those who are consistent evolutionary analysts" to be biologists, and 3 out of 4 identify themselves as left of center, so Zywicki's wrong. Then again, Zywicki may just be unclearly referring to certain economists, but that's not who Krugman was primarily referring to - the hard science academics. So he's still wrong.

keywords: Volokh correction, Krugman

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

"Deep Thoughts" posting

Male sea turtles spend several weeks of their lives as underground animals, several minutes as surface-living animals, and several decades as sea animals.

Yup, "Deep Thoughts" here in the Saturday-Night-Live sense. I was going to post something about creationism and political wedges, but I saw this CNN article about an injured male sea turtle beaching itself, and went deep.

Female sea turtles would add several dozen hours to the surface-living lifespan. That's not a deep thought, more of an aside. Just in case you're wondering.