Thursday, August 31, 2006

Peak Soil

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a peak-oil believer, but not a hard-core one. I’m no peak oil fundamentalist screaming about a return to the dark ages and a massive worldwide famine; I’m more of a peak oil Episcopalian who believes that declining oil supplies and corresponding high prices will eventually do serious damage to our economy. Declining oil fields, increased demand from India and China, and high American dependence on automobiles — I don’t see these three adding up to equal a pleasant future. But an economic downturn and decline in living standards is not the end of the world the fundies fear.

Another thing about peak oil fundamentalists is that they usually fear at least three catastrophes in addition to peak oil. After we freeze and starve to death in our dark unheated homes some winter we’ll still manage to suffer in the ensuing nuclear war, or maybe just become prisoners in one of Halliburton’s secret American concentration camps.

So when I found this article titled Will the End of Oil be the End of Food? which discusses how much the price of petroleum-fertilizers has risen, as well as the cost of gasoline to power tractors and combines and other farm equipment, and eventually food will get so expensive you won’t be able to afford any, I wasn’t surprised to discover another threat to our food supply in the comments section:
the great plains of the American mid-west --- you know, that "bread basket of the world" that produces more grain than any other region of its size? --- here's a little factoid about that "dirt": WHEN THE FIRST SETTLERS CAME INTO THAT REGION, THE TOP SOIL WAS 10 TO 12 FEET DEEP. AFTER 100 YEARS, THE SOIL IS NOW LESS THAN 3 FEET DEEP, AND (despite great effort on the part of modern farmers) STILL SHRINKING.
Uh-oh. That rate of shrinkage leaves us with only 30 years or so before the Midwest becomes a bedrock plain. And the rest of our farmland is permanently destroyed, another commenter points out:
In many areas of the country, our arable soil has been paved over and replaced with shopping malls, housing developments and golf courses. . . .Crops can only grow on fertile soil. Once soil is paved with asphalt, it is forever ruined as viable cropland.

Because no matter how much effort you put into it, you can’t rip up the asphalt and nourish the soil underneath back to viability, I guess.

Yes, I share a belief with a bunch of crackpots. As a libertarian, I ought to be used to that by now.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Banned In The U.K.

It’s illegal in Britain for the media to report anything prejudicial about a defendant facing a criminal trial, so when the New York Times ran an article titled “Details Emerge in British Terror Case” it agreed not to sell any print copies of the story in the U.K. But this isn't censorship or anything:

I think we have to take every case on its own facts,” said George Freeman, vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company. “But we’re dealing with a country that, while it doesn’t have a First Amendment, it does have a free press, and it’s our position it that we ought to respect that country’s laws.”
Get it? They don’t have a first amendment but they do have a free press, and to respect that the Times is censoring this news.

Sounds like Brits who want print copies of the story are out of luck. But what about the Internet? The Times thought of that, and blocked British addresses from its site. Any Brits who click on the above link will get the following message: “On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

I learned all of this from a Times article about its own self-censorship, Times Withholds Web Article In Britain. Well, not really. Actually I read the story where it had been cut and pasted onto this guy’s blog, which is accessible from Britain. And if you scroll down below the censorship story you’ll find a perfectly mirrored copy of Details Emerge in British Terror Case, photograph and all. The centuries-old (I’m guessing) British censorship law has officially lost its teeth.

So do you think Britain will rescind the don’t-write-about-trials law, now that the Internet makes it useless in regards to its intended purpose? Or will it maintain the hypocritical stance that so long as print versions aren’t available, that’s reason enough for the law to remain?

P.S. Three cheers for metafilter, where I found this story.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Civil Libertarian = Confused Fascist

If anybody finds the title offensive it’s not my fault, since I’m only paraphrasing what Donald Rumsfeld said at the American Legion’s national convention. Not that he actually uttered the “L” word, mind you; instead, he discussed the administration’s critics:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday accused critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq and counterterrorism policies of trying to appease “a new type of fascism.”

In unusually explicit terms, Rumsfeld portrayed the administration’s critics as suffering from “moral or intellectual confusion” about what threatens the nation’s security and accused them of lacking the courage to fight back.

When politicians use the word “appease” these days it usually foreshadows a Hitler analogy, and Rumsfeld sticks to that rule:
Rumsfeld recited what he called the lessons of history, including the failed efforts to appease the Adolf Hitler regime in the 1930s. . . . Rumsfeld recalled a string of recent terrorist attacks, from 9/11 to bombings in Bali, London and Madrid, and said it should be obvious to anyone that terrorists must be confronted, not appeased.

“But some seem not to have learned history’s lessons,” he said, adding that part of the problem is that the American news media have tended to emphasize the negative rather than the positive.

He said, for example, that more media attention was given to U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib than to the fact that Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith received the Medal of Honor.

“Can we truly afford to believe somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?” he asked.

You know, I work for the American news media myself (albeit a small, low-paying, mostly unknown piece of it), and I’m imagining myself torn between two possible stories, only one of which I have room to report today. First option: local police have been caught abusing prisoners. Second choice: another policeman with no connection to the others is getting an outstanding-service award.

Definitely the abuse story. Even if I had room for both I’d probably save the award for tomorrow, because if you run a hooray-for-the-cops story right next to a cops-are-abusive story it looks too much like deadpan commentary. Perhaps my editorial decision is appeasement. Not in the same league as helping us lose the war, but the only reason I haven’t done that is I’m pretty much confined to stories that take place within the tri-town area, which does not contain Iraq.

Anyway, Condi and the President are supposed to speak at the convention later this week. I doubt their speeches can top Rumsfeld’s, but I can always hope.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Buzz, Buzz, Buzzing Their Lives Away

Which part of the brain responds to scary news articles about epidemics of teenagers with drug addictions that imperil their futures and might even destroy America? I don’t know, but if I had a magnetic-resonance machine I could give my head a scan and just look for the giant callus within. There’s at least fifteen drug epidemics threatening our nation’s youth, what with meth and pot and ecstasy and all the others, but when the words enter my eyeballs and move to the teen-scare portions of my brain they just bounce off the callus and I think “the kids are alright” and move on to something else.

A callus is a defense mechanism that protects delicate tissue from irritation. Mine worked well for me until today, when I found a new teen-destroying drug-epidemic article written by someone named Katherine Mieszkowski, who wields such a claw-hammer of stupidity that it ripped my callus right off. Christ, what an awful metaphor, and I’m sorry to inflict it upon you but losing a brain-callus is almost as bad as a concussion, stunnednesswise, and the injury this article did to me damaged all sense of taste and discretion. So while I mend those parts of my psyche check out this bit from Salon (there’s a three-second ad first, if you click on the link):
The Frappuccino generation
Starbucks says it doesn't market to kids. But its sugary coffee confections represent the new cool for teens. While nutritionists are gasping, the caffeinated kids are buzzing.

It's just before 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Oakland, Calif., and the Starbucks on Lakeshore Avenue is packed. It has all the usual trappings of bland urbanity and sophistication: brick walls behind a line of baristas, oversize comfy chairs for lounging, and humming laptops scattered amid paper cups. About a quarter of the customers are under age 18. A tween boy out with his mom happily quaffs a milkshake-like Frappuccino, topped with a plastic lid shaped like a dome to accommodate the puffy mound of whipped cream drenched in caramel on top. Out front, teens sit at metal tables drinking their iced mochas, as they chat and check out passersby.

Kara Murray, 16, and Giana Cirolia, 16, breeze in from their summer internships. As part of a teen "leadership" program, Kara is working at the Oakland City Hall this summer, while Giana is deployed 9-to-5 at a local food bank. For these girls, who are both going into their junior year at Berkeley High School, summer is not about just hanging out. Tonight, they're taking an hour out from their busy schedules to explain to me how gourmet coffee has become the drink of choice at their high school, supplanting not soda so much as lunch altogether. "Think $4," says Giana. "That's what you pay for lunch. Not for coffee and lunch. Coffee is lunch. It's like the new mashed potatoes. Coffee is comfort food, especially when it rains."

Back in my English-teacher days, I could have told my students that these first two paragraphs contain many examples of the test-question literary technique called foreshadowing. For example, the milkshake-like drink with whipped cream and caramel foreshadows this part:
Nutritionists are not jazzed, of course, especially with childhood obesity on the rise. Those sugary, creamy coffee drinks are packed with enough calories to make a can of Dr. Pepper seem like Slim-Fast.

The bland urbanity and sophistication sneers at kids trying to act all grown-up, abnormal behavior which must be viewed with alarm:
"Almost all my older friends drink coffee," says Kara, explaining that she got into a chai tea latte habit last year, as a sophomore. Going out to Starbucks, "I feel very grown up," she says. "I hate to say that, but I feel super grown up." It's like the thrill of a trip to a fancy restaurant with your friends sans parents.
"Gourmet coffee the drink of choice" is subtler foreshadowing that actually incidates addiction:
Caffeine is the world's most widely used mood-altering drug, and it doesn't take much to get hooked. . . . as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day can produce a dependency that will induce withdrawal symptoms in many adults, ranging from headache to fatigue to inability to concentrate. There's more caffeine than that in a single cup of Starbucks coffee. Just three consecutive days of caffeine at that dosage can produce those symptoms when the stimulant fades.

And the tween boy is one for whom Starbucks uses sweet or chocolatey drinks to trick him into drinking something nasty:
Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, takes a dimmer view. "What Starbucks is doing is taking a beverage that has traditionally been consumed by adults, and making it attractive to children with sugar and fat. They're using milk and sweetener as a way to soften the bitterness. You can even think of it as a gateway drug." It's irresponsible, she says, for Starbucks to claim not to market to kids while selling highly sweetened and highly caloric beverages that are attractive to them.
I regret former career choices which left me knowing the difference between marketing and selling. Michele Simon might benefit, though. I probably can’t quote much more of the story without drifting into copyright-infringement territory, so let me summarize this urgently written piece for you: Kids are destroying their lives by drinking coffee. Some of it contains sugar and chocolate, all of it contains caffeine, none of it has any nutrition and it’s a gateway drug to a lifetime of stimulant addiction, poor nutrition, wild mood swings and all-around bad health. And it makes people fat.

Maybe this story would have been more convincing if it started out by quoting kids with bad grades and dim futures, instead of kids with summer internships at places like city hall or a food bank. Or perhaps it still would have been a pointlessly hysterical ramble. Calm down, Katherine, the kids at Starbucks are alright.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Right Hand, Left Hand, Compare Notes

The Associated Press reported today, August 27, that the Army Corps of Engineers has some disturbing news: trouble for New Orleans if a hurricane hits right now.
Despite aggressive efforts to repair the New Orleans levee system following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, it isn’t clear yet whether it could withstand a hurricane with heavy storm surge this year, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers conceded Saturday.
The Associated Press also reported today, August 27, that federal emergency officials have some cheering news: the levees are just fine.
Federal emergency officials claim the New Orleans levee system is ready for another major hurricane, despite the less-optimistic views of other political leaders and engineers. "I think we're in good shape," Don Powell, the Bush administration's coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, said Sunday. "There's no question in my mind, we're ready."

Friday, August 25, 2006

Embarrassed Throat-Clearing; or, This Isn’t How I Mean To Come Across

I installed one of those free site-statistic programs that tells me how many people trouble to visit my blog each day. (The results were pretty humbling. If you’re reading this, thanks and I love you.) The program also shows the words which bring someone here because they found me on Google or another search engine — for example, a couple of days ago someone came here after searching “feral genius.” (Don’t worry about your privacy. I can’t see IP addresses or where people are from.) Another person came here after searching for some words I’d used in a post about Ayn Rand, Objectivism and sex.

Why do I mention this? No reason in particular. But here’s a totally unrelated question I never even thought to ask before I learned its answer today: whose blog is the very first listing you'll see if you go to Google and type in the search terms agonize paranoid destruction living a lie?

Oh my.

History Won’t Vindicate Me

I grew up down South surrounded by public schools named after men like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who led an armed rebellion against the United States that left a half-million Americans dead. Our history books portrayed the likes of Davis and Lee as good and noble men who, through an unfortunate series of accidents, happened to fight on the wrong side. (The books didn’t say much about General Nathan Bedford Forrest, instigator of the Fort Pillow Massacre who after the war went on to start the Ku Klux Klan.)

Maybe the books were right about Davis and Lee. They fought for an evil cause, yet I’m not convinced they were evil men in day-to-day life. And all those men, pre-1920, who insisted that I can’t be trusted to vote or own property because I’ve got the wrong equipment between my legs — well, it would be easy to dismiss them by saying “they’re all evil,” but it wouldn’t be true. A lot of people in the past who held evil beliefs were more misguided than evil, most likely. Products of their time.

I thought of this the other day when I read Harry Turtledove’s novel Guns of the South, a combination alternate-history and time-traveling tale. Here’s a brief synopsis: the Confederates won the war because in the year 2014, white South Africans resentful over the end of apartheid traveled back in time and gave Southern armies AK-47s and other modern war technology, with which the Confederates utterly trounced the Federals.

The Afrikaners hope that a stable slave-holding Confederacy would help prevent the worldwide spread of racial-equality ideals, so that by the late 20th century, situations like apartheid in South Africa would be the norm rather than the exception. But they don’t say this to Lee; instead, they tell the Confederates that after the South lost the war, vengeful Northerners put black people in charge and utterly terrorized the South. Because of this (said the Afrikaners) by 2014 the whole world was consumed in a bloody black vs. white racial war, with whites facing extermination.

The Confederates are horrified by this bleak vision of the future, though they also find it reassuring in a way: see, we told the Yankees that Negro slavery was a just, moral and necessary thing! This proves us right! Eventually, however, Lee gets a copy of a history book printed in 1990, and learns what the future really thinks about Confederate devotion to racism and slavery. And when he shows members of the Confederate government how future generations will regard them, this compels them to reluctantly start freeing the slaves of the South, and giving black people some rights.

Our society, I believe, holds certain attitudes which future generations are likely to view with disdain: laws and prejudices against homosexuals, drugs and the use of pain medication top that list. But I wonder if Turtledove got it right about human nature. If Confederate slaveholders knew how the future would view them, would that impel the slaveholders to free their slaves, or work harder to convince future generations that slavery’s a good thing? If modern supporters of anti-gay legislation knew for a fact that people a century hence will consider them bigots, do you think that would change any of their minds?

These people don’t mind the condemnation of fellow humans in the present. Would they feel differently toward opinions from the future?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

You Could Die Any Second

Here’s a story on the BBC about how easy it would be for terrorists to poison our food supply: just a tiny bit of botulism in a milk truck, for example, could kill a couple hundred thousand people.
Prof Wein found milk was particularly vulnerable to an attack. If someone were to put just 10 grams of botulinum toxin into a milk tanker, it could have devastating effects.

"If we didn't realise what was happening, half a million people would drink this milk... most of these would be poisoned, roughly half of them would die," he concluded.

Scary stuff, but critics said this was preposterous: obtaining even a tiny amount of toxin was a lot harder than Prof Wein suggested.

The article goes on to discuss how America’s agribusiness set-up — with a relatively few companies overseeing huge megafarms — keeps our food supply more concentrated than most, and thus more vulnerable to attack. Congressmen from farm states are getting anti-terrorist funding for their districts, while Congressmen from other states call this pork.

I’m not sure what it is. Food attacks might be plausible, but I’ve got a major city reservoir a couple of miles away from my house and every day thousands of cars drive on the low road that crosses it. It’s just as plausible that a terrorist could put a small but deadly toxin in the city water supply and kill as many people as botulism in a milk truck. Should we spend anti-terrorism dollars defending the reservoir? There’s more than just the road involved; there’s all the parkland and private property on the shores of the reservoir. And then there’s the hundreds of other reservoirs in my state to consider. And then the rest of America.

How do we decide which terror threats are serious enough to guard against?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Consistency, Thou Art A Jewel

A dentist removed my pain-generating wisdom tooth this afternoon and prescribed me painkillers of great joy. So I’m in a fine mood regardless of what I find in the news, though I’ll admit the blaring headline about the Marine Corps’ involuntary call-up harshed my (perfectly legal) buzz a little. Then I read the story, which says the Individual Ready Reserve is being called up:
The U.S. Marine Corps said Tuesday it has been authorized to recall thousands of Marines to active duty, primarily because of a shortage of volunteers for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Up to 2,500 Marines will be brought back at any one time, but there is no cap on the total number of Marines who may be forced back into service in the coming years as the military battles the war on terror. The call-ups will begin in the next several months.

This is the first time the Marines have had to use the involuntary recall since the early days of the Iraq combat. The Army has ordered back about 14,000 soldiers since the start of the war.
Since I haven’t been following the Marines’ recruiting woes I thought that they, like the Army, had been using the IRR all along. So I merely skimmed over the story before turning to the comment forum, which hosted a debate on bringing back the draft. And it’s beautiful, the gem of self-contradiction I found on the very first page:
As a 21 year old man, I should be the first to stand against the draft, however i feel completely the opposite. I feel our troops over in the middle east need a break and if I can back them in any way, I would be proud to do so for my country. Although I have not signed up for the army, if they needed me, I would be there.
I’ll read it again when the pills wear off and see if it’s still hilarious. Betcha it is.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Treat All Disasters As If They Were Trivialities

Disaster survival tip number one: if you buy one of those no-battery shake-em-up flashlights keep in mind that because of the shape of the flashlight and the bone and muscle configuration of the human arm, it’s impossible to charge one of those things without looking exactly like you’re giving a handjob to the Jolly Green Giant’s condom-wearing brother. Ironically, such behavior is illegal in the Bible Belt, which contains the states most likely to be hit by disaster-inducing storms. So buy lots of batteries and resign yourself to the knowledge that most of them will be dead by the time you need them.

Of course, there’s lots of other things you (and your community!) should do to prepare for a disaster, but according to this story in Time magazine, not enough Americans are doing them:
the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them. Dennis Mileti ran the Natural Hazards Center for 10 years, and is the country's leading expert on how to warn people so that they will pay attention. Today he is semiretired, but he comes back to the workshop each year to preach his gospel. This July, standing before the crowd in a Hawaiian shirt, Mileti was direct: "How many citizens must die? How many people do you need to see pounding through their roofs?" Like most people there, Mileti was heartbroken by Katrina, and he knows he'll be heartbroken again. "We know exactly--exactly--where the major disasters will occur," he told me later. "But individuals underperceive risk."

Historically, humans get serious about avoiding disasters only after one has just smacked them across the face. Well, then, by that logic, 2006 should have been a breakthrough year for rational behavior. With the memory of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, still fresh in their minds, Americans watched Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, on live TV. Anyone who didn't know it before should have learned that bad things can happen. And they are made much worse by our own lack of ambition--our willful blindness to risk as much as our reluctance to work together before everything goes to hell.
It’s that last sentence which makes me reluctant to present this article to a libertarian audience. Because generally speaking, it isn’t talking about the types of disasters that can be solved by rugged individual self-reliance. I’m prepared for an event that could make my neighborhood lose power for a week or two — I’ve got bottled water, porno flashlights, food and other supplies. But those aren’t the preparations the article is talking about.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and the state legislature managed to pass mandatory building codes this year. Most states already have such codes. Florida has had a strict one in place since 2001, and structures built under it tend to be the ones left standing after a 120 m.p.h. wind rips through. We know that for every dollar spent on that kind of basic mitigation, society saves an average of $4, according to a 2005 report by the nonprofit National Institute of Building Sciences. Then there's Mississippi, which, believe it or not, still has no statewide building code. Katrina destroyed 68,729 houses there. But this year a proposed mandatory code, opposed by many builders, real estate lobbyists and homeowners, ended up voluntary.

Here’s the libertarian philosophical conundrum. How much authority should the government have to regulate how you build your home? The boilerplate answer is that you can build any kind of house you want so long as you don’t hurt anybody else. I don’t support “snob zoning” laws requiring homes and lots to be a minimum size to keep the riff-raff out, but I have no problems with building codes which require people living in close quarters to have septic tanks or sewer hook-ups rather than inflict outhouse odors on their neighbors.

And to be honest, I don’t mind laws which say “you can’t build a house with an extremely high probability of being destroyed by the forces of nature within a few years.” I don’t know what my local building codes are, but I’m certain that roofs must be able to support the weight of at least three feet of snow and even though this violates proper libertarian principles I’m too soft-core to care.

Of course, this analogy doesn’t apply to anti-hurricane building codes. Snow in New England is an ordinary winter phenomenon, not a catastrophic event. What’s more, if my roof collapsed in a snowstorm it would only be dangerous to people in my house. But in a hurricane, pieces of your demolished house can go on to become dangerous projectiles damaging the homes of others.

Anyway, building codes alone won’t save everybody. After discussing situations like floods, where even people in windproof homes would need to evacuate, the article says this:

People cherry-pick the lessons of Katrina to avoid taking action. Fifty-four percent of those who say they wouldn't evacuate are worried that the roads would be too crowded, and 67% believe shelters would be dangerous. That's understandable, unfortunately. One of the most damaging legacies of Katrina might be the TV images of looting and the graphic rumors of violence that crystallized our belief that we turn into savages in a disaster--a notion that is demonstrably untrue; after most disasters, including Katrina, the crime rate goes down. Ironically, 66% of those surveyed were also confident that if they stayed at home, they would eventually be rescued--a faith hardly justified by the Katrina experience. Ours is a strange culture of irrational distrust--buoyed by irrational optimism.

Heat waves bring out the same kind of self-delusion. Scott Sheridan, professor of geography at Kent State University, has studied heat-wave behavior--focusing particularly on seniors, who are at special risk in hot weather--in Philadelphia; Phoenix, Ariz.; Toronto; and Dayton, Ohio. He found that less than half of people 65 and older abide by heat-emergency recommendations like drinking lots of water. Reason: they don't consider themselves seniors. "Heat doesn't bother me much, but I worry about my neighbors," said an older respondent.

I can sympathize with people who won’t leave their homes before a storm. (I wouldn’t mind leaving if I knew I could return as soon as the storm ended, but that would never happen — instead, the National Guard would be called out to keep everyone away until the government decided it was safe.) But who the hell is too stubborn to drink extra water in a heat wave?

By the way, I think Amanda Ripley, the author of this piece, has some libertarian leanings of her own. Check this out:

When Americans cannot be trusted to save themselves, the government does it for them--at least that's the story of mandatory car insurance, seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But when it comes to preventing disasters, the rules are different. The message, says Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association, is consistent: "We will help you build where you shouldn't, we'll rescue you when things go wrong, and then we'll help you rebuild again in the same place." . . . . Nationwide, only 20% of American homes at risk for floods are covered by flood insurance. Private insurers largely refuse to offer it because floods are such a sure thing. In certain flood-prone areas, the Federal Government requires people to buy policies from the government's National Flood Insurance Program to get a mortgage loan. But the program has never worked even remotely as insurance should. It has never priced people out of living in insanely risky areas. Instead, too few places are included in the must-insure category, and premiums are kept artificially low.
Keep the government out of the insurance business, and let the free market save people from dying in floods.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Suspicion Always Haunts The Guilty Mind

A Federal appeals court has ruled that police may seize cash from motorists even in the complete absence of evidence that a crime has been committed, except the single bark of a dog:
On May 28, 2003, a Nebraska state trooper signaled Gonzolez to pull over his rented Ford Taurus on Interstate 80. The trooper intended to issue a speeding ticket, but noticed the Gonzolez's name was not on the rental contract. The trooper then proceeded to question Gonzolez -- who did not speak English well -- and search the car. The trooper found a cooler containing $124,700 in cash, which he confiscated. A trained drug sniffing dog barked at the rental car and the cash. For the police, this was all the evidence needed to establish a drug crime that allows the force to keep the seized money.

Associates of Gonzolez testified in court that they had pooled their life savings to purchase a refrigerated truck to start a produce business. Gonzolez flew on a one-way ticket to Chicago to buy a truck, but it had sold by the time he had arrived. Without a credit card of his own, he had a third-party rent one for him. Gonzolez hid the money in a cooler to keep it from being noticed and stolen. He was scared when the troopers began questioning him about it. There was no evidence disputing Gonzolez's story.

Yesterday the Eighth Circuit summarily dismissed Gonzolez's story. It overturned a lower court ruling that had found no evidence of drug activity, stating, "We respectfully disagree and reach a different conclusion... Possession of a large sum of cash is 'strong evidence' of a connection to drug activity."
I was going to say “I hope this goes to the Supreme Court” but these days I don’t even think that will help. One judge on the Eighth Circuit, at least, had a less frightening view of the scope of police power. Here’s the dissent of Judge Donald Lay:
"Notwithstanding the fact that claimants seemingly suspicious activities were reasoned away with plausible, and thus presumptively trustworthy, explanations which the government failed to contradict or rebut, I note that no drugs, drug paraphernalia, or drug records were recovered in connection with the seized money," Judge Lay wrote. "There is no evidence claimants were ever convicted of any drug-related crime, nor is there any indication the manner in which the currency was bundled was indicative of drug use or distribution."
Found via Fark.

Some Forms Of Torture Are Already Legal

Posting this makes me nervous because I just took some codeine pills that expired last February. I have little experience with narcotics past their best-by date, so I’m worried I’ll have some adverse mental reaction that ends with me screaming at you CIA goons to get the hell out of my head before I kill you. According to all those just-say-no movies I saw in school, that sort of thing happens all the time when people take cocaine-based drugs without a doctor’s supervision. It’s even worse when the drugs have had time to go bad, I’ll bet.

Reassurance: I don’t generally hang on to consumables with six-month-old expiration dates. Actually, I’m quite scrupulous about throwing old things away. Though a lousy housekeeper I’ve never once been sick from eating something I’ve eaten at home, in part because I’ve never been tempted to keep milk, fish or other perishable items after their safety date’s passed.

But I can replace these things any time I wish. If the same held true for codeine pills I’d throw my old ones away and buy a new bottle right now. Maybe something stronger. I can’t, though, so I have to take my chances with the old stuff.

I don’t usually take painkillers outside the occasional aspirin, but these days I’ve got a wisdom tooth growing in the wrong way. It became annoying a week ago and as of Thursday it officially Hurts, every day a tiny bit more as the young tooth moves a tiny bit further where it doesn’t belong. On Friday I tried finding a dentist to extract it, but had no luck. I’ll try again tomorrow morning, but meanwhile the pain is here with me. Four consecutively worse days of it, now.

If we had a truly free market in dentistry, without government regulating who can claim dentist status and what hoops must be jumped through to get there, I could probably leave my house right now, find a walk-in clinic, pay a couple hundred dollars for X-rays, anesthetic and an extraction and be asleep in bed before midnight.

But no. I can’t just walk in and have a problem tooth removed; first I have to make an appointment for a general check-up, and get the X-rays. I can’t have the tooth pulled the same day because rushing the process like that would be irresponsible dentistry. Meanwhile, the added costs of all this are — I don’t know how much, actually. Nobody will tell me what this costs.

It’s enough that the average person can’t afford it anymore, so you have to buy a policy from a heavily regulated insurance company with its own requirements for referrer visits before anything can actually be done, and those will add at least one more day to the time I must live with this tooth and the pain it generates getting worse each day and drilling just a little further into the parts of my consciousness that function better without the distraction of agony, which is to say all of them.

Whoa. Did I just write that? I did. Christ, it’s not you guys, the CIA or even the codeine that need to get the hell out of my head lest I go insane — it’s the pain. How can I make it go away right now, without breaking the law and risking a long term in prison? I can’t.

My government is legally requiring me to suffer pain. I haven’t even committed any crimes, and my government is legally requiring me to suffer pain. If I try to escape it tonight I can only do this by breaking the law. I mean, yes, I’ve got those old pills left over from my last wisdom tooth extraction. But I took them more than an hour ago and I don’t think they’re working. They're making me pretty tired, I'll admit, but my tooth feels exactly the same.

Most galling of all: the laws requiring me to experience every bit of this pain are justified with the excuse that they protect my health.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth Is A Sleazy Dentist

I’m no dentist, but I’m canny enough to make certain basic dental self-diagnoses, like this one: I’ve got a wisdom tooth growing in. Actually, no — I’ve got a wisdom tooth growing out, at a weird angle, and by two days ago the damn thing had come out enough to start abrading the inside my cheek. It got me to thinking how very lucky I am to live in the modern era. For a medieval woman, my tooth would guarantee a future filled with vast amounts of excruciating mouth-related pain. But I live in 21st-century America, with dental insurance and a big savings account, so a mere tooth problem shouldn’t cause me too much grief, I thought.

Now, I work Sundays and have Fridays off, so I figured I’d arrange for a tooth-pulling next Friday and then have Saturday to recuperate. Yesterday I grabbed my insurance card and a printout of local dentists who are accepting both new patients and my insurance provider, and called the first dentist on the list. And got a recording thanking me for calling and reminding me that the office is closed Fridays in the summer.

So was the next dentist on the list. And the next one. In fact, in my entire area there’s only one place that was open and answering its phones on Friday, a local dental group whose members included nearly half of all local dentists on my insurance company’s “accepted” list.

“Hello,” I said in my Friendly Phone Voice when the receptionist answered the phone. “I need to have some dental work done, and I understand you’re accepting new patients?”

“If you have insurance, yes,” the receptionist said in a snippy voice. This annoyed me — even without insurance, I could afford to pay for a tooth extraction and related procedures if I had to. Yet they wouldn’t let me in without coverage? Bastards. But I need this tooth gone.

I assure her I’m covered by X insurance company and say I need my too — “You have to put yourself on their roster first,” the receptionist interrupted.


“Put yourself on the roster.” And she hung up.

I call the insurance company and learn I needn't worry about the roster with my plan. Call the dental group back, and this time I’m told I need the X-rays from my last dental visit, and was it a panoramic X-ray? Because panoramic X-rays may not be covered by insurance if I already had one.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“I can’t make an appointment until we see the X-rays,” the receptionist (a different one) said, and hung up.

By now I’ve already decided I want nothing to do with these people but realized it would be useful to have the X-rays from my last dental visit (in an office 50 miles away, which is why I’m searching for somewhere closer). I called my former dentist and asked to have the X-rays sent to me, and asked if they were panoramic X-rays.

My question surprised the receptionist, who said they didn’t even have a panoramic X-ray machine there. I get the impression that it’s a pretty expensive process, too.

And something occurred to me about this dental group, talking about how I’d need this very expensive panoramic X-ray and I’d damn sure better have insurance if I want to go there . . . . I never even got the chance to tell them my name or my problem.

If the government hadn't outlawed all the strong painkillers, I'd just go medieval on my tooth and find some muscular blacksmith to yank that sucker right out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How I Love These Teachable Moments

Back when I taught high-school English I gave the obligatory lessons on the difference between denotation and connotation: a word’s dictionary definition versus what it actually implies when used in everyday contexts.

Thin and skinny mean basically the same thing — but which word are you more likely to hear when someone’s being insulting? What about fat versus overweight? Before long, world events and the Bush administration provided me plenty of “teachable moments,” since America and her friends have “governments” while our enemies lean more toward “regimes,” even though the two definitions in our school’s dictionaries were nearly word-for-word identical.

The Washington Post tells the story about yesterday’s court decision to allow 16-year-old cancer patient Starchild Abraham Cherrix to refuse a second round of chemotherapy treatments:

The family of a Virginia teenager who has refused conventional medical treatment for cancer reached a settlement yesterday with state officials, agreeing that he will be seen by a new oncologist while continuing his alternative therapy.

The compromise means that Starchild Abraham Cherrix, 16, will not have to undergo chemotherapy against his will, as a judge had ordered. Officials in Accomack County on Virginia's Eastern Shore had accused his parents of medical neglect for allowing him to seek alternative treatment from a clinic in Mexico.
The story goes on to talk about how the case has received a great deal of media attention, not just from a parents’-rights angle, but also to question how much control a 16-year-old should have over his own body. Will you strap him down and inject him with the chemicals against his will? (The story doesn't ask that; I did.)

Next, some family background information:
The family lives in Chincoteague, a resort-like community known for holding a wild pony swim each year. Jay Cherrix runs a canoe and kayak rental business and home-schools his five children. He has a history of anti-government activism: Several years ago, he led residents in opposition to what they thought was a plan to bring commercial development to Assateague Island, the federally protected 37-mile beach near his shop.
“Led residents in opposition.” What does this mean — did he circulate a petition? Speak at city council meetings? Lead a picket line? I don’t know, but what he did, combined with fighting back when social services tried to charge him with neglect when he wouldn’t force his 16-year-old to undertake chemo, is enough to qualify him as an “anti-government activist.”

Another teachable moment! Remember all those politicians who have railed against judicial activists in the past? Gee, class, I wonder if “activist” has any sort of connotation? Let’s type the word into Google News and see what comes up:

Widow files $20 million suit over JDL activists’ death in Federal prison
(imprisoned for taking part in a bomb plot)

Activist who won’t testify ordered to stay in jail
(an investigation involving suspected arson by environmental extremists)

Suspected SIMI activist taken into custody in Kochi [India]
(questioned after his roommate was arrested)

Judicial activists are bad enough to make members of government notice, while other types of activists wind up in prison or at least in police custody. Now, class: what connotations, if any, are there when a person who recently won a court battle fighting charges of medical neglect is said to have a (one-time, several years ago) “history of anti-government activism?”

By the way: it’s not just words that have connotations. Sometimes entire facts do, when presented in a certain order. Check this out:

An initial round of chemotherapy ravaged Abraham Cherrix, he and his parents have said, reducing his 6-foot frame to 122 pounds and causing his hair to fall out. After the therapy shrank his tumors but did not eliminate all signs of the disease, an oncologist at the Norfolk hospital recommended radiation and more chemotherapy.

Instead, Cherrix began an alternative treatment he had researched in Mexico consisting of herbal supplements and an organic diet free of processed sugar. The treatment was initiated by Harry Hoxsey, a former Texas cancer clinic operator who was accused by the Food and Drug Administration of peddling worthless medicine -- and who later died of cancer.

Wow. Cherrix wants to try a treatment whose own inventor died of cancer. That sounds pretty damning. Now consider what the National Cancer Institute says about the survival rate for children or adolescents with Hodgkin’s disease who undergo one unsuccessful bout with chemotherapy and then try it again:
In one study from the German Pediatric Oncology Group (GPOH), patients with an early relapse (defined as occurring between 3 and 12 months from the end of therapy) had a 10-year event-free survival (EFS) of 55% and a 5-year overall
survival (OS) of 78%.
About 45 percent of Hodgkin’s chemotherapy patients in Cherrix’s situation wind up dying of cancer anyway. So, class: is there any connotation when a writer mentions Harry Hoxsey’s death but says nothing about the survival rates Cherrix would face with chemotherapy?

And for extra credit: discuss the overall connotations contained in the story. Do you think the writer agrees or disagrees with Cherrix's parents' decision? Explain.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Landlords: Our First Line Of National Defense

Here’s a hypothetical question: say you can’t afford a single-family house, so you buy a multi-family instead. Your plan is to live in one apartment and rent out the others to pay the mortgage. You’re a very responsible landlord, keeping the place in good shape and treating your tenants fairly, and they in turn don’t give you any trouble. Does your status as a landlord mean you should be forced to become an unpaid deputy of the INS, checking your tenants’ immigration or citizenship status to ensure they’re not in the country illegally? Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, says yes.
Hazleton, a city of about 31,000 people 80 miles from Philadelphia, voted last month to fine landlords $1,000 for renting to illegal immigrants, deny business permits to companies that give them jobs, and make English the city’s official language.

So landlords and business owners will be working for the INS. The mayor “proposed the ordinance after two illegal immigrants were charged with shooting and killing a man,” the article says, since illegals can’t kill anybody if you don’t rent them an apartment first.

Sometimes when I type up the police blotter at work I’ll see an arrestee is “of no certain address,” which never stops him from committing a crime but I’m probably digressing here. Anyway, the article doesn’t give too many more details beyond this:

It is not clear how many illegal immigrants live in Hazleton, but the city’s Hispanic population has soared in recent years.
So I went looking for more about this story. Most of Google News’ first hits when I searched “Lou Barletta” were rehashes of the same bland AP bit, but I did find an interesting letter to the editor written by a woman who praises Barletta’s anti-immigration stance because it will stop the slaughter in Iraq and save us from the Nazis (I think):
Our country is not run by one leader alone. The foundation of our forefathers upholds our freedoms built on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and our pledge to uphold these freedoms.

We the people, in order to form a more perfect government, must speak out while we have a voice.

Mayor Lou Barletta, Hazelton, Pa., spoke out for the American people. We applaud you.

History repeats, and our young men are being slaughtered, shedding their own blood in the George W. Bush self-appointed war. Remembering World War II Nazi Germany: "and I didn't speak up and then they came for me." Has political correctness held the tight-lipped American taxpayers in bondage?

Elie Weisel quotes, "Because I remember I despair. Because I remember I have the duty to reject despair."

Another day on the battlefield can be a day too late. Another life lost is another life too many. Are we guilty of indirectly making this war possible? Are we the culprits?

Let us put an end to this insane madness while we still have a voice.

FRANCES ROSE, Framingham

Caveat: it’s not necessarily Barletta’s fault that the first supporter of his I could find in a Google search turned out to be the Frances Rose of Framingham, Pennsylvania. Determined to be fair, I searched again and found Barletta himself explaining the benefits of this law:
[Barletta says] he is taking steps to ensure the law is enforced fairly.“I’m aware of people’s concerns that they’ll be targeted,” said Barletta, clasping his hands in front of him and shaking his head.

Leaders of the Hispanic community and activists promising a legal challenge have expressed concerns the ordinance will cause landlords, fearing punishment, to simply not rent to any Hispanics or subject them to more scrutiny than tenants of other ethnic backgrounds.

That is why Barletta said he would require all tenants to register with city hall and pay a $10 fee to obtain an occupancy permit. If they do not, their landlords could be punished, regardless of the renter’s immigration or citizenship status.

The illegal immigration ordinance, which will take effect in about two months, fines landlords $1,000 per illegal tenant and $100 for each day the renter stays after the initial fine. Another proposed ordinance, which passed the first reading a week ago, would enforce the same fines for landlords renting to any tenant who fails to obtain a permit, even if they are a legal resident or a U.S. citizen.

See how it works? The city will check the renters’ immigration status, so I was wrong to say this places an unreasonable burden on landlords to do background checks on their tenants. No, it merely requires people who aren’t homeowners to get permits from the government before they can pay for a place to live. Hooray for Mayor Lou Barletta, defending the principles of American freedom from the oppressive Mexican hordes.

Computerized Distrust

I tried making a post last night, and got an error message saying I'd run out of space on my "FTP server," whatever that is. So I'm freaking out, trying to determine what an FTP server is, and where mine is stored, and how I could clear more space on it ... and this morning everything was fine, except that the post I tried to make last night (a work of shimmering brilliance, natch) is gone forever.

My guest-blogging gig is over, which is good because it means I can come back to posting here on a regular basis. Assuming the computer will let me. I keep recalling a line I read in a book somewhere: "He'd heard that computers were the tools of the Devil, which made perfect sense. After all, computers had to be the tools of somebody, and it certainly wasn't him."

Wait For The Movie Version

EDIT: Do not click on the enclosed link unless your computer has a butt-kickingly impressive anti-virus program. Commenter R. Hardin reports that A-jad's site may be infected by a virus, and I am now thinking there's a connection between my visiting his blog last night, and my later inability to make a post here on my own. And I've had some other computer issues since then, too. I'm going to have my IT guy run a full scan on my home computer tonight; if I do not post this evening it's because I'm too busy disinfecting my computer.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whom you may recognize as the president of Iran) has posted his autobiography on his brand-new blog. The page comes up in Arabic (or perhaps Farsi), but on the upper right you’ll see four small flag icons. If you click on the one that looks like a semi-cross between Old Glory and the Union Jack, an English translation will load. Or maybe not — the first time I tried it, I got a “please wait” sign and then a note that the server was busy. But I made it through on my second try and was rewarded (after another wait) with a piece that started off interestingly enough, but went downhill after the first three or four words:

During the era that nobility was a prestige and living in a city was perfection, I was born in a poor family in a remote village of Garmsar-approximately 90 kilometer east of Tehran. I was born fifteen years after Iran was invaded by foreign forces- in August of 1940- and the time that another puppet, named mohammad Reza – the son of Reza Mirpange- was set as a monarch in Iran. Since the extinct shah -Mohammad Reza- was supposed to take and enter Iran into western civilization slavishly, so many schemes were implemented that Iran becomes another market for the western ceremonial goods without any progress in the scientific field. Our Islamic culture would not allow such an infestation, and this was an impediment in front of shah and his foreign masters’ way.

That’s about half of the first paragraph, which is all this page showed. But I clicked the “continue” icon and waited for the thing to download, and eventually got the entire first installment of his life story, including fond memories of Ayatollah Khomeini:

Imam Khomeini was released from prison. I never forget Imam Khomeini’s speeches during those years which was very persuasive and appealing. You would hear the strong faith to Almighty God in his orations. He invited the people to pure Islam. His message was invitation to the belief of monotheism- Unity and Oneness of God- and also justice, elimination of oppression, injustice and sedition in the world. He was courageous and had a valiant heart. He spoke firmly and securely. His orations were simple and honest. The people accepted his guidance sincerely. Due to these characteristics, he was a beloved leader for every individuals-young or elderly. Of course he was a disgrace for shah’s regime and his Americans masters. Notably, even among his enemies, he was respected with a special honor.
This isn’t a very polished translation, so I’m not certain if A-jad actually means to say what he says about how Khomeini took power:

the type of Government Imam was seeking to establish was known to everybody, however, Imam repeatedly laid great emphasis that everyone’s opinion should be taken into consideration (by holding a referendum) for the establishment of the type of new government in Iran. This he did so as to show right at the outset that it is with the wishes of the nation as well as in accordance with the principles of Islam, that an Islamic Government is established. Although, there was absolutely no need of a referendum, but Imam with his wise foresight, proved his point of view to everyone and left no place for those who wished to seek alternatives. This action of Imam and vehement participation and positive reply to the establishment of Islamic Republic by the Iranian nation, caused disappointment of some of the political groups that were affiliated to great world powers.

So Khomeini held a referendum to prove everybody wanted him, but didn’t hold the referendum because everybody wanted him so he saw no need to provide alternatives?

He goes on to describe the Iran-Iraq war, a terrible period during which Saddam (with help from the Great Satan) inflicted much suffering on Iran. However, after many paragraphs describing the suffering the Iranians experienced (and yes, Iran’s got a legitimate complaint against Saddam for that one), he explains why, thanks to the Islamic Republic, life at the time was wonderful:

The sacred defense in the universities was related to teaching human values. Side by side, the experience of life and death during war made this life like a heaven on earth and hereafter, such that what was said and heard about it and carried out at that time, was truly godly.
By the way, his blog doesn’t allow comments but you can e-mail him questions if you wish. And maybe the next installment of his story won’t be so bad. Here’s how he ends this piece:

I will continue this topic later on as it took long in the beginning. From now onwards, I will try to make it shorter and simpler. With hope in God, I intend to wholeheartedly complete my talk in future with allotted fifteen minutes.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Y’all Come Back Now, Y’hear?

D’oh! For the past few days I’ve been getting far more hits than usual, thanks to my guest-posting gig over at Jim Henley’s blog. And yet, I’ve been spending so much time at said blog I haven’t had the chance to top off my own here with scintillating posts that will impress the hell out of my guests and inspire them to establish a regular blog relationship with me, rather than a tawdry one-night stand.

Thing is, my best stuff is hidden in the archives. But I really don’t want to become the type of woman who always runs around saying things like “I may not look impressive now, but you should have seen me in the past!” Hell, no. I’m too young to be that old.

Maybe it’s too late for me to make a good first impression, but here for the newcomers are some of the better posts from this blog’s two-month history.

Where suicide bombers go when they die.

A woman’s best chance of surviving the apocalypse.

What happened when my thirteen-year-old self threatened to sacrifice my Sunday-school teacher to Satan.

How the sex lives of humans differ from those of fish.

What can Ayn Rand teach us about sex?

My high-school class notes from The Fountainhead.

and the benefits of the anti-flag-burning amendment.

Damn. If I were a real libertarian I'd be better at profiting from opportunities. Crap. I may as well go apply for some government benefits or something.

EMERGENCY EDIT: Oh, hell. I tried making a post tonight and got a note saying I'd exceeded my quota, and need to find more space. Sad thing is, I'm so clueless about computers I'm not sure what I need to do. My IT guy is asleep, so I'll talk to him tomorrow. Any advice is appreciated.

We Must Run This Program At A Loss

Hoo, boy. The commenters at Jim Henley's blog aren't too happy with my suggestion that it's inconsistent to believe the current administration is turning our country into a fascist dictatorship and simultaneously believe that agents of the government should have carte blanche in deciding who does and does not get to own a gun.

On the bright side, they're a little more tolerant of the post I wrote condemning the government's new proposal to let prisoners be used in medical experiments.
Punishing wrongdoers is the one area of government that should always run at a financial loss. Why? Because the power to do so must be used sparingly, only when absolutely necessary. And the only social problem prisons should solve is the problem of dangerous, harmful people running loose on the streets — not a lack of medical-test subjects, farm labor or anything else.
In all seriousness: I've been distracted these past several months. Between my new job, excitement over Lieberman's losing the primary here in Connecticut, and news stories about the Supreme Court slapping down some of Bush's more odious proposals, I completely forgot how terrified I've been over the direction in which our country seems to be heading. Lucky for me that this past weekend, with its stories of liquid bans on airplanes, warrantless bag searches on New York subways and the proposal to turn our oversized prison population into an experimental tool has reminded me how closely optimism and self-delusion are related these days.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

You Know I’m Right

I’m about to make a bold claim without any links to back it up, because I don’t mind living dangerously. Here goes: if you do a survey of people who support strict gun-control measures, over 90 percent of them will tell you they can’t stand the Bush/Cheney administration. Don’t trust it one bit. Deplore what our current leaders have done to America both domestically and in the eyes of the world.

So with minimal skill in the Socratic method you can ask certain questions and eventually get your prey to utter the following statement: “Bush and Cheney are turning this country into a fascist dictatorship! It’s worse than the Nazis! That said, agents of the government should decide who gets to own a weapon and who doesn’t.”

Homeless People Go Boom

Yep, the ban on bringing liquids and gels onto airplanes looks to become a permanent fixture of life here in the Land of the Free (if the government says so) and the Home of the Brave (unless we’re facing something truly cowardice-inspiring, like a toothpaste-wielding Arab). So CBSNews used the ban to give a modern twist to an old-news story: the government’s been making some good money taking those items confiscated from you at the airport and re-selling them for a profit.

Federal law gives states the right to get banned or discarded items from the TSA contractor responsible for removing them. Pennsylvania has agreed to accept items from airports in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Johnstown and Allentown; Kennedy, LaGuardia and two other airports in New York; Newark and Trenton in New Jersey; Nantucket in Massachusetts, and Cleveland.

Pennsylvania has modified its program to maximize profitability. Smaller lots bring in more cash, so it no longer offers bulk sales like the 500 small Swiss Army knives that went for a record $595. It also tries to package items together as a marketing hook. Hockey sticks, pucks and a goalie's mask were bundled for sale around the time of the Stanley Cup playoffs; gardening tools are sold in the spring; exercise weights are auctioned in early January to capitalize on New Year's resolutions; and baseball bats are put up for bid just before the World Series.

An entrepreneur with a postage meter and some padded envelopes could make a tidy profit — and perform a useful service — by letting travelers mail such items home rather than turn them over to the TSA. But don’t bother trying to start such a business; the government won’t let you cut into their profits like that.

What about all the gels and liquids and personal-hygiene items confiscated this weekend? You know, the things that had to be taken away because they might actually be dangerous explosive chemicals? Surely the government won’t try to sell potential explosives.
And what about the abundance of liquids and gels discarded since the alleged British terror plot caused U.S. airports to prohibit them? Edward Myslewicz, a spokesman for the General Services Department told the Seattle Times that state officials are considering selling some of those items too. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has perhaps the most charitable approach. Airport spokeswoman Lexie Van Haren told the Seattle Times it plans to give 11 boxes of surrendered items to the city's human-services department, which will distribute items to homeless shelters.
So there’s two possible thoughts slithering across the stinking wasteland that passes for Van Haren’s mind:

1. I know damn well this stuff I’m confiscating from innocent citizens is 100 percent harmless, which is why I have no qualms about handing it out to homeless people, many of whom suffer from mental disabilities; or,
2. This stuff we’re confiscating might be dangerous and deadly. Hmm. Y’know, I think I’ve figured out a way to solve our city’s homeless problem.

Here’s a fun discussion topic for citizens of a nation in decline: which of those two thoughts is the more despicably evil?

EDIT: Here are the considerations: on the one hand, making homeless people in Phoenix blow themselves up would be actual acts of murder, which at first glance looks far worse than merely inconveniencing every air traveler in the country now and for the indefinite future. But such explosions would be considered a crime, investigated and stopped. This for-our-own good ban, on the other hand, is completely legal and has long-term repercussions for our country's very existence as a free and open society. Therefore, while I in no way mean to diminish the gravity of the detonation of the homeless, I'd say confiscating those things when you know they're harmless is worse.

Friday, August 11, 2006

To Hell With The Fourth Amendment

Oh, damn everything. Bad enough to see signs yesterday that these liquid-and-gel bans on airplanes might be permanent, but today a New York appeals court ruled that random bag searches of New York subway riders are legal and constitutional. I talked about it over at Jim Henley’s blog and indulged in a little nostalgia:
I miss the halcyon days of my childhood. Ah, to be in seventh grade again and hear my civics teacher describe the best thing about living in America: unlike the oppressive governments of other countries, in America, unless the government has a damned good reason to suspect you’re up to something it has to leave you alone. And “he’s got water on the plane” or “she’s carrying a purse to work” were not good reasons.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

There Goes My Punchline

I’m sure you’ve heard about the new security rule: no gels or liquids on airplanes. All day I've seen stories about travelers having to throw away items ranging from souvenir maple syrup to expensive perfumes. Thoreau, another of Jim Henley’s guest bloggers, posted a brief rant about how stupid this is, and I commented “they say the ban is only temporary, but I don’t think it will stay temporary for long.”

I so liked the sound of all those contradictions and counter-contradictions that I decided to post them here, and was working on more phrases of the same flavor when, not five minutes later, I stumbled across this headline on the front page of the Washington Post’s site:

Schedules disrupted; liquid, gel ban may remain (though the article itself merely says “Random checks may persist”).

I seem to recall a case where some terrorists had dolls whose clothes were made of an explosive substance woven into cloth. And we’ve all heard people make sarcastic comments that “to ensure perfect safety, they’ll make us all fly naked.”

Of course, they wouldn’t do that. But they’re getting so paranoid I can almost see them requiring all passengers to wear government-issued paper gowns, if the next plot they uncover features terrorists donning explosive denim. How many things are left to ban, anyway?

The terrorists don't even have to succeed anymore. All they have to do is get caught with evermore unique destructive possibilities, resulting in more things to ban.

I can't believe they haven't already thought of getting a flat-chested female suicide bomber outfitted with DD-cup plastic explosive implants.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blog Infidelity, Part Two

Sorry I haven't posted in awhile, but some very weird, annoying and time-consuming things have been happening here in the real world. In a way I'm glad, though, because I can use them as an excuse for what I'm about to tell you: our relationship needs some work. But not on your end--it's entirely me. I'm new to this whole monogoblogamy thing, see, and it takes practice and you can't reasonably expect perfection after only two months of experience so I'll just come right out and say this: I've been unfaithful to you. Again.

The first time was when that guy asked me to write an essay about Playboy from a woman's perspective. Now I'm doing guest posts over at Jim Henley's blog, Unqualified Offerings, while he's on vacation.

This isn't what it looks like--if Jim hadn't invited me to do guest posts for him before I probably wouldn't be blogging with you here right now. It's an honor and loyalty thing, you know? It would actually be dishonorable for me to back out on him now. But I swear to you: this is absolutely the last time until the next time someone asks.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Peak Oil Pique

I read a lot of nuclear-apocalyptic sci-fi as a kid, and even had to give lessons on Alas, Babylon when I taught high-school English, so I’ve read many variants of this scene:

CHARACTER ONE: Full-scale nuclear war is horrible. And I never saw it coming! The events that finally led to the destruction of our world seemed no different from the thousand other events that could have led to Armageddon, but didn’t.

CHARACTER TWO: (gravely) Yes. The tragedy of our era is that we faced so many potential crises we became inured to the real one.

In Alas, Babylon, the final hours before the nuclear war were filled with special-alert radio bulletins like “Soviet ships are heading toward the Med” and “the Kremlin calls this an act of provocation” — pretty much the same news bulletins I heard every day of my life until the Berlin Wall went down. None of them started a nuclear war. They could have led to Armageddon, but they didn’t.

There’s plenty of ominous things on the horizon nowadays, too. Israel, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, the economy, the environment — any of them could lead to disaster. Who knows whether or not they will? There’s not much I can do either way. Besides, my long-term worry isn’t even on that list. Get this: I think there really is something to that Peak Oil business.

Here’s a couple of Peak Oil sites. I link to them with great reluctance, because if Peak Oil were Christianity its Web designers would be Pentecostal Fundamentalists who speak in tongues and go to church three times a week. I’m more of a Peak Oil Episcopalian, who attends services on Easter and Christmas Eve and drinks a lot of bourbon beforehand to make the sermon tolerable. Being associated with fundamentalists embarrasses me. And with Peak Oil, the fundamentalists are all anybody hears about.

Those sites I linked to — yeah, they’ve got some good information, if you can find it in the fog of ninety percent of humanity dropping dead, technology disappearing, and civilization regressing to the Dark Ages. That’s the fundamentalist version. Episcopalian doctrine merely states that gasoline will get expensive enough to seriously hurt our economy, but that doesn’t make for an exciting website so we don’t have much of a Net presence.

I don’t like to talk about Peak Oil. The fundamentalists call me an airhead optimist, while the naysayers think I’m one of those paranoid apocalypse guys I myself made fun of in previous posts. So I’d hardly even mention it, except I found this bit of news coming out of Iran:

Iran warned Britain and the US yesterday that the international community could face a new oil crisis if the United Nations security council imposes sanctions on Tehran over its alleged attempt to acquire a nuclear weapons-making capability.
Speaking in Tehran, Ali Larijani, the country's chief nuclear negotiator and head of the supreme national security council, said Iran would be reluctant to cut its oil exports. "We do not want to use the oil weapon. It is them who would impose it upon us." But Mr Larijani added that if the west did decide on sanctions, "we will react in a way that would be painful for them ... Do not force us to do something that will make people shiver in the cold."

This might be the seemingly insignificant event that leads to Armageddon (at least economically), or another one of those events that could lead to it, but won’t. Considering how hot this summer’s been I’m not too worried about shivering in the cold, but I wonder: how much higher can oil prices go before they start to hurt us?

EDIT: Changed "immured" to "inured" after Mediageek pointed out the error. Don't blog when you're tired, people.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Scylla? Charybdis? No — The Lotus-Eaters

I live in Connecticut, which puts me at a disadvantage when I want to criticize people in other states for having corrupt politicians. We had a governor sent to prison for graft, one mayor serving nine years for selling city contracts and another doing thirty-seven for bribing a crack whore to let him rape her two prepubescent daughters. (Is it true, that there exist states where “at least he’s not a child molester” is considered damning with faint praise, not an actual selling point?) I never voted for any of these guys but still occasionally feel the need to defend my home by waving my hands vaguely and saying “well, the scenery’s quite pretty and besides, without Connecticut people traveling between Boston and New York would have no place to stop for a bathroom break.”

We’ve also got Joe Lieberman, a Senator who calls himself a Democrat because his lips cannot shape the words “I am a Republican” while they’re superglued to George W.’s ass. At least he’s not a child molester. But neither is Ned Lamont, who’s challenging Lieberman for the Democratic candidacy. This means Connecticut’s having a Democratic primary this Tuesday, which has become national news for some reason involving the future of the Republican Party, Democratic party, Americans’ perception of the war in Iraq and possibly the price of gasoline too. My opinion: get Lieberman out first, worry about the ramifications later.

There’s a series of radio ads running in Connecticut featuring a George W. soundalike talking about why we all need to support the war, avoid criticizing the president at this vital juncture in history, and stop letting silly civil-liberties concerns stand in our way of fighting the War on Terror. The first time I heard such an ad I thought “that’s funny, I remember W. wording it differently when he said that.” Of course the denouement is that it was Lieberman, not Bush, who said such things, and the ad ends with the real Bush talking about what a great guy Lieberman is.

He’s threatened to run as an independent candidate if Lamont wins the primary, which means a three-way race that’ll likely give the Senate seat to the Republican guy, what’s-his-name. If Lamont doesn’t win the primary, we’ll have a Republican Senator regardless of whether Lieberman or what’s-his-name wins the election. Either way Connecticut will have Republican representation in the Senate this fall.

Conclusion: next election, for the first time ever, I’ll be voting for the libertarian candidate. Assuming Connecticut can scrounge one up to put on the ballot.

I hope he’s not too insane.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Yes, We Have That Privilege

Back in June I mentioned the story of Michael Gannon, a New Hampshire landlord who owned (and lived in) a building in a deteriorating neighborhood and installed video cameras to record the entryways after his building had been burglarized a few times. Everything was fine until Gannon’s camera recorded the image of a police detective displaying less-than-exemplary behavior.

Michael Gannon, 49, of 26 Morgan St., was arrested Tuesday night, after he brought a video to the police station to try to file a complaint against Detective Andrew Karlis, according to Gannon’s wife, Janet Gannon, and police reports filed in Nashua District Court. Police instead arrested Gannon, charging him with two felony counts of violating state eavesdropping and wiretap law by using an electronic device to record Karlis without the detective’s consent.

Of course, this law’s never used against business owners with closed-circuit TV in their establishments, nor police with cameras in their dashboards. For that matter, I doubt Gannon would’ve faced any trouble had he produced a videotape showing kids selling joints in his neighborhood.

But at least the Nashua police dropped the charges. As the Nashua Telegraph reported today:

Police won’t prosecute a man for using his home security system to record detectives on his front porch, Nashua Police Chief Timothy Hefferan announced Friday. . . Gannon’s cameras recorded both audio and video, and a sticker on the side of his Morgan Street home warned that persons on the premises were subject to being recorded. Police had charged that Gannon violated state wiretap laws by recording officers without their knowledge while they were standing on his front porch.

The police confiscated all of Gannon’s security equipment, which he is still trying to get back. The law against taping police officers on duty without their express consent stands, although the police decided to drop charges here because, they said, they figured their case was too weak to pursue.

I have little to say here that can’t be said better by this quote, posted anonymously in response to the last story:

As O'Brien passed the telescreen a thought seemed to strike him. He stopped, turned aside and pressed a switch on the wall. There was a sharp snap. The voice had stopped.
Julia uttered a tiny sound, a sort of squeak of surprise. Even in the midst of his panic, Winston was too much taken aback to be able to hold his tongue.'You can turn it off!' he said.
'Yes,' said O'Brien, 'we can turn it off. We have that privilege.'

Friday, August 04, 2006

About That Barrel We’re Over . . . .

The bad news from Iraq comes in so fast it’s starting to blur together. I found this on BBC: US Troops face ‘war crimes’ claim; a military prosecutor branded four US soldiers “war criminals” as he pressed for them to face a court martial and thought it was a reference to Steven Green, the murderous rapist of Mahmoudiya. But no; this is one I hadn’t heard before:

The men are accused of murdering three Iraqi detainees in cold blood close to the central city of Samarra in May. The defence say the men were killed as they tried to escape, and argue there is insufficient evidence to proceed.

Maybe the defense is telling the truth. Perhaps America is safer now that these three men are dead. But “killed while trying to escape” ranks up there with “your papers, comrade” in scary police-state clichés and it’s not what I grew up associating with America.

At least the military is pursuing this rather than trying to cover it up. And I’m pretty sure that when anyone in the administration is asked about this, the “few bad apples” excuse will come up again. But how many bad apples does it take before you should give up on the whole barrel?

To Be The Victim Rather Than The Criminal

Swaziland’s government is considering a “Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act” with some nasty bits of bigotry tucked inside — classifying any (consensual) homosexual act as indecent assault, for example. But that’s buried far down in the article I found on Reuters AlertNet. Check out the headline:

SWAZILAND: AIDS activists say sexual offences bill criminalises victims

Oh, hell, not again. Many countries under Sharia law, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, already do this. The idea is that a woman can’t prove rape unless she has four male witnesses testifying on her behalf; otherwise she’s punished, for fornication or adultery. And Muslims aren’t the only ones to take a “she asked for it” approach to the victims of rape. The idea that Swaziland might pass a law punishing victims for their trauma sounds depressingly plausible.

MBABANE, 3 August (IRIN) - Groups representing Swaziland's HIV-positive population are angry at a proposed Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act mandating life prison terms for rapists who infect their victims with HIV, claiming that the law will criminalise the victim.

At first glance (and second and third, too) this makes no sense. How does a life sentence for the rapist hurt the victim? But I’m a reporter myself, so I figured the writer must be using this apparently nonsensical statement as a “hook” to entice his audience to continue reading, and find out what aspect of the bill mistreats the victims of rape. Hell, on a slow news day I once wrote a story that began “Rats, lizards and a boa constrictor ran loose in the basement of the Congregational Church on Tuesday, to the delight of the church’s younger members” — a naturalist came by with some animals to show the Vacation Bible School.

It’s the hook. It’s gotta be the hook. And it’s working — I’m intrigued. So here’s what the story says next:

"The world over, HIV is not regarded as a sin or an offence. Negative and positive persons must be accorded equal rights, which should be applicable even in a court of law. But what are we criminalising here? Sleeping with someone without his or her consent, in other words rape, or HIV?" said Thembi Nkambule, National coordinator of the Swaziland National Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (SWANNEPHA), an HIV/AIDS umbrella organisation.

I don’t like where this story is going. But maybe the next part will explain how the victim is hurt by this law. Read on, MacDuff:

The proposed legislation stipulates that "when a rape is attended by HIV and AIDS, the prosecution shall prove that the accused either knowingly or negligently or recklessly infected the victim with HIV and AIDS."
SWANNEPHA said in a statement that it did not condone rape, but wished the legislation's punishments were in line with the crime, and its affiliated organisations objected to what they called the criminalisation of HIV positive people, because the rape survivor would have to take an HIV test before a convicted rapist was sentenced.

It’s obvious — this guy doesn’t give a damn about the victims. What he’s saying is: if you are a rapist and infect your victim with HIV, you shouldn’t face an extra penalty for that. And that attempt to say that victims are criminalized by an HIV test is downright pathetic.

And yet, if the guy does succeed in framing this as a victim’s-rights issue he’ll probably win a lot more converts to his cause. He’s doing a damn poor job of it, though. Would it be rude for me to speculate that his anti-retroviral drugs might be nicking potholes in his neural pathways?

Probably. And I don’t want to be rude. Best to not say anything. Instead, I’ll see if the guy finally figures out a way to make his argument live up to the headline, and frame this law as something punitive toward the HIV-positive victims of rape:

"Who can say that in five years, they won't find a cure for AIDS? This is inappropriate for today. It comes from the time when having HIV was seen as a death sentence. Now, an HIV positive person can live for years with the assistance of ARVs," Nkambule told IRIN.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

To Kill By Way Of Prevention

Some kids have such severe nut allergies that if you expose them to something as innocuous as airborne peanut particles they react like it's mustard gas. And over the last few years more and more schools have responded by applying blanket bans to all peanut products. A Mayo Clinic allergy specialist endorses this in his advice column:

A child at my daughter's school has peanut allergy, so the school has banned all peanut products to prevent inadvertently exposing this individual to these products. Is this really necessary?
- No name / No state given

Most people who have peanut allergy develop allergic reactions only when they eat peanuts or peanut products. Rarely, a person can be so sensitive to peanuts that reactions occur even when exposed only to peanut particles in the air.
Keep in mind that kids share food. Also, peanut particles from foods eaten by other children can contaminate surfaces such as tables, plates and utensils. These surfaces could then be touched by a child with peanut allergy, triggering an allergic reaction. One way to reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure is to ban all peanuts and peanut products from the school.

If your body might fail if exposed to even trace amounts of something most others find completely innocuous, how can you safely leave the house? Here’s the story of some of the earliest schoolwide peanut bans, which the New York Times reported in 1998:

Prodded by parents warning of lethal allergies, by the contentions of some researchers that peanut allergies are on the rise and, not least, by a fear of litigation, growing numbers of public and private schools across the country, including many of New York City's most selective independent schools, have banned peanut butter from their cafeterias. Others have declared peanut-free zones or set up committees to figure out what to do.

Think about that: out of concern for children with such severe allergies that even trace contact with peanuts might kill them, schools in Manhattan ban peanut products.

For those not familiar with the city:

1. It is very crowded and even if you never set foot in a school you can’t go anywhere without having hundreds of people, at some point during the day, pass within a few inches of you. You will even — literally — bump into some of them.

2. In nice weather there are thousands of street vendors selling all sorts of foods and beverages, including delicious bags of fresh, hot, honey-roasted peanuts and cashews you can smell from a block away when the air is right. People who eat these nuts (or even walk by the sellers) become nut-contaminated and some of them are among those who will pass within a few inches of you. You will even — literally — bump into some of them.

3. Manhattan has so many restaurants that if you ate at three different ones every day it would take decades to eat in every one. Many are ethnic places that fry their foods in peanut oil. Their customers (as well as some people who merely walk by when the doors are open) become nut-contaminated and some of them are among those who will pass within a few inches of you. You will even — literally — bump into some of them.

So if you have one of those fatal peanut allergies, stay away from Manhattan or else you will die. Banning peanuts from Manhattan schools won't save any allergic children; we must ban the allergic children from Manhattan. Even in less crowded places, a kid with such a dangerous condition must not be taught to go through life with the belief that others will go out of their way to accommodate him. In the long run, getting your kid through school alive doesn’t matter if he dies within a year of graduation.

A new study demonstrates a predictable side effect of the nut-free-world campaign:

More than one in four children with nut allergies can't identify the nut that they are allergic to, a new study shows.
The findings suggest that well-meaning parents may be being a little too protective for their children's own good by banning nuts completely from the home, so children never see what they look like, Dr. Ronald M. Ferdman of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, California, told Reuters.
"Kids just have to get that skill to be able to protect themselves, instead of relying on their parents for the rest of their lives," he said.

(Had I been the reporter covering the story, I would have asked the researchers about the possibility of school nut bans contributing to the problem. I’ll bet they would have given me some great quotes in support of my thesis. But I digress.)

Children with nut allergies were actually less able than those without allergies to correctly identify shelled and unshelled peanuts, although this may have been because they were slightly younger on average than the non-allergic kids, Ferdman and Church note in their report in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. . . . "It is possible that the parents of peanut-allergic children did not allow peanuts in their homes and that their children, therefore, never had the opportunity to learn to recognize them," the researchers note.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Be Very Afraid If You Don’t Have Time To Read This

So I’m online looking for an article worth discussing with you, and check out this terrifying headline I found:

Herpes infections frequent in adolescent girls
Almost 60 percent over age 14 tested positive for infection, study shows

Sixty percent! Almost six out of every ten girls above age 14 have herpes? Holy freaking God, as a (soft-core) libertarian I’m not usually one to call for government intervention but sixty percent of a generation with an incurable sexually transmitted disease is a public-health catastrophe and somebody has to do something and — wait a minute. Here’s what the article says next:

Infections with the virus that causes genital herpes are common among teen girls, a new study shows.
While none of the young women in the study had oral or genital herpes symptoms, some of those who tested positive for the virus were shedding it in their vaginal area, meaning it would be possible for them to transmit the infection to others, Dr. Kenneth H. Fife of the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and colleagues report.
“It was something that we sort of expected to find based on the incidence of other sexually transmitted infections in this population,” Fife told Reuters Health in an interview.

“In this population.” Okay, so it’s not sixty percent of adolescent girls in general, but of the population of a given study. That’s still pretty disturbing, but not as scary as it sounded at first. Just who was this population, anyway? Let’s see how bad this is:

A national survey of the U.S. population conducted between 1988 and 1994 found that more than one in five people over 12 had blood tests that showed evidence for infection with herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV 2), the virus typically responsible for genital herpes

I’ll admit, I’m not much of a mathematician but I’m pretty sure one in five is closer to twenty percent. Have rates increased to sixty percent since 1994? Could those lurid sex stories you hear about young girls these days be true?

More details from the story:

Fife and his team analyzed data from a study in which a group of young women were followed closely to determine if they contracted any sexually transmitted infections. Their analysis included results of blood and genital specimen tests obtained every three months from 100 women aged 14 to 18.
At the study’s outset, they found, 59.6 percent of the women tested positive for HSV 1, while 13.5 percent carried HSV 2. During the follow-up period, from 1999 to 2004, four of the study participants contracted new HSV 1 infections, while seven acquired HSV 2.

HSV 1 is the cold-sore form of herpes. So that scary “60 percent” headline statistic refers to a population — don’t know which one — where sixty percent of girls have the herpes virus that might give them cold sores when they’re sick, but only 13.5 percent had the unsafe-sex version.

How does this 13.5 percent figure compare to the overall population? Of all the girls aged 14-18 in America, what percent have genital herpes? I couldn’t find that information in the article or online; best I could do was the CDC’s statistic that one out of five Americans over age 12 has HSV-2.

One out of five? It was a little more than that in the 1988-1994 study. The rates of infection have gone down, by a tiny margin.

But that’s not the type of headline that grabs people’s attention the way “60 percent of girls over age 14 tested positive for herpes” does.
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