Archive for 2008 June

Quote of the Year (religious)

"The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not. The atheist is a religious person. He believes in atheism as though it were a new religion [as Dostoyevsky said]….according to Renan, "The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men."

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

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What the World Needs Now: New Paper Towel Dispensers

From King Kaufman’s often-hilarious sports blog for Salon:

Every time I go into a public restroom, there’s a new device for
dispensing paper towels. Sometimes you have to pull the paper towels
out of a little round hole in the bottom of a cylinder. Sometimes
there’s a lever to push or pull or bang on. And then there are the
motion-detector dispensers, which you have to wave your wet hands in
front of before they deign to let you have a few inches’ worth of pulp.

What all these devices have in common is that they don’t work. A nation
of public restroom users is even now contorting itself in front of
motion detectors in the vain hope that a little bit of paper will zitz
out. It’s disturbing.

Where was the demand for this? Who were the people saying, "You know,
if I could have one thing it would be a new way of getting paper towels
when I use a public restroom. This metal box on the wall with the slot
in the bottom that feeds out paper towels, the one that’s been serving
humanity just fine for decades on end. It’s no good. I want a new way
of getting paper towels every few weeks. I want moving parts. I want
electronics, dammit!"?

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Rove Describes Barack — Or Does He?

Quote of the Day:

Karl Rove was impressed with Barack Obama when he first met him. But now he sees him as a “coolly arrogant” elitist.

This was Rove’s take on Obama to Republicans at the Capitol Hill Club Monday, according to Christianne Klein of ABC News:

“Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He’s the guy at the
country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette
that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone
who passes by.”

Actually, that sounds more like W.

(via Maureen Dowd)

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The End of Progress — in Poetry as in Life

A couple of years ago the poet Tony Hoagland published (here) an essay about the allusive nature of most modern American poetry, in which narrative — storytelling — had fallen by the wayside. Hoagland wasn’t happy about that, but he understood why it had happened. He quoted the great Carolyn Forche:

Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer
to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of
our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for
the promise of successful closure

The connection to climate change is inescapable. Our development as a society appears to be leading to our downfall; worse, we seem to want to take the entire planet with us when we go. As cynics often say, as a species we seem to be no smarter than yeast bacteria, which in a closed system inevitably end up consuming all the sugars in a solution, heading for self-annihilation.

It’s a great essay, and kept me on the look-out for Hoagland’s poetry. Here, courtesy of Slate, is a wonderful example of his recent work, which braids strands from different stories together, creating a rich but contradictory whole, and showing that storytelling can in fact still be part of the art. I won’t quote the whole poem, which is called Containment, but just an aside, a few lines which tell a little story that is touching and complete in itself. Or so it seems: a minute later, we wonder…

Later, at the reception, I saw my beautiful ex-wife,
wearing a simple black dress
that showed off her beautiful neck

standing next to a guy I would like to call
her future second ex-husband.
A long time since she and I had been extinct,

but still I found inside myself an urge
to go over and tell her one more time
it wasn’t my fault—

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The Psychology of “the Mindset” that Got Us into the War in Iraq

As brilliantly defined by Prof. Andrew Bacevich, of The American Conservative:

The Iraq War represents the ultimate
manifestation of the American expectation that the exercise of power
abroad offers a corrective to whatever ailments afflict us at home.
Rather than setting our own house in order, we insist on the world
accommodating itself to our requirements. The problem is not that we
are profligate or self-absorbed; it is that others are obstinate and
bigoted. Therefore, they must change so that our own habits will remain
beyond scrutiny.

all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of
self-awareness constitutes the greatest. As long as we refuse to see
ourselves as we really are, the status quo will persist, and
conservative values will continue to be marginalized. Here, too,
recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool’s errand—that cheap oil,
the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for
good—may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open
the door to self-reflection.

Here’s a photo taken by a combat photojournalist known as Zoriah, who helpfully allows blog posts of his work, and talks about the scenes he photographs. This is a blast wall constructed around Sadr City.

He writes:

The Sadr City Wall: a highly controversial project which has effectively walled two to four million Iraqis inside the planet’s most dangerous neighborhood.  The U.S. Military sees it as show of strength to the insurgents who call Sadr City home, as well as way to control who and enters and exits the city.  The locals see it as another hostile move by the occupying forces, a major inconvenience for working and moving from place to place, as well as a potential danger since peaceful residents may not be able to escape when more rounds of fierce fighting erupt.

Part of our "success" in Iraq, no doubt.


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The End of 9/11 Politics?

Fortune: Mr. McCain, what do you think is the single greatest economic threat to the United States?

McCain at first says nothing. He sits in the corner of a sofa, one
black, tasseled loafer propped against a coffee table. We’re in the
presidential suite on the 41st floor of the New York Hilton. McCain has
come here – between a major speech on the economy in Washington, D.C.,
this morning and a fundraiser tonight at the 21 Club – to talk to us
and to let us take his picture. He is wearing a dark suit, as he almost
always does, with a blue shirt and a wine-colored tie. He’s looking not
at us but into the void. His eyes are narrowed. Nine seconds of
silence, ten seconds, 11. Finally he says, "Well, I would think that
the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we’re in against
radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very
existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America
could have devastating consequences."

Not America’s dependence
on foreign oil? Not climate change? [ed. — nice to hear Fortune magazine asking this question!]  Not the crushing cost of health
care? Eventually McCain gets around to mentioning all three of those.
But he starts by deftly turning the economy into a national security
issue – and why not? On national security McCain wins. We saw how that
might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely
reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in
New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this
according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The
assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an "unfortunate event,"
says Black. "But his knowledge and ability to talk about it
reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief.
And it helped us." As would, Black concedes with startling candor after
we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "Certainly
it would be a big advantage to him," says Black.

Apparently not. Today the article was published. McCain repudiated Black’s claim. Black apologized.

"I deeply regret the comments — they were inappropriate," Black said outside a McCain fundraiser in Fresno, Calif. today.

This fits precisely with what a pollster was telling me last week. (More to come soon.) The public has rejected the politics of "the mindset that got us into war in Iraq," as Barack Obama memorably puts it.

If this pollster is right, McCain has been neutered. If he cannot attack Obama on his strength — national security issues — what does he have to say?

Update: Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight wonders if even a terrorist would always help the war candidate.

Coming soon to a used bookstore near you…


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Obama on Ethanol: Supports Corn, Taxes Sugar Cane

For an enviro-type, it’s difficult if not impossible to support Barack Obama when he claims we should be giving ample taxpayer support to growing corn for ethanol, but should not allow Brazil to sell its sugar cane ethanol in this country free of tariff….even though sugar cane ethanol is a far more efficient fuel.

That’s according to The New York Times (here):

Corn ethanol generates less than two units of energy for every unit of
energy used to produce it, while the energy ratio for sugar cane is
more than 8 to 1. With lower production costs and cheaper land prices
in the tropical countries where it is grown, sugar cane is a more
efficient source.

I hate to have to agree with the National Review on anything, but they rightly criticize Obama for backing subsidies to grow corn for ethanol in the Midwest. All the while Obama enthusiastically supports taxing the importation of ethanol from Brazil, which requires no subsidy, is a better fuel, environmentally speaking, and doesn’t crowd out land better used for food crops.  Stuttaford writes:

The Times
goes on to report that Obama "talk[s] regularly about developing
switchgrass, which flourishes in the Midwest and Great Plains, as a
source for ethanol." So he should. It’s promising, but not for years,
much like the drilling for oil off the U.S. coast that Obama opposes
partly because it will, uh, take too long.
Odd, that.

Argggg. My political innocence is getting pounded. Here’s Obama speaking at the Corn Palace in South Dakota, thanks to John Haroldson.


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Missing the Fog

It’s been just insanely hot here in SoCal: 108 yesterday in Ojai. It’s times like this that I miss the fogs of the Bay Area, which sooner or later would always come in…the woodcut artist Tom Killion, who grew up in my neck of the woods, knows how to portray the wonders of that oceanic substance as it pours in, here seen from West Point on Mt. Tamalpais.


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What, Us Worry? (Accelerating CO2 Emissions edition)

In as roundtable discussion at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Ken Caldeira argues for a consideration of the need to geoengineer, despite the risks of such an effort. He cites an especially alarming study, Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions,  by Michael Raupach, with a particularly vivid graph.

Caldeira writes:

While we might prefer near-universal cooperation in carbon dioxide
emissions reduction, it’s clearly time to plan what we will do if those
emissions reductions don’t come quick enough or are not deep enough to
prevent a climate crisis.

The graph fits all too well with another roundtable discussion — completely with consequences modeled in the UK — by climate writer Mark Lynas, in a piece for the Guardian called Climate Chaos is Inevitable.

Lynas writes:

This is the depressing bit: no politically plausible scenario we
could envisage will now keep the world below the danger threshold of
two degrees, the official target of both the EU and UK. This means that
all scenarios see the total disappearance of Arctic sea ice; spreading
deserts and water stress in the sub-tropics; extreme weather and
floods; and melting glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas. Hence the need
to focus far more on adaptation: these are impacts that humanity is
going to have to deal with whatever now happens at the policy level.

the other great lesson is that sticking with current policy is actually
a very risky option, rather than a safe bet. Betting on Kyoto could
mean triggering the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and
crossing thresholds that involve massive methane release from melting
Siberian permafrost. If current policy continues to fail – along the
lines of the "agree and ignore" scenario – then 50% to 80% of all
species on earth could be driven to extinction by the magnitude and
rapidity of warming, and much of the planet’s surface left
uninhabitable to humans. Billions, not millions, of people would be

As much as I dislike the remedies, I respect the need for a diagnosis. Next obvious step is to compare and contrast the costs of geoengineering with the costs of doing nothing. Perhaps that’s already been considered: will look at Nicholas Stern’s analysis.

For now, the point is inescapable…we have to start thinking about the unthinkable. If you take a look at this graph, it’s amply evident that our chances of reducing emissions to a relatively safe level of 450 ppm are rapidly approaching zero.



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McCain Bumper Stickers

The Kossacks go wild over a bumper sticker contest for McCain (here). Approaching 1,000 entries. Can’t blame ’em. The official McCain bumper sticker/slogan — Reform, Prosperity, and Peace — is not only an obvious advertising slogan without meaning, but instantly forgettable besides. 

Much more fun to imagine what it should be.

KOS opened the discussion with:

McCain: An American leader for American ready to lead Americans on Day One

A few others that stood out for me:

McCain: Got Fear?

McCain: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

McCain: Bob Dole Without the Youthful Charisma

McCain: Angry. White. And Sort of Christian

McCain: Been There Since Day One

McCain: Get Off Of My Lawn

(my entry)

McCain: Anger You Can Believe In

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