Friday, February 29, 2008

Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian"

Life, as forecast by art. Almost 20 years ago, a friend and editor and I deliberately chose to make our way, via public transportation, to an anti-sprawl conference set in the remote western suburbs of Chicago. (We made it; no one else even tried.) In a slightly more serious and more recent vein, Arnold Tukker of Delft in the Netherlands, writes in the fall issue of the e-journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy:
As a cosmopolitan European, I am stunned every time I visit the United States and witness the extent to which primary transportation is organized around the automobile and the airplane. ...Indeed, the small minority of Americans that forsakes automobile ownership carries a heavy stigma.

A few years ago, I had occasion to cross the border between Windsor (Ontario) and Detroit. The customs agents were astonished that a well-dressed man, claiming to be a scientist en route to a conference in nearby Ann Arbor, wanted to walk with a luggage cart into the United States. It jarred their mental picture, and they cross-examined me with disdain for over half an hour before finally letting me proceed. "He’s clean!” the customs agents told the border officer, a sure expression of my suspected criminal status—or worse.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

16th century Protestantism still matters

Luther's reformation wasn't about freedom, let alone freedom to interpret the Bible, argues historian James Simpson (Burning to Read) at History News Network, and he chastises religious liberals for thinking otherwise:

we should abandon the following rock-hard persuasions of the liberal tradition: that Luther believed that readers should interpret the Bible freely, making up their own minds about the truth of Scripture; that Luther placed the liberating text of Scripture above the institution of the Church; and that Lutheran theology is more “democratic.”

Instead, we would be well advised to reread Luther and his vigorous English followers, especially William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536). There we discover that the Lutheran moment was the source of fundamentalism, and the source of different kinds of persecutory violence. ... Luther detested what he called “private interpretation.” He promoted, instead, a movement that repudiated interpretation itself. A recurrent theme in Lutheran theology is that Scripture interprets itself. Scripture is not, and cannot be subject to the messy negotiations of history in which all other texts are immersed. It does its own interpreting (i.e. Scripture interprets itself, but my interpretation is right).

The idea that anything interprets itself seems like a kind of intellectual cancer. I had no idea that its roots might be this deep or this reputable.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Urban college teaching

Jennifer Tronti at Teachers College Record reviews a book that echoes her experience:
Like J. D. Scrimgeour, author of Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, I remember that my early experience as an instructor required a gradual “acclimation” (p. 7) to an atmosphere, not exactly foreign, but not fully native to my constitution. In an urban community college, my first writing course consisted of: one student with Tourette Syndrome, whose intermittent outbursts and discussions of his fictional work-in-progress punctuated the class period, one couple, recently divorced, who inexplicably sat next to each other during every class session, two deaf students (and their interpreter) whose academic well-being was far beyond my meager skills at that time, one outspoken former prostitute determined to write an account of her life and profession, several students who were part of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program who frequently wrote about their “past” lives (both legal and illegal) in their essay prompts, and a smattering of the general students to be found at any urban community college—young people just out of high school, one living in her car, others blindly following their “expected” path, and the best writer of the bunch, a soft-spoken young man whose white tank top, baggy jeans, and prominent tattoos silently proclaimed his gang affiliations. Like Scrimgeour, I also humbly cringed before these students, uncomfortably aware of my own sense of privilege and autonomy, an inherited sense of mobility that remains stable despite any wealth or dearth of academic and economic opportunities. So few of these students—his or mine—seemed to be in possession of this independent outlook.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DIY Obama

Sam Smith hopes for a movement to put some audacity into the hope:
Obama is an empty vessel. If liberals and progressives are as pathetically obsequious towards Obama as they were towards Clinton, that vessel will be filled with the desires of large financial institutions, health insurance oligopolies and foreign policy experts attempting to compensate for hormonal insecurities by invading this or that. ...

It could be happen differently if liberals and progressives were to follow the techniques of the civil rights movement with the Democrats or the contemporary GOP right, a politically sophisticated blend of intramural pressure and cooperation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

News you can't really use

According to EPI News, the most manufacturing-intensive state is Indiana, "where manufacturing accounts for 28% of the state's gross domestic product."

And the indefatigable folks at FactCheck remind us of the three presidents, so far, who were elected while still serving in Congress. That happened in 1880, 1920, and 1960, so (I add) apparently we're overdue, and (has to be said) the records of the first three do not overwhelm.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Media morass

Eschewing easy targets like presidential campaign coverage, the irreplaceable Mike Miner reads, and politely eviscerates, the abysmal coverage of recent mass murders: "Mad Gunman Triggers Healing Process."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Berry in his own words

We had some words here about Wendell Berry a few weeks ago. In an interview nicely conducted by Lauren Wilcox in World Ark, a publication of the Heifer Project, Berry himself gives what I take to be a good short summary of his stance (this issue's not on line yet):
It's important at least that we understand our economic relation to the world, the way we live from it, the way we do or don't take care of it. I think the conservation movement unwittingly helped to drive a wedge between us and our land by implying that we could live most of our lives in circumstances that don't quite suit us -- doing work that doesn't suit us, work that makes us say, Thank God it's Friday -- and then somehow, on vacation, go to a national park and reconnect with the natural world. But of course that's not a connection. ...

You don't have to go to the Rocky Mountains to confront nature, to learn from it and ask the necessary questions. If you go to a good farm that has been properly and gracefully fitted into a place, then you can see that real questions about the terms on which we live have been asked, and answered.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where you stand depends on where you sit

Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice reviews new books by Jim Wallis (The Great Awakening) and E. J. Dionne (Souled Out) in In These Times, but I'm most interested in her own experience:
Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions have a long history of supporting working class struggles. And the best indicator of whether a church will do so is based on where the workers attend services.

When coalmining members of Four Square Gospel churches in Appalachia go on strike, those churches get involved. When janitors who are members of Pentecostal storefront churches seek a contract, that church gets involved. When an unethical employer cheats members of a mega-church out of their wages, leaders of the church are likely to join a delegation to visit the employer, praying on the employer’s home doorstep until wages are paid.

Though such congregations are often written off as “conservative,” many are willing to advocate for workers if their members are affected. On the flip side, a wealthy congregation may be liberal on cultural issues but less likely to engage on worker justice issues. In other words, class matters—often more than theology.
BTW, I see Wallis will be at Seminary Co-op in Chicago, 5757 S. University, Monday noon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sometimes you should skip the blog and read the comments

"lone wolf," whoever he or she is, lists a number of qualities that should disqualify anyone from being taken seriously in discussions about foreign policy -- this in a comment at ex-Chicagoan Daniel Drezner's blog:

Cheerleading, uni-dimensional advice (pacifistic or militaristic), blaming others (individuals, institutions, countries) for poor execution, and the continuous disregard/simplification of the seminal self-interests of other countries and peoples (whether they coincide or conflict with ours) are automatic disqualifiers for consideration.

Anyone who has ever used the term 'domino' to refer to anything other than their personal gaming experiences in their family room is disqualified.

Anyone who refers to the voting percentage in an occupied country as a barometer of democratic health is disqualified.

Anyone who combines the terminology of 'escalation' and 'democracy' in the same sentence is disqualified.

Anyone who does not know that threats not acted upon are simply bluffs waiting to be called is disqualified.

Lastly, anyone who thinks that the short or intermediate term application of military force will be 'transformative' in any other way than destructive (which can be desirable in some circumstances, like Hiroshima) needs to be permanently barred from any serious foreign policy discussion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The long retreat continues

Once upon a time, human beings were unique, a divine exception to nature with dominion over it. Now we know that we share most of our DNA with chimps; other animals make and use tools, and reason in certain ways. Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser (not this one AFAIK!) has established a new line of defense. According to a Harvard press release distributed by EurekAlert, he says humans are still the only creatures who have the following four abilities:
to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding;

to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation;

to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and

to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.
animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have “floodlight” cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.
OK, folks, there's your target. Can your dog do any of that?

Actually, this puts me in mind of Thoreau in Walden, where he takes a different tack, speaking of
a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Barry bounces so you can too

About five years ago I wrote about Barry Moltz, an author/entrepreneur with an uncharacteristic kind of business book, You Need to Be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting and Growing Your Business. Now I'm the wannabe entrepreneur and he's back with a new book, Bounce! Failure, Resiliency, and Confidence to Achieve Your Next Great Success.

It's NOT a comeback book. Moltz is still in the business of telling truths that don't fit in the narrow intellectual confines of your usual business or motivational talk. Failure happens. Failure isn't always educational. It often isn't even your fault.
There are plenty of times when dead-end failure just plain stinks, and you can't pretty it up or minimize the pain by ferreting out something of value from the mess.

My third company once lost its largest company because the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) caught them stealing. Another time, I lost my best employee because her spouse took a new job 1,000 miles away. There wasn't much new for me to learn from either of these situations that I didn't already know. {8}
Since a lot of bad things just happen, and since business theology is no better at making them nice than regular theology is, you need to develop the resilience to live through failure and bounce back. Moltz's book is modeled on rubber-band balls he created as a kid: he suggests ten "bands" to add to yours so you too can bounce better when it's required. Sounds like a book that should be on the list of a lot of current, former, and soon-to-be-former journalists, for starters.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Please make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear. From Worldwatch Institute via ENN:
A few years ago, a homeowner in Las Vegas—a place that gets maybe five inches of rainfall a year—was confronted by a water district inspector for running an illegal sprinkler in the middle of the day. The man became very angry. He said, “You people and all your stupid rules—you’re trying to turn this place into a desert!”

How trustworthy would you say oil companies are?

What's less popular than almost anything? Big business. Robert Weissman has the numbers at the Multinational Monitor Editor's Blog:
A November 2007 Harris poll found that less than 15 percent of the population believes each of the following industries to be "generally honest and trustworthy:" tobacco companies (3 percent); oil companies (3 percent); managed care companies such as HMOs (5 percent); health insurance companies (7 percent); telephone companies (10 percent); life insurance companies (10 percent); online retailers (10 percent); pharmaceutical and drug companies (11 percent); car manufacturers (11 percent); airlines (11 percent); packaged food companies (12 percent); electric and gas utilities (15 percent). Only 32 percent of adults said they trusted the best-rated industry about which Harris surveyed, supermarkets.
Despite decades of unremitting propaganda for deregulation of pretty much everything, small majorities favored increased regulation of oil, pharmaceutical, and health insurance companies. Weissman adds,
These are remarkable numbers. It is very hard to get this degree of agreement about anything. By way of comparison, 79 percent of adults believe the earth revolves around the sun; 18 percent say it is the other way around.
I wouldn't necessarily draw specific policy proposals from these numbers, but it's interesting how rarely the opinions of most Americans penetrate the media bubble, even in an election year.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dry country

"Although the West has gone through natural wet and dry cycles in the past, the current water flow trends differ significantly in length and in strength from natural variations in the past, the researchers conclude." That's from the a summary of an article in a recent issue of Science, "Human-Induced Changes in the Hydrology of the Western United States," (pdf) where Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and colleagues report that "up to 60 percent of the changes in river flow, snow pack and winter air temperatures in the region during this period can be attributed to human-caused climate change."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Keep them honest

Getting the facts right isn't everything, but it's the prerequisite to most things. The good folks at Fact Check would be happy to hear or see your evidence of "dubious political mailers, chain e-mails, phone calls or other political communications attacking or supporting a presidential candidate," down to and including telephone push polls "in which the caller asks something like, 'Would you change your vote if you learned that Candidate X didn’t pay her income taxes last year?'"

Biofuels: even worse than I thought

At first I thought this was just part of the noise, but it looks serious: biofuels may well cause more global warming than gasoline. Read the whole thing at the Reality-Based Community.

Any guesses how many decades it will take the bipartisan Illinois politicans from ADM to notice?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is Charles Darwin's 199th birthday, observed as Darwin Day specifically in honor of "the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor," and more generally in honor of "the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity."

Duncan Crary of the Institute for Humanist Studies heard from some journalists who aren't celebrating, one from Indiana. Well, the earth does kinda look flat out here...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Farmer John's on DVD

Over the years, starting in 1994 when few of us knew what "CSA"* stood for, John Peterson of Boone County was one of my favorite journalistic subjects. I thought I'd told his story in this article, but I didn't know the half of it. Now the movie about his unique combination of glitter and grease and how it played in rural Illinois is out on DVD, with extras.

*Community Supported Agriculture.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Don't cry for FutureGen

Joseph Romm at Gristmill has the scoop on the supposed clean-coal project that was to be in downstate Mattoon, Illinois:
"By the time this technology was ready to commercialize on a significant scale in the early 2020s, the world will have built or begun construction on more than a 1000 GW of coal plants, using traditional technology that is not designed for carbon capture and storage. The climate will have been destroyed irrevocably before Futuregen could have accomplished anything useful in the marketplace. Also, we will still need a mandatory cap on carbon emissions to make future FutureGen plants viable because they will be more expensive than traditional plants even in the 2020s. Since the Bush administration opposes a mandatory cap, the whole R&D effort looks like another delaying action."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

US health care doesn't measure up

From a Commonwealth Fund summary of a study published in Health Affairs:
Between 1997–98 and 2002–03, amenable mortality fell by an average of 16 percent in all countries except the U.S., where the decline was only 4 percent. In 1997–98, the U.S. ranked 15th out of the 19 countries on this measure—ahead of only Finland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Ireland—with a rate of 114.7 deaths per 100,000 people. By 2002–03, the U.S. fell to last place, with 109.7 per 100,000. In the leading countries, mortality rates per 100,000 people were 64.8 in France, 71.2 in Japan, and 71.3 in Australia.
In case you're wondering,
The concept of amenable mortality was developed in the 1970s to assess the quality and performance of health systems and to track changes over time. For this study, the researchers used data from the World Health Organization on deaths from conditions considered amenable to health care, such as treatable cancers, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
By the authors' most conservative estimate, 75,000 people died in the US in 2002 who would have lived if we were merely up to the average of the other countries.

Note that this is not a case where our system is actually declining in absolute terms; it's simply improving more slowly than comparable systems. For those of us brought up on the idea that the US was ahead of everyone else and always would be, that's small comfort. But the sooner studies of this sort knock that notion out of our heads, the better.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Obama the Clintonite

Max Fraser in the Nation isn't happy with Barack:
Only Obama has not called for a moratorium and interest-rate freeze. Though he has been a proponent of mortgage fraud legislation in the Senate, he has remained silent on further financial regulations. ... Obama's disappointing foreclosure plan stems from the centrist politics of his three chief economic advisers and his campaign's ties to Wall Street institutions opposed to increased financial regulation. ... Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachussets, believes "these three advisers generally reflect Obama's very moderate economic program, similar to Clintonism."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Gore's job

At Grist, Mark Hertsgaard explains that Al Gore has a more important job than being president:
I spent two hours one-on-one with Gore just before An Inconvenient Truth was released. Much of our interview focused on an irony that seems to have escaped many of those who have urged him to run for president: the last time Gore served in the White House, he failed to deliver much progress against global warming. During its eight years in office, the Clinton-Gore administration did not pass a single major law against climate change. It did sign the Kyoto Protocol, but only after watering it down with crippling loopholes, and then it chose not to seek Senate ratification of the treaty.

In our interview, Gore acknowledged these failings. But he argued that the blame lay not with him or Clinton, who, he said, "was much more responsive than not." Rather, Gore said, "the resistance was tremendous" from the status quo. The two richest, most powerful industries in American history, oil and autos, were fiercely opposed to cutting emissions, as were coal and electricity companies. Kyoto was "blocked by pressure from the polluters," Gore told me, adding that ExxonMobil and other big companies "purposely confused people" with tens of millions of dollars of advertising and lobbying that misrepresented and disparaged the science behind global warming. This disinformation campaign encouraged "massive denial in the country as a whole" and "conditioned the battlefield" in Washington so that Congress ended up blocking reform.

The lesson Gore seems to have drawn from his defeats in the White House is that being president is not enough to create real change, especially if powerful interests are against you. The only way to defeat them is to recondition the battlefield -- to build such a pervasive wave of public pressure that no matter which politicians get elected, each will feel compelled to take action, even if it means disappointing ExxonMobil and friends.
No prize at the end of this road, just the gratitude of posterity.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Biophilia vs. Videophilia, round 3 of many

Your mom didn’t need a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Environmental Management to say, “You kids turn off that TV and get outside -- now!” But biologists Patty Zaradic and Oliver Pergams have provided today’s parents with one.

They’re saying pretty much what mom did, but they came to it in a roundabout way. After Pergams (now at UIC) left commodities trading and got a Ph.D., he came across an unnerving fact: for the last 20 years Americans have been visiting their national parks less and less. From just 0.2 visits per person per year in the late 1930s, attendance rose to a peak of 1.2 visits per person per year in 1987. Since 1988, it’s dropped steadily, and is now back to the Carter-era level of 0.9.

If you’re just back from a crowded weekend at Indiana Dunes or Yosemite, you might say it’s about time. But think about the long term: most people who care about nature grew up spending time outdoors with loved ones. A kid on a family vacation at Mammoth Cave has a better chance of understanding nature’s beauty and importance than one who fears (or ignores) the tall weeds in her back yard. Zaradic (of Bryn Mawr College) and co-author Pergams think this decline might be a “check engine light” for the future of the environmental movement. Now they've published even more reasons to think so, extending beyond the peculiarities of national parks.

As many forms of outdoor recreation decline, what's gone up? Screen time. “The average person in the US went from spending 0 h/year on the internet in 1987 to spending 174 h/year on the internet in 2003,” they write, “and from spending 0 h/year playing video games in 1987 to spending 90 h/year in 2003.” All those hours came out of some other 1987 activity -- sleeping, chatting with friends, playing Dungeons and Dragons, watching TV, or blowing milkweed seeds into the wind. Pergams and Zaradic don't know for sure, but they're especially worried about that last one.

The correlation's impressive and it's a zero-sum game 'cause we only get 24 hours a day. Lotsa details (plus links to their journal articles) at and this Chicago Wilderness article.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"The Election Is Over: We Lost"

Sam Smith observes that once again in 2008 we have no serious opposition party to vote for:
There is, to be sure, a great difference between the two remaining major Democratic candidates: Obama has integrity, the Clintons do not; only one alleged crook has showed up on the Obama big backer list; with the Clintons they litter the place like packing peanuts on the floor after opening a package.

But while that provides a choice and an important one, there is another that we also need -- restoring the First American Republic and ending the second robber baron era -- which is no longer on the table with departure of John Edwards. We are left with corporatized, conservative compromisers who add mightily to the argument that the Democratic Party should be forced to change its name to end the consumer fraud it purveys.
His proposals of what to do are a bit more pragmatic than this rhetoric might suggest.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Capitalism without accountability

"Hemorrhaging losses, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Bear Sterns had to increase the percentage of revenue they devote to pay to ladle out these bonuses. So much for pay for performance."

That's Robert Borosage at the Campaign for America's Future. Click through to see his response to the breathtaking comment from a headhunter firm: “It’s essential that pay is still there or you’re going to lose really good people.”