Archive for 2006 October

The Kind of Problem Only Radiation Cures

Once upon a time, back in the early 80’s, for the usual inexplicable cultural reasons, a variation of reggae music known as ska became hugely popular, especially in England and L.A., led by such groups as the Specials and (my favorite) the English Beat.

The Beat had a unique ability to blend the personal and the political, and in one of their best songs, called Get-a-Job, they dared to question the need for all of us to work at jobs creating "rubbish," pointing out that the process has bad bad side effects. Specifically:

[you] manufacture rubbish

although no one can afford it

you could make a profit

more than anyone deserves

so you find you’re left with poison

so you dump it in our water

and so create the kind of problems

only radiation cures

That last couplet has stuck with me forever, and aptly gets to the point of this editorial from a couple of weeks ago by Michael Pollan, surely the best writer on "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex" in our time. In brief, Pollan warns that the spinach/e. coli 0157 outbreak last month will lead to calls for mass radiation of our vegetables:

[A]ny day now, calls to irradiate the entire food supply will be on a great many official lips. That’s exactly what happened a few years ago when we learned that E. coli from cattle feces was winding up in American hamburgers. Rather than clean up the kill floor and the feedlot diet, some meat processors simply started nuking the meat — sterilizing the manure, in other words, rather than removing it from our food.

That’s just the opening to this terrific piece. Your humble blogger recommends you check it out.

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Sunday Morning on the Planet: St. Francis

Back in l985, the Pope said that St. Francis should be the patron saint of ecologists. This brings to mind the famous story about St. Francis preaching to the birds. According to Wikipedia, that story is probably folklore, but it is a story with roots in fact (St. Francis had no interest in money, and loved hiking in the hills and mountains of Umbria).

Just a week and a half ago I was hiking in the hills of Big Sur with a friend and came across a lovely little St. Francis in an altar by the trail. So the legend, in its Catholic way, has become a fact. And, as they said in a famous Western, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Here’s a tribute to that sentiment encountered a week ago in the Morris Arboretum on the outskirts of Philadelphia, one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever had the good fortune to see. St. Francis is with us still…


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The Panic of A Denialist

In recent years right-wingers in this country, including the President, have scoffed at the idea of global warming, and ignored those who expressed concern and called for action. Now, even among Republicans and conservatives, the need to act to reduce the risks of climate change is looking increasingly like the new conventional wisdom.

The obvious example is in California, where a September 1st story in the Wall St. Journal [$] rightly predicted that a high-stakes deal between a Republican executive and a Democratic legislature "to cut emissions tied to global warming is likely to boost a resurgence in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity." The "halo effect" from this deal has remade Schwarzenegger’s image among independents and Democrats, which–baring an act of God–will easily carry him to victory on November 7.

But the California electorate for decades has supported environmental regulations for the sake of clean air, clean water, coastal protection, and parks and wild lands.

How is global warming viewed in the right-wing media?

Big changes are coming, it appears, and the news does not loook good for denialists such as Steven Milloy, seen here on FOX News. For more on this exciting (I think) story, please see Grist.


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Amazing but True: Pombo in Trouble

Richard Pombo, the anti-enviro zealot who first came to Congress in the anti-Clinton "wave" election of l994, now faces losing power in the anti-Bush wave election of 2006.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy–or a bigger liar.

For the full story, check out this superb piece from the LATimes earlier this year by Bettina Boxall, which may have been the first to fully document Pombo’s claim that Jack Abramoff "never lobbied me on anything." Pombo has continued with this lie (You Tube) even though the record shows otherwise, as that far-left rag Forbes magazine reported expertly.   

One interesting note: according to this financial statement, Pombo is only the 191st wealthiest person in the Congress, with assets in the range of $450,000 to 950,000. Yet according to OpenSecrets, a watchdog group that compiles Federal Election Commission data, the Pombo campaign has taken in nearly $3.5 million in just the last year alone.

Could a man considered one of the most corrupt members of Congress really have failed to line his pockets at all?

Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Pombo’s financial disclosure statement to the House is on-line. It’s remarkably bland, and claims he took no gifts, no honoraria, and had no outside income.

Here’s doubting. For more on why enviros are daring to hope that Pombo might actually lose, check out this thorough report from Amanda Griscom Little in Grist.

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Worst Congress Ever?

Tough to blog well when your computer is in the shop, but I have to bring to your attention to a truly extraordinary story in Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi on the Congress.

He calls it the worst ever, and just about proves it with his vivid depictions of corrupt, inept, lazy, stupid and all-around scummy Congressmen.

True, it’s possible Congress was worse back in the days of Joe McCarthy. But Taibbi points out that numerous Senators and Congressman in the sixties, seventies, and eighties effectively and independent represented their unique constituents; only in recent years has the body utterly collapsed into corruption, ineptitude, laziness, and self-embarrassment.

But what makes the story special is not the horrors in D.C., which have been reported before, but the Hunter S. Thompson-esque bluntness and zeal; in a word, bad boy Taibbi goes for it.

Here’s his description of Wade Cunningham, a former chairman of a House Intelligence Subcommitte, a man now serving at least ten years in prison for taking millions of dollars in bribes: "…a man who can barely write his name in the ground with a stick…"

Believe it or don’t. If you don’t believe a man can be that stupid, read this letter from Cunningham to the reporter who helped bust him from prison:

"As truth will come out and you will find out how liablest [sic] you have & will be. Not once did you list the positives. Education Man of the Year…hospital funding, jobs, Hiway [sic] funding, border security, Megans law my bill, Tuna Dolfin [sic] my bill…and every time you wanted an expert on the wars who did you call. No Marcus you write About how I died."

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President Struggles to Rebrand Himself as an Enviro

The political pundits haven’t noticed, probably because they habitually put the health of the planet at the bottom of their list of concerns, but  this week on national television David Letterman pointed out that the Current Occupant of the White House is trying to present himself as an Environmental President.

It’s a struggle, as you can see.

Please see the rest of this post in Grist.

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A Master of War (poetry)

This week I happened to stumble across a couple of dazzling looks at Bob Dylan, perhaps our favorite warrior of thought. Thought I put them up for your bemusement. With luck, sometime soon I’ll have a chance to review his latest, Modern Times, but for now, let me call on a poet John Hodgen:

When Dylan Left Hibbing Minnesota, August l959

Not even Dylan then, more like David the Blue-Eyed Shepherd Boy Giant Killer instead,

the way he must have looked in those Golden Book Illustrated Bible Stories we never read,

the ones with the pictures of the prophets, each with a gold record stuck to his head,

or like the Classic Comics Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov rocking and rolling on his bed,
heading on down the highway out of St. Petersburg, the landlord’s axe still in the shed,

throwing stones at all the stop signs a-bleeding in his head.

Wasn’t he a singing terrorist then, slaying us in the aisles, knocking us dead,

like some wild-eyed kid from Fallujah now, his machine gun guitar slipped over his head,

his ass in a sling, his mind full of dynamite, his righteous streets turning red,

his only song his heaven’s door, toward which he runs, arms outspread.

Oh, Zimmerman, we never heard a single word you ever said,

from Ararats to ziggurats, from alpha down to zed,

our heads cut off, our tongues cut out, no words left to be said,

all the things we’ve ever loved, dead, dead, dead, dead.

And from the National Lampoon, back when it was funny…


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Like a Hurricane — 2006

The political pundits of this fall have not forgotten last year’s biggest news event, it appears, as they’re comparing the upcoming mid-term elections to a political Katrina:

In the National Journal, Chuck Todd used athe metaphor to describe the Republican party:

The GOP’s hurricane shutters are state of the art, but sometimes even "state of the art" isn’t enough to stop a storm from creating all sorts of havoc.

A bipartisan poll conducted by Bill McInturff and Peter Hart found equally distressing news for Republicans, and phrased it the same way. Hart compared the upcoming elections to a Category 4 or 5 storm. He  said:

"Simply put, the low lying areas are [going to be] under water."

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Why We Form Our Musical and Political Preferences At the Same Time

It’s biological.

According to Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist, MacArthur genius, and all-around wit at Stanford, from the years of eighteen to twenty-four, individuals in our species are curious, eager to try new things (such as music)…but by the time we are forty, more than ninety percent of us know what we like and are uninterested in anything new, be it music, food, or body piercing.

A wonderful story on NPR explains why Sapolsky became interested in this question, and how he researched it.

Here’s the nickel version: a few years ago, Sapolsky noticed that his office assistant, a student named Paul, was driving him a little crazy. Not because of his work, which was excellent, but because of the absurdly wide range of music he listened to at his desk.

On Monday, it would be Sonic Youth. On Tuesday, Bavarian polkas. On Wednesday, pgymy love songs. On Thursday, Puccini operas. And so on. Sapolsky liked music too–Bob Marley, basically. But even though he once listened to more than Bob Marley, now hearing every possible kind of music was driving him nuts. He set out to find out if his experience was unusual.

Sapolsky called up fifty radio stations, talked to the station manager, and asked the same two questions: What is the average age of the listener, and the average date of the song release that they liked?

It turned out that the linkage between age and taste is so well-known in the radio business that they have a phrase for it: "Breakthrough minus twenty."

Take the decade in which the artist broke through (say, Billy Joel in the l970’s) and subtract twenty years, and the listeners who like Joel will almost certainly have been born twenty years before.

Or, as Homer Simpson put it: "Music achieved perfection in l974."

Sapolsky had Paul call sushi restaurants in the Midwest and found something very similar. A vanishingly small number of people will try sushi after the age of thirty-nine if they haven’t tried it before, and they’re far more likely to like it if they tried it during those experimental years of 18-24.

He asked about body piercing too: Same thing. One tattoo artist told him: "If you don’t have tongue studs by twenty-two, there’s a ninety-five percent chance you won’t."


"There’s something much more deeply biological than just psychological about this," Sapolsky said, alluding to lab studies that showed a similar bias towards experimentation in other species. "I think once you get older, solid footing becomes real comforting," said Sapolsky.

Two business professors, Robert Schindler and Morris Holbrook, found a similarly deep-seated explanation for nostalgia. As Steven Zeitchik said of their work last year in the Wall St. Journal, "we all have a particular period when we think that the culture was at its most enjoyable–and it’s almost never the present."

This has important implications, because there is good evidence that our political preferences are formed as firmly as our musical tastes–and at about the same time. Here’s a graph from the NYTimes (based on a huge study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) that makes a complex point about as clearly as possible.

To put it in a nutshell: If you’re a Republican, chances are you came of age during the Reagan or Bush I admnistrations, when Republicans were riding high. If you’re a Democrat, chances are you came of age during the Nixon or Ford administrations, when Republicans were in the toilet.

The potential good news? Young people–age twenty to twenty-four–are more likely to be Democratic and less likely to be Republican than ever before. The Currant Occupant of the White House is souring an entire generation of Americans on Republicanism.


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Sunday Morning on the Planet: Kirk Creek

Just another evening at Kirk Creek in Big Sur. Sunset magazine calls this site, on a bluff off Highway 1, the prettiest campsite in California. For car camping, I’d have to agree. The irony is that the five of the best sites are reserved for hikers and bikers, but if these sort of brave souls haven’t arrived by sundown, the camp host opens the area to car campers willing to hoof it for a few feet. In which case they can find themselves in a spectacularly beautiful campsite with, it seems, no one around. And sunsets like this one…


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