Friday, May 29, 2009

Those of you who don't live with cats

may sympathize with Ms. Kitty and her tales of Max, but you're not getting the full impact. I know you've heard the phrase "herding cats", but you don't know what it's like 'til you've tried it

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Did you ever wonder...

why there are so many climate conferences held all over the world? They tell us to start restricting and eliminating unnecessary travel- buy local produce that doesn't have to be trucked in, take public transportation or bike in to work- or better still, work from home via computer. And for God's sake, stop all that wasteful business travel- telecommute, video conference, twitter your customers! And yet, all the climate change brass hats jet all over the world non-stop, holding conferences in distant lands- why?

Politiken.DK provides the answer- the whole story is contained in the headlines: Climate conference sex boom
Copenhagen’s sex trade did brisk business during the recent business climate conference.

This suggests a new tactic for political activists, less expense than campaign contributions, and potentially far more effective: I call it "Lysistrata by proxy". All you have to do is target the conferences, seminars, and summit meetings of your special interest, arrive the day before they do, and pay all the prostitutes to stay home and watch TV during the summit meeting. Be it a climate conference or a G-20 meeting, I'm guessing they'll get bored by the second day, pass the agenda in a voice vote, and rush home to their regular mistresses... after resolving to video conference next time instead!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The California Supreme Court was right to uphold Prop 8

Seriously- the plaintiffs had no case at all; it wasn't even close. 6-1; that's one vote short of having the decision phrased, "You're lucky we don't fine you for wasting our time."

Look, marriage equality has few proponents more dedicated than I; one of my earliest posts on this blog was Why pro-marriage equality IS a conservative position . But as I noted in my previous post , I also believe in the rule of law and the democratic principle. Elections have consequences; I believe in these things even when they don't go my way. Principles that you uphold only when they favor you are not principles at all.

The only moral and ethical way to deal with this setback is to learn an important lesson from it: the Prop 8 supporters simply worked harder; this is an object lesson in "Nothing worth having comes easy." Don't waste your efforts writing blog posts castigating the Ca. Supreme Court for a terrible decision. Don't poison the waters by trying to take revenge on the supporters; preaching hate in the support of love is an untenable position. Just get out there and work as hard as they did.

President Obama picks Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

And it's a poor choice, in my view. Although technically qualified, the following exchange alone would have put her off my short list:

Given the implied attitude above, it is scarcely surprising that Judge Cabranes, a fellow Clinton appointee, objected to the opinion she participated in of Ricci v. DeStefano that contained "no reference whatsoever to the constitutional issues at the core of this case." (from The Case Against Sotomayor ) Frankly, I think her primary qualification is that she would make history as the first Hispanic woman on the court.

That being said, she should be confirmed without any senate theatrics. Why? Because she is the President's choice. Elections have consequences- and the right to choose judges is one of them. The "Advise and Consent" function of the Senate was intended to prevent an ambitious President from stacking the courts with cronies that would make him emperor- it was not intended to let partisans effectively overturn the election. The rule of thumb should be that any objection that would not be grounds for impeaching a sitting judge should not be grounds for denying confirmation; any lesser standard would be a de facto attempt to change our form of government.

I know this position has made me unpopular with both sides over the years, most recently with UUs opposed to Justice Alito. But my position has been consistent through six administrations: the US can survive bad appointments better than it can survive the subversion of democracy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Move over, Babylon,

Make room for the Hanging Gardens of Victoria's Secret ! Learn how to grow strawberries in your bra and enjoy the real fruit of the loom!

Obama man

Comedian Greg Morton sings his new song, "Obama Man" on Indianapolis' own Bob and Tom Show

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Calling all UU bloggers

I've put off mentioning it until now, because some family things had put it in jeopardy, but they are now resolved, and so I can announce that we will be going to GA as delegates for our congregation. Who else is going? I'd like to meet all of you I've been reading for so long- can we plan a get together of some kind?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A video for teens

We couldn't show this on American TV, but this British video deserves to be shown at every high school

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sustainability: resources

In my previous post , I addressed the issue of how many people the Earth could support, just as animals. It's a lot of people, double our current population- but we don't want to live like animals. Can the earth support the lifestyle we would prefer? That's a question of resources. Again, I'll use America as a microcosm of the Earth. So what's the first resource environmental activists warn us we're running out of? Clean water is the biggie; all others pale next to that. The common numbers quoted is that the US consumes some 408 billion gallons a day. That's a big, scary number... surely that couldn't be sustained, could it? No, it couldn't- if it were true.

We don't consume 408 billion gallons, we merely use it. What do I mean? Look at your daily life... it takes a lot of water just to wash- yourself, your clothes, your dishes. But you didn't consume that water; you just borrowed it for a few minutes, then opened the drain and put it right back into the environment. (hopefully after being treated first) Water is endlessly recyclable. Yesterday's bath water is returned to the environment and comes back as tomorrow's bath water- that 408 billion gallons isn't a consumption rate, it's the flow rate of a cycle.

But surely we keep some of it, even if only temporarily, right? Sequestered away from the environment? Certainly. In your life, you've ingested thousands of gallons of water in food and drink- depending upon your age, perhaps a hundred thousand pounds of water... how much have you kept? Your body mass, of course. At an average of 150 lbs., that's some 18 gallons. That's all- the rest was returned to the environment, as water vapor in your breath and sweat, and flushed down the toilet. That, plus what you keep in your pipes and water heater (assuming you don't have a flow-through heater), is all you're keeping out of the environment.

And even that ratio is high compared to manufacturing, because the human body is actually composed of water plus some trace elements. All told, it took hundreds of thousand of pounds of water to manufacture your car- virtually all of which was used and returned to the environment, again hopefully after treatment. (We spend tens of millions of dollars enforcing compliance with the Clean Water Act- didn't it ever occur to the government that there's an easier way to ensure compliance? Simply require that their intake pipes be downstream of the output- they'd make damn sure the output was clean then, wouldn't they? But I digress.) But after all that water usage manufacturing that car, how much was kept? The ten pounds or so in the radiator. That's all. We don't dam up the flow of rain on the plains which mainly runs to rivers which runs to oceans who evaporate and rain on the plains... we just divert a small portion of it in a different direction along the way.

So how big is that flow? The Mississippi river discharges an average 12,740 metric tons of fresh water into the ocean per second. The St Lawrence only slightly less. And there are a lot of rivers. Plus underground rivers. Plus billions of tons as clouds and atmospheric water vapor. Many times what we're currently using. I've been speaking so far of just North America; how much water is available for world use? What is easily useable is groundwater and fresh surface water- lakes and rivers. According to Wikipedia , there is 13,000,000 km³ of groundwater and 250,000 km³ of freshwater; a cubic kilometer is one billion metric tons of water.

What's that you say? Despite all my claims, there are genuine shortages out west, aquifer levels dropping, cities and states suing each other over water rights- what do I have to say about that? It's all true- but it doesn't mean the needed water doesn't exist; it merely means that it's not where they need it. You know, the Romans faced that problem a couple millennia ago, and they came up with this bizarre, counterintuitive solution: move the water from where it is to where you want it. We've proven we can do it with the vast oil pipelines around the world. The only reason they don't do it out west is economics; at this moment, it's cheaper to just dig the wells deeper and sue your neighbor over the surface water within arm's reach.

So to make a long story short, (I know, too late!), how many people do I think can the Earth sustain, at our level of civilization? To start with, the land area of the earth is 148,940,000 square kilometers; let's say only a third of that is comfortably usable. As to how to live on that land, I look to Europe- they've been civilized a long time; I'll presume they're doing things in a more or less sustainable way. The have a nice energy mix; France, for example, gets 80% of their electricity from non-polluting nuclear plants. Belgium, despite being sustainable, (as I noted in The Myth of Overpopulation Part 2 , they're a net food exporter) has an excessive population density. France, being the flattest European country, is perhaps not representative of the diverse geography of the world. So let's look at Germany- they have mountains and forests with wild animals, ocean front beaches, and farms in-between. Germany has a population density of 230/km; multiplied by a third of the land area mentioned above, that's 11.4 billion people. That's without altering our lifestyle, other than actually enforcing anti-pollution laws and using existing green energy techniques. If we went vegetarian, or nearly so, did more public transportation, all the obvious things, we could double that and still have a comfortable lifestyle.

What's your estimate?


This is an offshoot of the discussion on overpopulationThe Myth of Overpopulation Part 2 The topic of sustainability was raised- this is a big concern of environmentalists. The problem is that experts with doctorates differ wildly about what population level is sustainable; some say as few as 2 billion, others upwards of 50 billion. How's a poor layman to know what is right when the experts disagree?

The first step is to realize that experts are people, too, and so can become attached to pet theories, fail to consider alternatives. Their specializations sometimes induce tunnel vision- this phenomenon is so well known that it spawned an aphorism: "an expert has mastered his discipline from B to Z and forgotten A". This is where common sense and a pocket calculator come in. If you remember your college algebra, I can show you a syllogism that proves 2 = 1; but you don't need a doctorate in math to know that's wrong, you only need your common sense. As Bob Dylan said, you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Ok, the first thing to remember is that this is a closed system; other than a couple tons of metal we left on the Moon, what happens on Earth, stays on Earth. The second thing to remember is that we do not exist apart from the environment; we are part of it. The third thing to remember is that life is persistent, it expands to fill the niches. If we, as animals, did not exist, that would not mean fewer total animals on Earth, it would mean other animals would be born to eat what we're not eating- so the actual question is, how much animal life is sustainable on Earth?

An equally hard question. Let's look just at North America, a good microcosm of the whole. A few centuries ago, it was in a natural state, in that the people living here were, speaking only environmentally, living as animals- their art, music, and complex culture was not polluting or depleting the environment. How much animal life was being naturally sustained then? Still too complex; let's take another microcosm, an animal we know something about: the North American Bison, or buffalo.

Experts say there were between 30 and 60 million buffalo; split the difference and call it 45 million. Buffalos run upwards of 2,200 lbs. each; round that down to an even ton. That gives us some 90 billion pounds of animals- what's that in human terms? The average human runs 150 lbs.; that gives us 600 million people! Yeah, yeah, that's overly simplistic, it's not a pound for pound ratio, yada yada. But it's not a meaningless number, either- it really was 90 billion pounds of hot, pulsing mammal flesh, and that was only a single species, ignoring deer and moose and elk and beaver and a couple hundred million squirrels and a couple billion birds and a few trillion insects, all sustained without digging a single well or plowing a single furrow!

Of course, directly replacing the buffalo would mean living like a buffalo- there's a visual for you, 600 million naked vegetarians! People won't live like that- I want my MTV! We have a civilization to maintain, and that takes a lot of resources- resources that we're running out of. Or are we?

Next: Resources.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The trickle-down effects of torture

In my post Why I don't buy the ticking bomb scenario , I spoke of how accepting torture in extraordinary circumstances becomes lesser abuses as standard operating procedure. Before I continue, watch this video . If that video doesn't play, try this , and search "Arizona pastor tazed, beaten" on Youtube.

It would be nice to think that this was a freak occurrence, but it's not- something of the kind happens on a near-daily basis somewhere in America. There are some police officers for whom "being a wiseass" is the ultimate crime, to be punished on the spot with a beating. Such abusive police officers are a big problem for police forces. Among some circles, they're called "dead men walking", because they know that sooner or later he's going to bully the wrong guy, and get 9mm justice- and nobody wants to be standing close to him when it happens. But weeding such characters out is never easy, not least because even the clean, decent cops (the large majority) understand the frustration that can cause it.

But the "never easy" becomes the "nearly impossible" if the social pressure is not there, and societies respond to leadership- the fish rots from the head. When Woodrow Wilson made speaking against WW I illegal, we had vigilante groups burning small newspapers who opposed it. In the 20's-50's, when the government was busy enforcing racial segregation, (another Wilson initiative), we had mass lynching. In the 60's and 70's when the most common three syllable word in politics was "lawnorder", beating up "filthy hippies" was a popular redneck pastime. And throughout all this, police behavior reflected social behavior as a whole; the best Chiefs of Police couldn't hold their men to a higher standard than the public demanded.

This is why it's so crucial for the Federal government, from the President on down, to be beyond reproach in such matters. People respond as quickly to good example as bad; nobody wants to feel like a monster- and close-knit societies like law enforcement feel peer pressure even stronger than most. To fall from grace hits those in uniform harder than a bullet- but only if there is grace to fall from. In a very, very real sense, to protect the inherent dignity of prisoners is to ensure your own- and vice-versa.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The charitable divide

There are two recent posts on charitable giving that touch on each other tangentially. Michael at "Postcards From Myself" has a post entitled The politics of Altruism that explores different types of giving, and The Naked Theologian has a post entitled How good are we without God? exploring who does the giving. TNT writes about a new book by Robert Brooks about the difference in giving between liberals and conservatives. “When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’ data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood."

Actually neither TNT nor Mr. Brooks should have been surprised; if you Google "red state blue state charitable giving" you'll find research showing these results going back ten years- much of the research done by the charitable organizations on the receiving end of the giving. But TNT doesn't explore why. Conservatives believe it's because liberals are hypocrites; liberals find it inexplicable, because they know they genuinely care more about others than conservatives. I believe that the explanation- both of the giving, and of the views liberals and conservatives hold about each other- lies in the different types of giving described in "The politics of Altruism" being viewed through different ideological lenses.

Liberals believe much more in what Michael calls "the second method" than conservatives do. This is philanthropy by proxy, spending your time and/or money on organizations and programs that will do the charitable work, rather than doing it personally. And of course the ultimate in programs is the government; liberals believe in government programs and push them heavily. Since conservatives generally oppose these programs, liberals believe they don't care.

Conservatives tend to believe in the first method- direct, personal giving and doing. Secular conservatives believe in this method because they don't trust the government to do a good job, and fear political strings on their charity. Religious conservatives give directly because all facets of spiritual work are their personal responsibility, not a collective one- souls are saved retail, not wholesale. So no matter how many government charities a politician may set up, if he doesn't give personally he's not really giving- he must be a hypocrite.

The truth is that both care, and neither are hypocrites. And there are lessons both can take away- conservatives need to learn that there are some government programs worthy of supporting, and Joe Biden might consider giving more than seven-tenths of one percent of his income in charity (to use the example from TNT). But the most important thing for both of them to learn is to look a little deeper into their opponent's arguments, learn why they do the things they do, and stop demonizing one another.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The myth of overpopulation part 2

This post is inspired by a post on Ms Kittys Saloon and Road Show . As all her posts are, it is well written and well reasoned; I believe, however, that she was starting from a false premise: the world is not overpopulated. I know it's easy to believe the people who say it is- we look around us, and see lots of people. But the fact is the world is mostly empty- social pressure makes us clump together, and so all we see is people. It's like a lone anthill in a big field; the ants will still feel crowded.

The world has an average population density of 44.7 people per square kilometer. That's about the same as the state of Kentucky- a beautiful, green state. What if we double that population density? You have the state of Illinois, home to the nation's second city, Chicago. But if you look at this population density map of Illinois, you can see virtually the whole state is farm and field with a few dense population centers; most of the state has a density of 10 people per square kilometer or less. Now let's look at the most extreme example- Belgium. Belgium has the densest population of any nation that's not a city-state: 344.32 people per square kilometer, some 8 times the world average. Is Belgium one vast city, depending upon others for sustenance?

No. Despite having a smaller area and population devoted to agriculture than any European nation, it's still a net food exporter. The 10 million people of Belgium produce 6.15 million metric tons of sugar beets, 2.7 million metric tons of potatoes, 1.63 million tons of wheat, 3.1 million head of cattle, 7.3 million pigs, 3.2 million tons of milk, 3.97 million eggs, 175,000 tons of butter, over 500 varieties of beer, and still has room for a modest timber industry!

As I reported in this post , the United Nations says the world has enough food right now to make every man, woman, and child on Earth morbidly obese- and if western farming methods were used in the third world, that could easily triple. The only thing preventing starving people from getting food is politics and war. Poverty does not cause war; war causes poverty.

So what causes war? I quote Eleanor from The Lion In Winter: "Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little - that's how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world."

Individuals must change before the world can change. That's why I would like our church to be more spiritual, to focus on individual development, not politics and activism and causes. As long as we carry war within us like syphilis, no political system or economic theory will make any difference- haven't the last couple centuries proven that? Until we do look within, it will always be 1183.


Friday, May 08, 2009

A better friend to gays

Do you know, or can you guess, which nationally ranked politician- a man with presidential dreams- way back in 1978 had the guts to publicly oppose a ballot initiative to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools? He wrote a newspaper editorial saying, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” Remember, this was 1978.

Think you know? Ok, I've got another one: Which US president stood by silently while one of our dependent allies permitted death squads to freely roam the streets, torturing gays to death? Got a name in mind?

Ok... now read Why Reagan Was a Better Friend to Gays Than Obama

Finally, imagery I can understand

Every article about the bailout and the budget contains some simile to demonstrate the size of our debt. If all the similes were laid end to end, they would reach the Moon and back seven times. But none of them have worked for me; there's no emotional or visceral context.

After all, I've never been to the Moon; there's no way for me to grasp what it means that a stack of $100 bills can reach it. I've been half way around the world, but I did it in an airplane in a few hours- fewer hours, in fact, than the layover in Chicago, so again there's no emotional connection. The numbers, with all their zeros, also have no emotional connection to someone who chooses a product on the basis of saving 17 cents... my eyes glaze over looking at them.

Well finally, Sen. Judd Gregg, speaking to MSNBC, using numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, explained it in a way that sinks in to me: the United States debt load- both annual deficit and total debt- are now so high that we wouldn't meet the standards of the European Union if we asked to join. As economic managers, the United States government is less competent than Bulgaria.

What Sen. Gregg didn't say, but is the obvious conclusion, is that despite all rhetoric, someday soon the tax rates must rise to match the debt payments, or we must default like a Third-World nation... which means that in the next few years we will have higher taxes than any nation in Europe.

That, I understand.

Hat tip to The Hill

Improbable beauty

I've recommended the blog Waking Up In Dream City before, and his post titled "Improbable beauty" makes me do it again. You see, amongst many, many other things, Gatheringwater is a fine amateur photographer who manages to capture haunting moments. I have stood in the exact spot where he shot the photograph in that post- and didn't capture the moment as he did.

The post before, A Cloud Hanging Over Me, Literally , is archival- he ought to submit it to some contest somewhere. All of his work is really, really good. Check it out.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

What do you do with a teacher who can't teach?

If you're the Los Angeles Unified School District. you pay him not to teach! From the Los Angeles Times : "For seven years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has paid Matthew Kim a teaching salary of up to $68,000 per year, plus benefits.His job is to do nothing.
Every school day, Kim's shift begins at 7:50 a.m., with 30 minutes for lunch, and ends when the bell at his old campus rings at 3:20 p.m. He is to take off all breaks, school vacations and holidays, per a district agreement with the teacher's union. At no time is he to be given any work by the district or show up at school. He has never missed a paycheck."

He is under review after complaints to judge his fitness to teach. Seven years of review, and still counting. Surely an anomaly, right? "About 160 teachers and other staff sit idly in buildings scattered around the sprawling district, waiting for allegations of misconduct to be resolved.The housed are accused, among other things, of sexual contact with students, harassment, theft or drug possession. Nearly all are being paid. All told, they collect about $10 million in salaries per year -- even as the district is contemplating widespread layoffs of teachers because of a financial shortfall."

But of course, that's just California, La La Land. Nobody else would sign a union contract making it so hard to do anything about bad teachers... or would they? "In New York City public schools, which make up the country's largest district, teachers are confined to "rubber rooms." About 550 of the district's 80,000 teachers spend school hours "literally just doing crossword puzzles, waiting for the end of the day" until their cases are resolved, spokeswoman Ann Forte said. Some have been there for years."

One might think that if you're contractually forbidden to given them non-teaching related work, maybe you could assign them to just grading tests and homework without having contact with the children. Not in Plano, Texas... "Plano school officials are exploring a policy for middle schoolers that would not dock grades for cheating or late assignments. And teachers wouldn't grade some homework at all.", says The Dallas Morning News .

The teachers themselves know what the solution to all this is: "In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the teachers put their children in private schools; in Cincinnati, 41 percent; Chicago, 39 percent; Rochester, N.Y., 38 percent. The same trends showed up in the San Francisco-Oakland area, where 34 percent of public school teachers chose private schools for their children; 33 percent in New York City and New Jersey suburbs; and 29 percent in Milwaukee and New Orleans.", according to The Washington Times . Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could afford to do that? There's not a state in the union that doesn't spend enough per student to give them a top-flight private education, if the dollars followed the students. But that's not how it's done- we spend the money on school systems, not school children. Of course, our system guarantees a two tier educational system- one for the ruling class, and one for the ruled. But hey, Matthew Kim's not complaining.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The day we learned...

A poem by J Huger

The day we learned that
The Sun doesn't go around the Earth,
The sunset was still beautiful.

The day we learned that
Evil spirits don't make us ill,
The sick still suffered.

The day we learned that
Our hearts are not where we feel,
We were still in love.

Our world is not a conjurer's trick.
Knowing how it's done
Doesn't make the magic go away.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Thank goodness for an objective press corps

UPDATE: CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller posted an explanation on the Hotsheet : It was no disrespect to President Bush because the briefing room is informal; they were just so excited when President Obama entered that they forgot.