Archive for December, 2006|Monthly archive page

The Ghost of Authors Present

Since he is no longer up for re-election, George W. Bush has been able to actually admit that he can read. Not only do we have his widely commented excursion in existentialist/absurdist literature this summer with Albert Camus (among other readings) but for Christmas we found out from the Washington Post that he just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost “- an account of the plundering of the Congo in the late 19th century. ”

For those of you who, like myself, were more interested in the blossoming sexuality of your high school classroom neighbor than the detailed lecture on the causes, execution and consequences of nineteen century European African colonialism (a lecture that often lasts a respectable thirty seconds) I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of the Congo Free State. To preface, I haven’t read King Leopold’s Ghost and have gotten most of my information from the most excellent one volume history The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham. (For a single volume history of post-colonial Africa I would also strongly recommend Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.)

In 1865. Leopold II succeeded his eponymous father to the throne of Belgium. He had long felt that Belgium needed an outlet for it’s energies; something to mobilize the people, something to mobilize the country, something to make him money. In short Belgium needed colonies. Unfortunately several factors stood in the way of this noble dream. First there really wasn’t much territory left – South America had long since been divvied up between Portugal and Spain, the Pacific and Southeast Asia were under the control of the French and British and Victoria would be crowned first Empress of India in just over a decade. The second stumbling block was closer to home; neither the politicians nor the public were enamored with the idea of carrying the Belgium flag out to paint the world – um – green.

None of this deterred King Leopold. He spent the next ten years seeking an outlet for his dreams. First he looked at buying a colony. Britain turned down the idea of a Belgian colony among the palm trees and cannibals in New Guinea; Spain declined ‘leasing’ the Philippines for the paltry sum of 10 million francs. Leopold had to look elsewhere. His attention was drawn to Africa, in the 1860’s and 1870’s still largely unexplored. He was especially interested the adventures of Lieutenant Verney Lovett Cameron in central Africa and Cameron’s descriptions in January 1876 of a land of ‘unspeakable richness’ waiting for an ‘enterprising capitalist’.

Since the Belgian public wasn’t interested in supporting a colony in Africa, Leopold would just have to do it himself – privately. He arranged a conference with leading explorers, including the American Henry Stanley, made famous from his accounts of his African adventures during the search for the Scottish missionary David Livingstone. One thing led to another and Leopold had manoeuvred the major European countries to a conference in Berlin about the subject of dividing up Africa. Leopold carved out the center – the area around the river Congo – for himself. Publicly his motives were of the highest calibre. Philanthropically he would bring European ‘civilization’ to the deepest, darkest corners of the African continent; the calibre of his motives were almost has high as those of the rifles used by the mercenaries he would send.

Now building a colony isn’t cheap. The costs of empire are what caused the colonial American tax bruhahas leading to revolution and it was the cost that tarnished the feelings of Belgian politicians towards what was then called Leopold’s folly. After ten years and an investment of over two-thirds of Leopold’s net worth, the Congo ‘Free State’ still wasn’t showing a profit. Ivory was the biggest export but it wasn’t enough. Things might have collapsed if it wasn’t for the work of two men – neither Belgian.

The first person died even before Leopold was crowned. He was the American Charles Goodyear, whose patent number 3,633 from 1844 for the vulcanization of rubber revolutionized the industry, making the sap of an otherwise useless tree one of the most important industrial products of the age. The second critical figure was John Boyd Dunlap, who’s patent for an inflatable tire changed the way the world rides just as the use of bicycles and automobiles soared. The demand for rubber exploded and Leopold was sitting on the dynamite – the wild rubber trees in the Congo.

It is here that the story loses any innocence. By 1902 Leopold was making around 40 million Francs per year from Congo exports. Enjoying the luxuries of his newly built palace and the pleasures of his eighteen year old mistress (Leopold was 65 by now – eat your heart out Mike Foley), Leopold had managed to keep any hints of misdoing in the Congo more or less quiet. It took the British shipping clerk/journalist Edmond Morel to do the calculations and the photographer/missionary Alice Harris (do all these people do two things?) to provide the evidence of the atrocities being committed in the name of commerce. It turns out that instead of the normal colonial model, exporting raw goods from the colonies and importing finished products into the colonies, Leopold had come up with a less moral but far more profitable method – export raw goods and use the local population as slave labor. (*forehead slap* It’s just so simple – why didn’t the British think of that? Oh – honor.) In one of the more disgraceful practices, native mercenaries were required to ‘prove’ they had used their ammunition correctly – one bullet – one hand. Of course if the previous owner wasn’t dead yet, that was of no bother.

By 1908 the public outcry against Leopold had become unbearable. He was forced to turn the Congo ‘Free State’ over to the Belgian government and retired to his estates until his death in 1909. His funeral procession was booed.

But what does all this have to do with our current noble leader, George W. Bush?

Quite a bit – at least according to Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost. In a verbal broadside an open letter printed in the LA Times on December 22, Hochschild finds lots of similarities. He poses President Bush a number of questions.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What’s more, the king justified his grab for Congo’s natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you’re right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I’m sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.

The piece is both well written and damning. Well worth the read.

But, as opposed to Mr (Dr? Prof?) Hochschild, I wouldn’t try to ask questions President Weasel wouldn’t answer – I’d simply make a single suggestion. Next time when you’re choosing Christmas reading Mr President, try to make sure the author is no longer among the breathing, editorial-writing living. In this sense Camus was an excellent choice.

That way, shortly before Christmas, like Scrooge, you might be able to avoid the Ghost of Authors Present while reading about the Ghosts of Kings Past.

Just an idea.

Heads Up – Roleplaying

This is a quicky in more ways than one.

Have you ever wondered what political roleplaying looks like. You can find the answer in this NSFW and probably not advisable for Republican staffer video.

While you’re there you might consider watching the Republican version of sexual consent.

Hat Tip: Moxiegrrrl

Freedom In Peril: Streich(er) One

My impression was that the democratic electoral wins in November dimmed the chances of a further (rapid) erosion of civil liberties in America, a movement from the current meritocracy to a new aristocratic/technocratic police state. I wasn’t alone – but not every one sees this as a good thing.

In addition to absolute control of information flow, propaganda is critical in any dictatorship. One of the most distasteful propagandists during the Nazi regime was Julius Streicher, the publisher of the anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer. Over the Christmas holidays, while other people were enjoying the company of family and friends, the merry gentlemen at Wonkette were uncovering a modern version of Der Stürmer; this time not from the neo-nazis, but purportedly from our friends at the NRA.

The story started on December 22nd, when Wonkette posted images from what was supposed to be an NRA propaganda pamphlet. The original Wonkette post starts:

Pro-gun Democrats did better in the midterms than probably any other class of politician, but the National Rifle Association is not in the business of reflecting moderate political reality. The NRA lives off memberships, and the standard card-carrying member has two enemies: Democrats and … deer, moTerrorist Land Lobstersst likely.

But even loyalists go soft, as the GOP learned last month, and you need some Grade A propaganda to get people riled up again. Let no one accuse the NRA of shirking its duty. Freedom In Peril: Guarding the 2nd Amendment in the 21st Century, is a spectacularly beautiful graphic novel. Here, for example, is one of the biggest threats to the white suburban hunter: dirty hippies and their evil sidekicks: the dynamite-carrying owl, sinister pig, angry Wall Street bull, dire wolf, terror chicken and Land Lobster:

The story was quickly picked up by BoingBoing and derided both in the California CCW – concealed carry forum and in DailyKos by the slightly gender confused (still thinking Wonkette is feminine) writer GoSlash27. The poster at CCW noticed discrepancies in the jpeg naming tag in the posted images and BoingBoing was also completely sceptical. The conflict continued in comment wars both pro and con.

Wonkette fired back. They forwarded not the images they had captured but the original PDF to their detractors. The complete document is now available for download from BoingBoing. This changed the tone of the conversation moving from the determination of the origin to a discussion of who actually did the artwork and the secret messages hidden behind the images.

After two days BoingBoing and CCW convinced themselves that the document might very well be genuine with even the CCW admin conceding:

Seeing those images out of context I initially thought they couldn’t possibly be from the NRA, based on the message and the visual style. I further convinced myself with my faulty JPEG analysis. Seeing the images in context, I’m now inclined to think that, unless we hear otherwise from the NRA, this is genuine. Congratulations to Wonkette for scooping this.

I certainly owe Wonkette a six-pack of organic lager. As soon as Ken sends me their mailing address said six-pack shall be on its way. It’s cool that he’s now a member and is coming to California, so hopefully he will join us at some of our fun events soon, and our crack GC experts can help him out on his GC.

After the issue finally landed at Raw Story, Wonkette, being Wonkette, had the last word. (I think they’re still a little grumpy about not getting credit for scooping the Washington Post on that whole Congressional Page Fo’ Paw faux pas thing.)

Of course the document, real or not, is an amazing amount of work. The amount of time and effort that went into the production of this – um – screed is astounding. It reminds me of the copies of Der Stürmer that I’ve seen. Juilus Streicher was hung after his conviction at the Nuremburg trials. I wonder what the fate of the publicist here will be?

In any case, it will be interesting to see if the story gets more air time and depending on how this turns out, it is either another scoop for Wonkette and Streicher strike one for the NRA or Wonkette has struck out.

PS: I love the hairy legs on the activist in the image. You can’t be a real ecoterrorist and SHAVE for god’s sake.

Land Lobsters

Animial rights terrorist propaganda picture from pamphlet proportedly from the NRA

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

The major newspapers always need a bit of file fluff to fill up the holiday editions. The New York Times chose to run a story about Johnny Five by Manny Fernandez on Christmas Eve.

In a city of lights, Johnny Five lives in the dark. He calls his home a cave, but it is really a kind of dungeon, deep in the crevices below an abandoned train station in the Bronx.
He has been bitten by bedbugs. A mysterious gray goo clings to the walls. His air shafts are holes the size of a fist. It is stiflingly hot in summer and so cold in winter that a quart of milk freezes in 15 minutes.

He loves it here.

He hates it here.

According to the story John Carbone, called Johnny Five after the robot in the 1986 movie Short Circuit, is in the traditional sense homeless. He doesn’t have a heated apartment, a house or a room. But he does have a place he considers home, an urban cave under a train station.

The accompanying video, obviously filmed during the summer, is well worth spending the 6 minutes watching. It shows the juxtaposition between addiction, homelessness and honesty. It describes Johnny’s place in society. It shows him straddling two worlds. The literally dark, dank world of the homeless and the world of understanding and help. Perhaps his last major human contact is Sister Lauria Fitzgerald, a Catholic nun who has spent twenty years working in the Bronx helping the homeless. She uses Johnny to run errands, help distribute sleeping bags and food to others; she also would like to get him out of his cave.

But I think the demons chasing Johnny will not allow him to accept ‘help’ in the traditional sense. That’s what makes policies attempting to outlaw helping the homeless outside of ‘official’ channels, policies like those in Las Vegas and Orlando, worse than useless. Even though the Las Vegas law was ruled unconstitutional, bans on inofficial are spreading.

But as opposed to the neo-con, Social Darwinist theories, forcing people to ‘buck up’ and ‘fly right’ just isn’t going to solve the issue. As I see it the problem is the people. People who don’t fit. Who hide from life, both hating themselves and the people around them. They do run from their problems, fleeing into the brief comfort provided by substances or faith. Unfortunately, these people, many with limited education and spotty employment records, are no longer acceptable for the kinds of jobs that would have been available even twenty years ago. The number of low income jobs is slowly being eliminated. As the gap between the rich/upper middle class and the lower income brackets widens, only a spotless record will give someone a stable job.

But even that analysis assumes that the person is stable enough to hold the job; stable enough to take medication to treat schizophrenia or borderline disorders; stable enough to overcome the addictions that have taken hold in their lives. It also assumes that the job would pay enough to keep the person clothed, fed and housed and perhaps on the medication necessary to achieve medication. A problem increasingly difficult in today’s society.

But there is hope. Johnny Five is homeless, he smokes crack and is self admittedly schizophrenic. He hears voices, both real and ‘imagined’ but he also raps the Lords prayer. Sister Lauria understands his faith. She also trusts Johnny. But despite years of pleading, she was never able to convince him. Until recently.

Several months ago, Johnny told Sister Lauria he wanted out of the cave. He wanted her to help him find housing. She said it was the first time in the eight years she has known him that he expressed any interest in leaving the cave for good. Before, she said, he would never consider it, despite her begging.

Johnny said he was simply tired. “Old age caught me like a thief in the night,” he said. “My body is not the same.”

Maybe Johnny’s body will finally bring him in from the cold. Maybe he will be able accept and afford the help he needs. Maybe he will have spent his last Christmas in a cave.

I hope for his sake there is light at the end of the tunnel.


WordPress didn’t like me this week. I wasn’t able to post anything at all and only as of today am I  able to post. Unfortunately, now that I can write, I don’t have much time to the end until after the holidays. I also don’t have anything left to write.

Since I couldn’t write, I got scooped by Blondsense on the whole dead deer in front of Cheney’s house story.  (Wonkette got informed first, but they always get the story first.)  I really don’t have the energy to say anything about Bush’s push to put more troops in Iraq even if the military says it’s not a good idea. Of course why doesn’t Bush simply contract a private army to control Iraq? Oh yeah, he puts them in detention centers.

Even Danny and Nina found a new home. Despite the best efforts of Ehrensenf (with subtitles!) and Rocketboom it wasn’t Plano, Texas. It wasn’t even Eden Prarie. (According to Ehrensenf it was Denver but the page is down now.)

Thus, I wish all a happy Holiday/Christmas/Chunaka/Kwanzaa. See you next week.  A good night to all and to all a good night.

Intelligent Anniversaries

With December 20th approaching – the anniversary of the decision in the Dover Intelligent Design case – the Discovery Institute is once again trying to get traction by attacking the ruling by Judge John Jones III. This time they are trying to get him for copying parts of his ruling from the ACLU finding of fact.

I won’t tear the arguments apart. I’ll leave that to Ed Brayton, someone does a much finer job than I could. But I would like to repeat the money quote from the Pennsylvania York Dispatch article. It comes for Witold Walczak from the Pennsylvania ACLU who was on the legal team that showed just how unintelligent ID really is.

“They’re getting no traction in the scientific world so they’re trying to do something … as a PR stunt to get attention,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case.

“That’s not how scientists work,” he said. “Discovery Institute is trying to litigate a year-old case in the media.”

Walczak said the Discovery Institute staff is not, as it claims, interested in finding scientific truths; it is more interested in a “cultural war,” pushing for intelligent design and publicly criticizing a judge.

“Why don’t these guys go back to their ‘labs,’ and do something meaningful?” Walczak asked. “Oh, wait. They don’t have labs. Silly me.”

I love it. “They don’t have labs. Silly me.” And I thought lawyers were supposed to mince words. Perfect!

Have a happy anniversary. The anniversary of an excellent judicial step forward.

Heart Warming


I admit it. I have terminally cold hands. It wasn’t always that way. I just think I used up all my heating in the first 30 years of my life and will now have to spend the rest of my days slowly sucking energy out of the room.

Of course I could order a hot mouse.

Or perhaps a mouse pad?

Then I came across this. The coolest Christmas tree in the world!

I doubt I’ll order any of these thinks, but the idea that they exist warms my heart – if not my hands.

And The Show Goes On

Apparently the faux pas Olmert made Monday just isn’t going away.

Despite attempts by the Israeli government to diss the whole issue, people just aren’t letting the thing drop. Reports are surfacing that the Finns are getting in the act.

Seppo Kääriäinen, the Finnish defence minister, was quoted as saying by German daily Berliner Zeitung on Wednesday that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, should explain his hint in a German television interview that the country possessed nuclear weapons.

“I think that Mr Olmert should clarify slightly what exactly this information really means,” Mr Kääriäinen told the paper.

Mr Kääriäinen also hoped that international crisis management could continue uninterrupted in Lebanon and added that the EU would watch closely what reactions Israel’s reported admission of nuclear capability would cause in the region.

For those who don’t pay attention, Finland has the EU Presidency this year. (The countries take turns in the EU – who needs this democracy voting crap!)

Anyway, Washington Post has picked up the story and posted it online and this may appear at my favorite Arms Control blog in the near future.

It’s gotten so bad that the Jerusalem Post is already looking at the long term problems.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s apparent inclusion of Israel in the nuclear club and confirmation that the country has nuclear weapons could prove disastrous to Israel’s strategic standing, senior defense officials said Tuesday.

According to the officials – responsible for planning Israel’s long-term defense strategy – Olmert’s comment could eventually lead to renewed pressure to open up the country’s nuclear installations to international inspections. Egypt has repeatedly called for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of the Dimona nuclear facility as well as Israel’s signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Apparently the decades old policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ is finally over with more and more people putting pressure on Israel. Even the Israelis don’t really seem to be denying the existence of weapons but rather denying having claimed to have weapons. Then deny the denial (or something).

Next up – George W. Bush will decide on a new Iraq policy – insurgent ambiguity. You simply don’t accept the fact that there is any problem in Iraq. You don’t actually deny it, you simply don’t admit to having a problem. It would be back to staying the Rumsfeld course. Just wait. Then comes the Freudian slip and we have the whole mess in America.

Quicky: One Stop Bush Approval Meter

I have the Pollster.Com link in my blogroll.  But they have a new page up that I find really cool.

Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison keeps a running tally of all the opinion polls on GWB. With one click you can get the average of his current approval ratings. This is a nice feature because you don’t have the ‘house skew’ which comes from polls from individual organisations. Here you have a likely correct number.

And the current number is …

34.4% still approve of the way George W. Bush is running the country (into the ground).

Quicky: Health and Money

I am not usually as obsessive about health issues as I seem to be his week, but the cool stuff just keeps coming.

Now Kent Sepkowitz has a really good article up at Slate. He discusses the combination of drug companies and doctors. Both why each side needs the other and the risks and evils in the system. He also points to the inherent weakness as he sees it.

It’s a sleazy proposition all the way around. But as Calvin Coolidge once said, the business of America is business. Successful businesses want to sell as much as they can, as fast as they can. So doctors end up with meals and pens and trips and bogus advisory-board positions and, of course, the hordes of fine-looking well-perfumed young men and women—some literally cheerleaders—who hustle their way through physicians’ offices.

Despite its successes, the pharma business model does have a problem. The drug reps, foot soldiers in the mercantile crusade, don’t know what they are talking about. Unlike a shoe salesman or the guy who sold you your laptop, the drug rep is 100 percent lost. Imagine buying a car from someone who’s never had a driver’s license—that’s how the doctor-drug relationship plays out. None of the people trying to convince me to prescribe product A ever has prescribed product A—or product B or product C for that matter. None has ever experienced the elaborate mess that is routine patient care. The freebies seek to redress this imbalance by making the exchange seem worthwhile.

It’s a good article and I advise reading it in full.

Those Joyful Colorado Churches

Well, it seems the Colorado megachurches are losing pastors about as fast as George W. Bush is losing support. In a weird twist I never thought I would take, I quote the blurb from the *cough* Christian Broadcasting Network.

The founding pastor of a Colorado church has resigned after admitting to allegations of gay sexual relations.

On Sunday, Paul Barnes, founding pastor of the 2,100-member Grace Chapel in Englewood, told his congregation in a videotaped message he had had sexual relations with other men and was stepping down.

Dave Palmer, associate pastor of Grace Chapel, told The Denver Post that Barnes confessed to him after the church received a call last week. The church board of elders accepted Barnes’ resignation on Thursday.

But since they were nice enough to point me to The Denver Post I thought I’d hop over and take a look. Thankfully, The Post did give me the satisfaction I wanted. They quote from Rev. Barnes’ November 6 sermon “Integrity, Sin and Grace” given during the Ted Haggard – um – thing.

Barnes defined integrity as “being the same on the outside as you are on the inside.”

All people come to God broken, he said. Maybe it’s alcoholism, he said. Or a bad temper. Or pornography. Some people overcome their problems; others continue to live with them, he said.

“Most of us, if the truth were known, we wear masks,” Barnes said. “… Sometimes, we wear masks because we want to be appear more perfect than we are. But the reality of it is, all of us are so very imperfect.”

Well, it would appear Rev. Barnes was speaking from experience. Again, my heart goes out to Char, is wife. While she might have know about the whole problem, I am sure she didn’t need this kind of international exposure.

In a another Post article, a second Christian leader seems rather pessimistic about the whole thing. (Maybe he knows more than we do.)

One prominent local evangelical leader, Denver Seminary president Craig Williford, predicted additional pastors would fall in the wake of the Haggard scandal.

When one person gets caught or confesses, it’s almost like others get a new courage to face this dark side of their private lives,” Williford said. “Not only that, but the person who is complicit with the pastor will come forward. We may not be done.”

But there is one thing in Barnes’ sermon I would agree with: “some people overcome their problems; others continue to live with them.” The issue is that our definition of ‘problem’ just seems to jar slightly. To completely rethink the position of their religion – like trying to come to terms with science and evolution or homosexuality – is unthinkable. The second article continues,

While evangelicals cannot compromise on their belief that Scripture condemns homosexuality, the movement also has been guilty of being too mean-spirited, Williford said.

We may have talked about the evils of homosexuality in attempts to justify our position and not been as evenhanded or fair in representing the homosexual community as we should have been,” he said. “At times, we have probably over- generalized the lifestyle and made villains out of people who live in homosexuality.” [my emphasis]

This is like saying the Spanish Inquisition was just a little harsh on the Jews. They don’t want to accept the existence of homosexuality. Being gay or lesbian is to be condemed. But you just don’t make villains of them. You hate them in a less mean spirited way – sort of a loving hate and revulsion. You put them back in the closet and ignore the issue because it doesn’t match the words the book you claim is law. You go back to those joyous times when Congressmen and Church leaders were all manly men. Even when they weren’t.

Well. One hopes that in this joyous season, the churches in Colorado might find a few more gay presents under the Christmas tree.

Nuclear Slip Of The Tongue

After years of official silence on the issue, Israel’s Prime Minister managed to let the nuclear cat out of the bag last night on SAT 1, a German television station. According to Spiegel Online (international version),

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got himself into trouble by implying for the first time that Israel has nuclear weapons. His indirect admission has overshadowed his visit to Germany and Italy during which he is expected to urge a tougher European response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In an interview with the private SAT1 television network broadcast on Monday, Olmert contrasted Iran’s policy with that of “civilised countries” that possessed nuclear weapons.

Asked if Israel’s alleged nuclear capability weakened the case against Iran’s nuclear program, Olmert said: “Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?” [my emphasis]


This has been an open secret for over twenty years. Now the opposition in Israel is making a stink and demanding Olmert’s resignation. Thus the ‘secret’ is out. One opposition member commented “His unfortunate statement in Germany damages 50 years of Israel’s policy of ambiguity.” A statement that does not exactly sound like a non denial-denial.

Of course one wonders if this was a slip or a shot across the Iran’s bow – planned not fumbled. Why? Iran just started the ‘Holocaust’ conference announced this summer. Again from the international version of Spiegel Online.

A two-day “Holocaust conference” kicked off in Tehran on Monday. The government-sponsored event “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision” attracted 67 speakers from 30 countries, including some who have been prosecuted in Europe for casting doubt on the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.

The conference was inspired by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has already sparked international condemnation for his comments that the Holocaust was a “myth” and that Israel should be “wiped from the map.”

The Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki opened the event saying that the “aim of the conference is not to deny or confirm the Holocuast,” but “to create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust.” These “thinkers” include the French writer Georges Thiel — a convicted Holocaust denier — five anti-Zionist rabbis, and David Duke — a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

I have to wonder if these two events aren’t related. If Israel is letting the world know, in ‘uncertain’ terms that the nukes are there. Despite the denials, it isn’t news to those who follow these things, that Israel has nukes. Indeed Mordechai Vanunu, the former nuclear technician, spent 18 years in prison for revealing the details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the press in 1986. He was finally released in April 2004 but has had many restrictions on where he can live and who he can contact. This has led to clashes with authorities and he has since been re-imprisoned.

Since this information is so sensitive, it is interesting that this Israeli Prime Minister would make this mistake – this week – on German television. The coincidences are almost too much to believe.

Does this have to be a plan and not a stupid mistake. No. People and politicians make mistakes all the time. One only has to harken back to Bush’s “Let Israel kick Hezbollah’s ass’ comment. But this is an interesting slip of the tongue.

One that has nuclear consequences.

The Fat Nazis II – Herman’s Henchmen

Teresa, SAHM aka Kung Fu Goddess (insert appropriate obsequious fawning gesture here – you’ll tell me when I can stop doing this right?),  pointed me to this web page. I won’t even repeat the name here, they don’t need the traffic.

Well if New York is inhabited by Fat Nazis – Trees certainly found the SS. From their article ranting fuming blatantly blathering about the new ban.

In an unprecedented act of legislative hubris and consumer condescension, New York City’s Board of Health and Mental Hygiene banned trans fat from the city’s restaurants last Wednesday. Big-government types across the country have flocked to the nearest microphone in hopes of inspiring copycats (for examples, see here, here, here, here, and here). But fortunately, opinion leaders have fired back, burning up newspaper op-ed and editorial pages with equal parts common-sense and outrage.

They go on to quote all the newspapers and TV coverage (um – well they quote Fox – that’s sort of moving pictures on a small box that is often transmitted by cable which is fairly cool, and well if the TV wasn’t balanced it would fall over – right?) they generated in the last couple of months.  This is pretty good for a lobbying organisation. The quick response of mind bending insanity quickly scattered. Get the spin out quickly before the top stops. Of course the real inanity is in the last paragraph.

The ultimate irony of NYC’s trans fat ban is that it probably won’t make New Yorkers much healthier. This month, a survey of 600 doctors found that less than half (47 percent) think the ban will have a “significant impact on the health of those who eat there.” More than half (53 percent) said they would oppose a federal trans fat prohibition, and 49 percent agreed that the “US government does not have the right to implement such a law.”

The first statistic is probably the reverse side of the survey saying 53 percent say the ban will have “significant impact on the health of those who eat there.”[my emphisis] Probably more would subscribe to the statement that the ban will have an “impact on the health of those who eat there.” (my guess). Then they go from the – um – fat to the fire. No one is actually completely prohibiting trans-fats, they are being LIMITED. There is a fixed amount. Thus 53 percent say of the doctors rightly say that a complete prohabition probably isn’t necessary. And asking doctors whether the federal government has the right to implement a law is like asking the mall Santa if the present will get there on time. They are the wrong people to ask. (Try constitutional lawyers next time guys).

Ick. Ick. Ick. I feel like I just took an oil bath in rancid butter. Bleah! Thanks for the link Trees. It’s good to bath in depravity once in a while.

Meanwhile, give me the Fat Nazis over the brokers of death any day.

Shameless Pandering

OK. I admit it.

I don’t want the squids to take over the world. Therefore:


(But PZ is pretty good too – if you like squid.)

Oh. And Phil (Pander, Pander, Pander)

To The Dearly Departed Vlad Shelley

*Sniff, sob* She is gone. Perhaps never to return.

Yes. Ms. Dr. (Former) Rep. Shelley ‘DraculaCunt’ Sekula-Gibbs has completed her onerous term month in the honored office of Congressional representative for Houston’s 22nd district . Both the Houston Chronicle and Wonkette join me in mourning her departure. This eulogy from Wonkette,

Now that the 109th Congress is finally over (having ended with a big, stabby bang) we are forced to confront the sad fact that we’ll never again see Make-Believe Congresswoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs on C-Span, where she has made a little home for herself over this last month, babbling at odd hours to an empty chamber on topics ranging from abortions to the first lady of Azerbaijan.

But the Houston Chronicle, staffed by Texans no doubt, is made of sterner stuff. They do not look at a bleak post Holiday/Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza time of Democratic congressional chaos. No. They look to the joys, the honor, the C-Span reruns brought to the fighting 22nd district by Ms. Dr. (Former) Rep. Shelley ‘DraculaCunt’ Sekula-Gibbs.

Beside casting one of the 367 votes in favor of a tax bill that would, among other things, extend the sales-tax deduction on itemized federal income tax returns for Texans and residents of six other states, Sekula-Gibbs leaves a legacy mainly of C-SPAN video.

“District 22 had been without a representative for many months and it was important to have a voice on the floor of the House of Representatives again,” she said.

She indeed held forth on Medicare and immigration (a subject that eluded agreement by Congress) but didn’t confine herself to the major issues of the day. Among her other topics:

  • A welcome to the first lady of Azerbaijan during her visit to Washington.
  • Giving nonprofit athletic organizations immunity from being sued.
  • Declaring the first week in April “Plan Ahead with an Advance Directive Week.”
  • Requiring abortion providers to give women the option of receiving anesthesia for the fetus.

Almost forgotten the sad times. Forgotten those horrific periods of disloyalty when the former DeLay staffers resigned en mass because she allegedly ‘mishandled them.’ I mean, how could they tell the difference to Tom ‘The Hammer’ Delay? I didn’t see any news stories about impalings. (Weak kneed snivelling scoundrels!)

But the bad blood is behind us – on to the future.

Ms. Dr. (Former) Rep. Shelley ‘DraculaCunt’ Sekula-Gibbs – I beg you. Do not despair. Your victims constituents love you. You must return. I mean, this time you might even get your name PRINTED on the ballet. Oh joy. Oh rapturous electoral ecstasy. I bid you not goodbye – but adieu. Until 2008.

I’ll keep the stake warm for you.

Fat Nazis

No. I don’t mean Herman Göring, the fattest Nazi I can imagine.

No I mean those people in New York and other places starting to wage a war on one of the invisible problems with western diets. In an article yesterday, William Saletan talked about the looming ban of trans-fats in New York.

Put your hands in the air, and step away from the cookie.

That’s the message from New York City, where the health department has just ordered the city’s 25,000 restaurants to purge nearly all trans fats from their menus. Restaurant owners are terrified that other cities will follow. In the dough business, like show business, New York leads the way. If you can’t bake it there, you can’t bake it anywhere.

The whole world is engulfed in a war on fat. On one side are health crusaders. On the other side are food sellers and libertarians. Lately, the health costs of obesity have prodded politicians into the war, shifting the balance of power to the crusaders. Still, Americans draw the line at food. You stamped out our cigarettes, you made us wear seat belts, but you’ll get our burgers when you pry them from our cold, dead hands.

At steak stake here are the recipes of approximately 7500 restaurants in New York City. More specifically the regulations won’t completely ban trans-fats, but the amount of trans-fat will be limited. The New York Times coverage from September says a little more about the details of the ban.

The New York prohibition would affect the city’s entire restaurant industry, by far the nation’s largest, from McDonald’s to fashionable bistros to street corner takeouts across the five boroughs.

The city would set a limit of a half-gram of artificial trans fats per serving of any menu item, sharply reducing most customers’ intake. The fats are commonly found in baked goods, like doughnuts and cakes, as well as breads and salad dressing.

Officials said that the typical American diet now contains 5.8 grams of trans fats per day, and that a single five-ounce serving of French fries at many restaurants contained 8 grams of trans fats.

The restaurant owners seem to think that the city is overstepping its bounds. But it’s the lobbyists from the insurance industry that are putting pressure on the politicians to do something. It’s not like the city didn’t ask nicely back in 2005. They tried to retrain restaurant owners. The owners pushed back, the lobbyists pushed harder. The lobbyists are winning. In the Times article one health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden commented, “Like lead paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous, and it can be replaced.”

Libertarians will claim that people concerned about fats won’t go to fatty restaurants. Let the market decide. This is just the first step on a long war on food. Libertarians want the market to decide. Dear libertarians, the market is deciding. William Saletan gets back to the heart of the issue.

From a libertarian standpoint, the danger is that trans fats, having been targeted because, in some ways, they’re not food, will lay the groundwork for more dietary regulation because, in other ways, they are. Once you’ve banned one kind of fat, it’s easier to tackle another. You start with the argument health crusaders used in Chicago: You’re doing it to help parents protect kids. Then you try the maneuver they used in New York: quantifying now many lives you’ll save. Purging trans fats in New York would save at least 500 lives a year and possibly 1,400, said the health department. That’s more than the number saved by seat belts.

So, what do we have here? Is this a case of ‘You came for my cigarettes and I didn’t say anything, you came for my trans-fats and I didn’t say anything…?” I don’t think so.

This is a case of industrial ‘traditions’ being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21th century. Trans-fats aren’t as necessary as they were 30 years ago when they replaced hydrogenated fats made from liquid oils. One of the big defenders of trans-fats is McDonalds. They claim their French Fries will no longer taste the same. The problem is, after 6 months no one would know. Indeed, as Saletan mentions, McDonalds in Denmark no longer use trans-fats because they are basically illegal in that country of windmills and herring. One wonders if a quiet changeover, simply replacing one fat for another would do the trick. Then do the marketing blitz after the fact – “Look how healthy we are!” Of course after a showy start, McDonalds has slowly been removing healthy items from the menu here in Germany simply because no one bought them. After all, who goes to McDonalds for health food?

Many products are sweetened to improve saleability, done because it is the only way to stay competitive. Whether an all-out ban or simply an increased tax on items using calorific and unhealthy additives to increase sales is the appropriate method is something economists should discuss. New York will be an excellent test case. There are enough people in New York that should trans-fats be one of the major culprits behind heart disease, a change should be noticeable. Then it won’t be the politicians who act first, it will be the lobbyists from the insurance companies. Trying to lower costs while keeping premiums at – well – a premium.

For a strange reason, I have had a lot of health – cholesterol related posts lately. I have repeatedly hammered on the idea of lifestyle change. This is a perfect example of the kind of change I think is necessary. If industry could cut the number of excess calories in prepared foods by 10 percent in 10 years many of the bulging problems in western waistlines would be reduced. I think this is a realistic goal. I also think this is the best method for affecting this type of change.

I feel that the original fat Nazi, Herman Göring, got what was coming to him. (Well not quite, he did manage to avoided his date with the executioner but did ulimately pay for his crimes.) I also feel that the actions of these Fat Nazis need to be successful. Not in banning trans-fats but in changing lifestyles for millions of people, behind the scenes, at the source not the sink. Saving lives and not taking them like the original Nazis did.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Why Santa sometimes seems a little gumpy…

Not Safe For Santa Believers and Puppies (NSFSBaP)… 

Hat Tip: Ehrensenf (German)

Jes’ Plano Texas

Some things just aren’t meant to be.

Despite long term campaigning, the German video blog Ehrensenf (German) seems be have failed in its attempt in trying to relocate two American twenty-somethings.

Danny and Nina, two slightly dissatisfied New York youth , obviously enamored in the idea of Web 2.0, have decided to relocate. Since they weren’t sure where they wanted to live. they created a web page and asked the world to vote.

Although we have only been a couple for a little over three years, both of us had already lived in New York City for a good chunk of time when we met. After spending about eight years in Brooklyn, Nina was ready for a change of scenery, and when Danny moved on from a very demanding job the timing was perfect for a relocation.

Unfortunately, we had trouble deciding on where exactly we should move, not because we couldn’t think of any places we would like to live, but because there were too many places we thought we would enjoy. That’s when we had the idea of turning things over to you!

Here is how it works: we’ve compiled a list of 250 towns across the continental United States and we want you to vote for where we should live. You can vote as many times as you’d like for any combination of towns you like. Once a town receives 1,000,000 votes, we are going to move to that town for at least once year. Our lives are literally in your hands.

Things went slowly until Ehrensenf found the page and asked viewers to vote for an appropriate city. Of course being a rather snarky site, the Germans looked for a city name that screams boredom. Thus the town chosen wasn’t Eden Prairie, the ‘best city in American’ but instead Ehrensenf chose Plano, Texas.

I have been unable to determine the origin of the name of Plano. It is impossible to determine if the name is truly geometrically founded or simply short for Plain ol’ (i’s, l’s and apostrophes being a Texan anathema). The true story is probably lost in the mists of time.

Things went well for the 2006 German attempt to conquer convert influence American youth. Votes accumulated, things were looking good. Sadly not quite good enough. Now the imperialist American media has gotten wind of the story and the Germans are losing.

Thus I ask you, my readers, to support this attempt to put Plano on the map. Poor unknown Texas, poor unknown Plano (9th largest city in Texas). So vote for Plano. Vote quickly,  vote often. I beg you.

Support this a plain ol’ German attempt to relocate American youth.

Savannah Dreaming

As the sun rose over the dusty savannah, the small group of humans slowly prepared to move on for another day. Food is scarce during the dry season in this Africa 100,000 years BCE and the group is forced to move long distances to collect enough to eat. Meat is plentiful around the remaining watering holes but so are the predators. It is too dangerous to try to kill more than the occasional gazelle. Thus the group lives eating just enough to last to the next day with evolution supporting genes designed to live with little and not plenty. Eventually the ancestors of these people will populate every corner of the world with those genes in each human alive today.

Now, 102,000 years later, those genes designed for scarcity seem to be plaguing mankind. At least that’s what supporters of the so called calorie restricted (CR) movement would like us to believe. Calorie restricted diets basically point to research showing that extremely low calorie intake, coupled with appropriate nutritional supervision, can lead to extremely long lives, good health and a healthy self image. Rebecca Traister wrote a description of calorie reduced (CR) diets in Vanity Fair on the day before Thanksgiving.

Calorie-restricted dieters cut their food intake drastically, to around 1,200-1,400 calories a day for a woman and 1,800-2,000 for a man, depending on the individual’s height and weight. Those meager metrics of tastiness must be further apportioned to constitute 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat and 40 percent carbs. It’s an eating regimen that is greatly aided by calculators, computer software and postal scales.

Hard-core CR dieters usually lose a good deal of weight, though guidelines suggest no more than a pound a week. Some lose their ability to perform strenuous exercise, some (especially men) suffer from an altered or reduced libido, and women may stop getting their periods. Pictures of the diet’s most devoted practitioners reveal them to be emaciated, like concentration-camp survivors or after-school-special cautionary tales or thinspiration models for pro-ana Web sites. With sunken facial features and hunched frames, these spokespeople hardly look like models of what is generally considered good health.

While it is difficult to determine whether the claims of health benefits of limiting every single gram of food are truly life extending, proponents of the hypotheses do point to an increasing number of scientific studies pointing in that direction. There were for example several articles recently showing how CR rhesus monkeys Rudy, Canto and Eeyore have dramatically out ‘performed’ their similarly aged, normally fed companions Matthias, Owen and Johann. The New York Times had perhaps the most complete coverage (and not hidden behind the TimesSelect wall, wow!).

In the last year, calorie-restricted diets have been shown in various animals to affect molecular pathways likely to be involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Earlier this year, researchers studying dietary effects on humans went so far as to claim that calorie restriction may be more effective than exercise at preventing age-related diseases.

Monkeys like Rudy seem to be proving the thesis. Recent tests show that the animals on restricted diets, including Canto and Eeyore, two other rhesus monkeys at the primate research center, are in indisputably better health as they near old age than Matthias and other normally fed lab mates like Owen and Johann. The average lifespan for laboratory monkeys is 27.

Traister makes the obvious connection between anorexia nervosa and CR and also immediately points out what every CR supporter will tell you – there is a big difference between CR and anorexia. Anorexia is about self-hate and self-destruction, CR is about self-love. A love of life so great that one hopes it will go on forever.

While I am not convinced that CR is the lifestyle of choice, I would support Traister’s question of whether an extended CR life is a lifestyle worth living.

Perhaps the more important question is if this research is truly effective, why aren’t the insurance companies pushing it? Why isn’t big pharma trying to increase the effects? This is a case where science is starting to show that a lifestyle change is being shown to help, to reduce long term health problems. Is this kind of research worth $1 billion or will people simply want to live to eat and enjoy another day? It is clear that unless more and more products come on the market, products like Quorn, products that allow industry to make money while starving you happy, this kind of lifestyle will have to fight an up hill battle. Can you imagine Saturday morning cartoons without some form of sugar advertisement? Neither can I.

Last week, in what was more an aside than the real point, I said that long term lifestyle change is more important than a single medication. I used the failure of a cholesterol medication to poorly illustrate my idea. One commenter either didn’t understand or decided not to agree with my point. While I do advocate lifestyle changes, I also think those changes must be realistic. Blindly following the science-du-jour will not help. Again Traister makes the point vividly.

Of course, if health research karma is a bitch, then foodies have had a slap coming. For years, medical news has gone our way. Chocolate? Red wine? Coffee? All good for us. Recall the highlight health bulletins of the past few years: Dairy products can help us lose weight, fatty fish helps our hearts, tomato sauce on pizza is full of lycopene. The once reviled egg turns out to be very healthy in moderation. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids have been the best things to happen to food since the term “al dente” got translated correctly. And can we talk about nuts and avocados? Oh salubrious bliss, found in a notexcessively-large serving of guacamole! Even the dismal pall of the Atkins years has begun to lift, as whole grains make a comeback and people acknowledge that ketosis was great and all until they popped a single cracker in their mouths and promptly gained 20 pounds.

So maybe we got spoiled, thinking we were doing great by our bodies by keeping them active and fueling them through the addition of delicious nutrients — blueberries in our smoothies and $12 pomegranate juice in our cocktails! Our reflex at being told once more that health is about the subtraction — of joy — from our lives feels like a bucket of ice water thrown on us during a comfortable Sunday brunch. Perhaps this unwelcome news explains my general grumpiness not only about the CR diet but also about CR dieters themselves, or at least the ones I read about and see on television. Whether it’s because these people are doing something antithetical to everything I believe is good for you in life — or because they are doing it and yet continue to pass their medical tests with flying colors, my irritation knows no bounds.

The problem is not that long term lifestyle change wouldn’t be good, but the necessary cultural change is very difficult to achieve. There is a pervasive feeling that science ‘solves’ everything. But if the scientific solution is not the solution we want, a solution we can live with, has science really helped? Even worse. Would half a planet full of obsessively calorie reduced scarecrows mirroring the scarecrows inhabiting the other half with the poorest countries in the world be a good thing? Would you like to work until you are 120 because the standard lifespan is then 150 years? Do you punish the doughnut eaters for not appropriately paying the pension piper?

Back on that dusty plain in Africa, the group of humans find a clump of roots and begin eating, sitting under the shade of the solitary tree and relaxing for a moment away from the midday sun. The leader of the group leans back, closes his eyes and dreams of heaven – a world full of food, where all he would need do is hold out his hand and food would appear. Little did he know that his dream would someday come true for many people. But for some – it isn’t a dream – it’s a nightmare.

Fleeing Religious Persecution

We are about half way between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I was talking to a German friend about the meaning of the two holidays to Americans. He balked a little when I called those first settlers pilgrims because the traditional holy lands were in a diametrically opposite direction.

But you remeber the Pilgrims – those folks who left England for Holland and continued on to the North American continent because their beliefs were so extreme no one in old Europe wanted them? I mentioned to my friend the indoctrination I got in school that the reason behind the move was religious persecution and that religious freedom is one of the important pillars of American society. We both got a good laugh at that.

I present to you the case of talk radio host Jerry Klein who conducted a small experiment at the end of November.

When radio host Jerry Klein suggested that all Muslims in the United States should be identified with a crescent-shape tattoo or a distinctive arm band, the phone lines jammed instantly.

The first caller to the station in Washington said that Klein must be “off his rocker.” The second congratulated him and added: “Not only do you tattoo them in the middle of their forehead but you ship them out of this country … they are here to kill us.”

Another said that tattoos, armbands and other identifying markers such as crescent marks on driver’s licenses, passports and birth certificates did not go far enough. “What good is identifying them?” he asked. “You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans.”

The article goes on to mention that a large number of callers were shocked at the idea. Indeed, I suspect most of the more moderate callers never made it on the air because moderate opinions don’t make good entertainment. You don’t keep listening. Thus the kooks and nut cases fill the ether with bile.

But is this kind of thing really only confined to radio? In this season of brotherly love, shouldn’t the focus be on getting along and not hate and exclusion? A further example in Houston says no. According to MSNBC (hat tip: Liz Smith/Blondsense), the erection of a Mosque and an Islamic day center in a Houston suburb has residents up in arms.

A plan to build a mosque in this Houston suburb has triggered a neighborhood dispute, with community members warning the place will become a terrorist hotbed and one man threatening to hold pig races on Fridays just to offend the Muslims.

Many neighborhood residents claim they have nothing against Muslims and are more concerned about property values, drainage and traffic.

But one resident has set up an anti-Islamic Web site with an odometer-like counter that keeps track of terrorist attacks since Sept. 11. A committee has formed to buy another property and offer to trade it for the Muslims’ land. And next-door neighbor Craig Baker has threatened to race pigs on the edge of the property on the Muslim holy day. Muslims consider pigs unclean and do not eat pork.

So. Maybe we don’t lock them up into camps for their religion. But we also don’t let them build any places of worship. They are free to practice their religion, just not in our backyard. I wonder if the same irritations would have arisen if it had been a new megachurch and not a mosque. Somehow I don’t think so.

Germany also has special day in November. It is not Thanksgiving; it is a day of remembrance. It takes place on November 9 and is, in a way, dedicated to religious freedom. It is dedicated to those who lost their lives on a night in 1938 – Reichskristallnacht – the night the Nazi’s burned over 1500 synagogues.

Maybe we don’t burn down the mosques yet, but tolerance and religious freedom are something else. They lead to different stories; not to stories about pig races and not to stories about camps.

They lead to stories where people don’t have to think about fleeing religious persecution.

Fallen for the Greater Glory of God(s) and Country

This is probably going to get the Christian right rather ruffled. According to the Washington Post (Hat Tip: Wonkette), the federal government has finally accepted witchcraft into the list of accepted religions for soldiers. At least for those who are beyond disciplinary action.

The widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan saw a Wiccan symbol placed on a memorial plaque for her husband Saturday, after fighting the federal government for more than a year over the emblem.

Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, and Wiccan leaders said it was the first government-issued memorial plaque with a Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle.

More than 50 friends and family dedicated the plaque at Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Nev., about 45 miles east of Reno.

They praised Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) for his role in getting the Nevada Office of Veterans Services to issue the plaque in September. The agency cited its jurisdiction over the state veterans’ cemetery.

For those that don’t follow this that closely, Wicca is today’s ‘white witchcraft.’ Just making my life easier, I’ll just quote the Wiki article.

Wicca as a religion is primarily concerned with the priestess or priest’s relationship to the Goddess and God. The Lady and Lord (as they are often called) are seen as primal cosmic beings, the source of limitless power, yet they are also familiar figures who comfort and nurture their children, and often challenge or even reprimand them.

According to Gerald Gardner the gods of Wicca are ancient gods of the British Isles: a Horned God of hunting, death and magic who rules over an after-world paradise, and a goddess, the Great Mother (who is simultaneously the Eternal Virgin and the Primordial Enchantress), who gives regeneration and rebirth to souls of the dead and love to the living. Gardner explains that these are the tribal gods of the witches, just as the Egyptians had their tribal gods Isis and Osiris and the Jews had Elohim; he also states that a being higher than any of these tribal gods is recognised by the witches as Prime Mover, but remains unknowable, and is of little concern to them.

I feel really schizophrenic on this. (Maybe I’ve been cursed?)

On the one hand I support this. Wiccan was Sgt. Stewart’s belief or at least he professed to follow it. Even though he is beyond caring, his widow, family and friends seem comforted by this. That’s a good thing. At the same time, it shows that the Christian crusaders haven’t completely taken over the entire Pentagon. Thus this soldier gets a pentacle, which is made up of 5 triangles placed on the edges of a pentagon, (Hmmm. Coincidence? I think not!) on his grave.

On the other hand, a ‘new age’ belief, claiming some kind of historical background to a past that never existed, gets my dandruff up. Look. The European witch hunts (of which 25% of the victims were men) had little or nothing to do with magic. They were often  carried out for economic reasons and victims included both social outcasts and local political leaders. Dispite what modern witches want you to believe they had no basis in some kind of worship.

The ‘ancient gods of the British Isles’ are a product of modern fantasies. You might as well worship Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fairies – they are just as real. (You do? Never mind.) So while all you Wiccans are out having fun, hugging trees and flinging crystals about, the rest of us will be saving our money for the next iteration of iPods and forming a frenzied following of Paris Hilton. Go ahead, curse me for it. I dare you.

But one thing you won’t have to do – curse the Christian crusaders. As soon as this gets around, I’m sure they’ll have a collective heart attack.

Ethanol – The Black Hole of Energy Costs?

Mark Chu-Carroll has a great post up pointing out the silly arguments being used to dismiss ethanol as an alternative fuel.

One thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately is discussions about Ethanol, and it’s been really pissing me off. Can ethanol be a serious replacement for oil as a source of energy? I don’t know. Because both sides are using really bad math to make their arguments.

There are two fundamental questions about ethanol as fuel where the bad math comes in:

  • How much energy does it cost to produce ethanol compared to the amount of energy released by consuming ethanol?
  • How much pollution is generated by the process of producing ethanol?

Now you might have noticed Mark doesn’t believe in mincing words. He also doesn’t obscure the math. The premise being bandied about here is that it takes 1.3 gallons of gasoline to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. Since it takes 1.5 gallons ethanol to replace 1 gallon of gasoline, you have a net energy loss. Just stick with gasoline, it’s cheaper.

This silliness dates back to a study by David Pimentel, a Cornell Professor, who has studied ethanol for the last 20 years. He did an extremely (his critics say too extreme) complete analysis of the amount of energy needed to produce ethanol. How extreme? He included the calories used by the workers harvesting the corn to make the ethanol in his calculations.

Towards the end of Mark’s post, where you will go after you finish reading this, he points to a feature from Minnesota Public Radio discussing ethanol. This has the stop-the-argument-in-it’s-tracks quote.

Pimentel’s analysis is so detailed it yields some big surprises when it’s applied to other energy sources. Take gasoline. Pimentel says if all the energy used to make the fuel is considered, gasoline, too, is a net energy loser. 

“If you include the pumping and processing and so forth, it runs a little over 10 percent,” says Pimentel.

Oh. Gas is energy negative as well; ethanol is only about 20 percent worse. That doesn’t do the anti-ethanol crowd much good. 

Of course what bunched my panties, both about Mark’s post and the MPR feature, is that neither mentioned where the energy in ethanol originates. Corn you say. And from where does the energy in corn come? Corn is a fairly inefficient but cost effective solar collector. Unlike a silicon solar collector, corn converts solar energy to chemical and not electrical energy. The nice part about the chemical energy in corn is that it is easily stored, transported and processed. That’s what makes the idea behind bio-fuels so cool. Be it ethanol or canola oil (increasingly being used as a diesel alternative in Germany), bio-fuels are ultimately solar powered.

Bio-fuels are also CO2 neutral. MPR didn’t get that point. They even passed on the gas lobby talking point.

Ethanol opponents question whether the fuel is a higher quality energy source. They say it adds to air pollution.

The amount of carbon produced when they are burned comes from the atmosphere in the first place. While this is also true for fossil fuels,  the carbon in gasoline was also in the atmosphere originally, that atmosphere was here millions and millions of years in the past and not part of the current ecosphere. That makes a big difference because the biosphere can only absorb so much CO2, that’s why the concentration (about 335 parts per million or ppm) is low but increasing. If we stopped putting ‘old’ carbon back into the atmosphere, that number will start going down again.

But pro or con, it is an energizing debate – just as long as you get the math right.

New Martian Canals

Starting in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had seen long straight features on surface of Mars. He called these features, which later turned into out to be an optical illusion, canali in Italian meaning channels. This was mistranslated into canals and led not only science fiction authors to wax poetic about surface water and ancient civilisations but Percival Lowell to build his observatory near Flagstaff.

Today NASA held a very important press conference. As reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times , researchers are saying they have found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars; not surface water from millions of years ago – surface water today – now. Usually I would then give the floor to the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. But, since he has decided it would be appropriate to pose for non-profit sort of for-profit but for a really good cause adventure featuring partial nudity and skepticality, I will go instead to the excellent space exploration blogger and new mother Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society.

Newly released images from Mars Global Surveyor contain telltale deposits left behind by liquid water flowing on the surface within the few years that the spacecraft surveyed Mars.  Scientists had previously announced the discovery of features that must have been carved by water within the last several million years, but this is the first evidence that water has flowed on Mars’ surface while humans have been studying it.

“Ten years ago, Mars scientists were talking about water billions of years ago.  Five years ago, [Mike Malin and Ken Edgett] were talking about water millions of years ago.  I think now we can honestly talk about liquid water on the surface of Mars today.  And that revolution in our thinking truly has changed how we view Mars and how we should think about exploring Mars,” said scientist Phil Christensen at a press conference held today at NASA Headquarters.

Wow. I mean wow.

Ok. The features found are gullies and not canals. But for all of my anti-people-in-space snark, this would be a very important step toward being able to send people on Mars (and be able to get them back).

For the scientists, perhaps just as interesting is the new information about the number of new craters found. Again from Emily’s article,

At the same press conference, Mike Malin, lead scientist for Mars Global Surveyor’s camera systems, unveiled new sets of “before” and “after” shots of newly formed small impact craters.  “We had not anticipated, though we probably should have, that we could actually see craters forming,” Malin said.  “Given the extended duration of the Mars Global Surveyor mission, up to nine years, we could have hypothesized that we might be able to see them, but we didn’t.  So this was a completely serendipitous discovery.”

Malin stated that as a result of a systematic survey, they had found a total of 20 new craters in images covering the 30 percent of Mars that they were able to photograph twice.  Two of the areas were even imaged twice by the highest-resolution camera, permitting detailed analysis of how the surface had been changed by the asteroid impact.

This is really important because it allows scientists to remotely judge the geographic activity on the face of Mars. By comparing the number of new craters formed per year to the number of craters currently visible, one can make an estimate of how ‘old’ certain areas on the Martian surface are. This gives feedback on Martian geologic activity. Cool.

You might know that the Mars Globel Surveyor went silent about three weeks ago. From what I gather, NASA assumes that one of the solar panels malfunctioned and the space craft was unable to remain in the appropriate orbit. This was the end of one of the most productive missions to another planet. If the MGS is gone, at least it went out with a bang.

So perhaps Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury got it wrong when they talked about the Martian Canals. But maybe Carl Sagan was more prophetic when he quipped “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you.” And you might be standing next to a canal gully full of water.

Airbus Hits Boeing Turbulence Again

Spiegel is reporting (German) on yet another Airbus ouch.

Lufthansa has announced that they will be receiving a total of 20 the new Boeing 747-800 long range aircraft. A further seven long range Airbus A340-600 aircraft should supplement the fleet in 2008 and 2009. According to the company the ordered aircraft have a list price totally $6.9 billion.

The head of Lufthansa Wolfgang Mayrhuber bluntly explained that his airline would be the first to use the new super-jumbo from Boeing. The 747-800 from the US manufacturer is the newest and enlarged version of the 747 jumbo family, which has been in service since 1969. The Lufthansa order gives the 747 program a much needed tailwind. The list price for the 747-800 passenger aircraft is between 272.5 and 282.5 million dollars. [my translation]

This hasn’t really been the best year for Airbus. The A380 has both delivery problems and the orders are trailing far behind expectations. Now with Lufthansa, the German ‘national’ airline, ordering aircraft from the American competition, the reindeer aren’t playing the little reindeer games in the Airbus hallways in Hamburg this week.

Lufthansa has been slowly increasing it’s fleet this year with the board of directors announcing the purchase of over 35 aircraft over starting in 2007.