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Common Core Curriculum: A critique of pure reason

Via Krugman, I hear there’s a movement to establish a Common Core Curriculum in schools. There’s also growing resistance to it from the usual suspects who fear that if children learn anything this may hinder their subsequent participation in fact-free politics.

I’ve been on another planet the past couple of months (a very nice one, thank you for asking) and this is the first I’ve heard of it. Well, teaching biology is what I’ve done for a living, so things like Common Cores are fascinating to me. I followed the link to see what’s in this one.

First glance shows that there’s no heading for science at all. English and Math. That’s it. (Also no arts. No history. No geography. No life skills such as physical fitness, good nutrition, birth control. But I guess that’s our brave new world by now.)

Second glance is to see what they have under English. That’s where I see a Science heading. Odd. But perhaps I haven’t grasped the organization of the web site.

No, it turns out that this is the section of English class where the students learn how to comprehend and critically evaluate scientific information.

About now I’m starting to boggle. The students are supposed to magically make sense of scientific information without a single fact that could actually enable them to do so. Not one class is required in that Core to teach them anything about any of the sciences they’re supposed to know enough about to evaluate. I think these people are serious.

To really picture just how useless it is to evaluate, critically or otherwise, subjects one knows nothing about, consider a small thought exercise. “Tscherganskaya in the capitol building at Ulan Bator has received payment from Karganvili of Consolidated Cement Industries.” You may not even know where that is on the planet (with apologies to any Mongolians who may be reading). Who is Tscherganskaya? The President taking a bribe? The head of the environmental agency taking payment for carbon trading credits after a lawsuit? The accountant at a mining operation that’s delivered limestone? Is it good, bad, indifferent? You can think about the sentence all you want. Without facts you have no way to make sense of it. Similarly, without facts about herd immunity you can’t evaluate certain arguments about vaccination, knowing nothing about peat bogs handicaps evaluation of climate change, ignorance of DNA functions makes it impossible to understand genetically modified food.

I’m sure it’ll turn out that science and history and all that good stuff is supposed to fill in from somewhere, as extra courses taught at the discretion of local school districts.

Testing, testing, testing … 1…, 2…, 3….

In recent decades, any subject gets shortchanged if it doesn’t contribute directly to raising a school’s ranking based on some multiple choice test or other. In poor districts it gets shortchanged to oblivion. The tests for the Core Curriculum will test — I know you’re surprised — English and math.

All this is stupid, but we’re not done yet. Teaching nothing but English and Math, unsupported by any subject that English or Math might be about, will have all the fascination of learning the alphabet but not using it for anything. Just admiring the alphabet itself, over and over. English and math are tools, like hammers. Hammers do nothing if there are no nails. Learning about the parts of the hammer is just boring.

So having a Core Curriculum, without an accompanying actual Curriculum, is not going to lead to smart graduates who know how to think without all that time and money wasted learning stuff nobody ever needs. On the contrary, the tyranny of the test will deepen, and the thing students hate worst of all, doing exercises whose point they don’t see, will become the only thing they do.

Once that bears fruit, the pundits will again moan about the inexplicable lack of “critical thinking” skills among today’s youth. Some new bright wit, looking to secure tenure in their Education Department, will start the next round of “improvements” that require even less money and promise even greater results. And some new fools, of whom there will be an increasing proportion, will gladly hand over their money for the newest magic beans.

I know that in the popular view the last people who know anything about teaching are teachers. But in case anyone wants to hear it, let me tell you a secret about education. You sort of get what you pay for. You can spend more than you have to, but you can’t spend less.

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Women must run the world

And businesses. And everything else. That is the inescapable implication of the following findings from:

The Mere Anticipation of an Interaction with a Woman Can Impair Men’s Cognitive Performance, Nauts et al. 2012.

Recent research suggests that heterosexual men’s but not heterosexual women’s cognitive performance is impaired after an interaction with someone of the opposite sex Karremans et al., 2009. These findings have been interpreted in terms of the cognitive costs of trying to make a good impression during the interaction. In everyday life, people frequently engage in pseudo-interactions with women e.g., through the phone or the internet or anticipate interacting with a woman later on. The goal of the present research was to investigate if men’s cognitive performance decreased in these types of situations, in which men have little to no opportunity to impress her and, moreover, have little to no information about the mate value of their interaction partner. Two studies demonstrated that men’s but not women’s cognitive performance declined if they were led to believe that they interacted with a woman via a computer Study 1 or even if they merely anticipated an interaction with a woman Study 2. Together, these results suggest that an actual interaction is not a necessary prerequisite for the cognitive impairment effect to occur. Moreover, these effects occur even if men do not get information about the woman’s attractiveness. This latter finding is discussed in terms of error management theory.[Emphasis added.]

Men need to start hoping that biology is not destiny at least as much as feminists have always insisted it isn’t.

Nonfunctional yet self-destructive constructs
(Rube Goldberg)

 

(The article by psychologists was critiqued by a computational scientist for its terminology. (No link due to complete paywall.) The authors’ response is here.)

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We need a Plan B


It’s true of the pill. If that’s not obvious to you, you’re not paying attention. Or you have an agenda. One that does not include making the lives of girls healthier and easier. That’s been made clear by loads of people. Just one example, Violet at Reclusive Leftist in several posts.

What I want to add is: REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER!

Do not vote for the Current Occupant. Do not vote for him, no matter what. Do not enable your own abuse.

Seriously.

Obama does the classic abuse crap. Slam! Oh, quit yer snivelling. Where ya gonna go? (A bit of time goes by.) Gee, honey, I’ll do better, just give me one more vote. Slam! (Rinse and repeat.)

For those of us favored enough to be safe from direct hits, the line is “The other guy will beat the kids up even worse.”

Do you know what that’s called? Extortion.

When it happens to someone else, we’re all super-clear that the victim should leave. Get the hell out. Stop putting up with it. GO!

But when it happens to us, suddenly we’re the ones on the floor with a broken jaw saying to ourselves, “God help me, if I leave, what’ll happen to us? What’ll I do? Somebody else’ll beat us up even worse.”

Never again pretend you don’t know how abuse victims feel.

And for yourselves: Get the hell out. Stop putting up with it. GO!

Do not vote for Obama in November. It doesn’t matter who the Republicans run. It doesn’t matter if one of them becomes President for four years. The only thing that matters right now is not being part of your own destruction.

Get it through your heads that you will not be bullied, and you will not be held hostage, and you will not knuckle under to extortion.

Do not buy the story that you have no choice. Vote for somebody else, anybody else. Or nobody. Follow Plan B and get rid of the lying, two-faced, pandering toady.

 

Update: I wrote a post pointing it out back when, but BAR puts it more clearly: Obama: the lesser evil or the more effective evil?

But the most lucid summary of all is Vastleft’s:

cartoon by Vastleft: 'The Obama Administration is denying young girls access to Plan B contraception.' 'Would they rather have Newt Gingrich denying them access to Plan B contraception?'



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The obesity epidemic


People discuss obesity as an epidemic, but the solution somehow remains individual action. That doesn’t work for real epidemics. You can’t, for instance, not catch smallpox all by yourself. (You can be lucky and have natural resistance, but that’s different.)

It’s turning out that people spoke more truth than they realized. Evidence is accumulating that obesity is a real epidemic, i.e. a public health issue with social and environmental causes. It’s something I’ve suspected for years.

Obesity has become more prevalent over the last thirty to forty years. That means — at the population level — it can’t be caused by the human tendency to eat too much. People have always been primed to eat too much, but large numbers of very overweight people relative to the whole population is a phenomenon of the last few decades.

And note that this isn’t just a matter of changing measurements or statistics. When coffin makers have to upsize coffins because the ones they’ve used for decades no longer work, there’s a real change. It’s not just PR.

So the cause(s) of the problem have to be something that’s changed in the last few decades. I’ll list all the changed factors I can think of, but the one I want to talk about is the last. Some of them are most developed in the US, but if and when they manifest elsewhere, they can be expected to promote obesity likewise.

  • The baby boom generation, which is large relative to the whole population, has aged, and older people are often heavier. (A factor beyond anyone’s control.)
  • Advertising for high-calorie fast food has grown very sophisticated and ubiquitous, and fast food is much more available. (A social environment factor that requires changes to industries.) (A side note: advertising is not something that can be simply ignored. It functions to steer choices whether you’re paying attention or not. The only way to avoid its effect is to avoid the advertising itself, which involves avoiding almost all modern media. Individuals may do that, but it’s not going to happen at a population level, and that’s where public health issues operate.)
  • Related to that is the increase in drinking sweetened sodas. That’s upped average calorie intake by a couple of hundred calories per day. (Again, advertising and availability combine to make this a social environment factor.)
  • Related to both of the above is the use of refined sugar, which has never before been used on the huge scale of the last few decades. It promotes obesity by the simple mechanism of making it too easy to get too many calories. There’s also a potential added wrinkle involving high fructose sweeteners. Scientists argue about its effect. Fructose is processed differently than glucose, and given the way it’s regulated, it could be a contributing factor to the problem. (A social environment factor due to industry practices and agricultural subsidies.)
  • Urban factors contribute as well. Urban sprawl makes distances too big for walking. Use of mass transit, which requires walking to and from stops, has declined versus personal cars. And many urban areas don’t have adequate parks or play spaces where adults and children can be physically active. Epidemiology indicates that (lack of) urban planning is a measurable factor in increasing obesity. (NYTimes 2003 article) (Another social environment issue.)
  • Last, there’s my pet peeve: endocrine disruptors. These are pollutants that are byproducts of some plastics, some agricultural chemicals, some hormone therapies, and the like. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a well known example. Once they’re in the environment they can break down into related compounds, they get into the food chain, and once they’re ingested, they latch on to some of the same receptors as the body’s own hormones. Once they’ve latched on, they can rev up or shut down the normal function, or they can cause strange results not in the body’s normal repertoire. Widespread endocrine disruptor pollution has happened only in the last few decades. (An environmental factor involving dozens of industries.)

Recent research (press release, article summary in Cell Metabolism) has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of female mice regulate hunger and energy expenditure. (Male brains likewise have various androgen and estrogen receptors and are expected to have similar regulatory pathways. However, that wasn’t the topic of this research. The recent increase in the phenomenon of “man-boobs” on young and not-obese men shows rather plainly that endocrine disruptors have no less effect on fat deposition in men.)

Interestingly, one implication the researchers draw is that estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women may have an overlooked benefit by keeping weight down and therefore keeping the complications of obesity down.

However, they don’t draw the far more significant implication for the entire population. If sex hormone receptors regulate energy balance, and if we’ve flooded the environment with bad substitutes for sex hormones, is it any wonder that people are having trouble regulating energy balance?

It’s one more instance where the flood of chemicals released by modern industry is affecting the environment, in this case the environment of the human body.

Like all public health issues, nothing less than a population-level approach will work. Dysentery, cholera, and typhoid are never wiped out by drinking boiled water. They’re wiped out by building municipal sewers. Smallpox wasn’t eradicated by avoiding smallpox patients. It was eradicated by universal vaccination. The individual actions aren’t useless. They just don’t change the widespread causes of the widespread problem.

Modern health problems like cancer and obesity aren’t going to be wiped out by eating fresh vegetables. Eating veggies is good, but it doesn’t address the basic problem. That’s going to take nothing less than a change to clean sustainable industry.

It’s almost enough to make you wish a mere diet really was all that’s needed.

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Nuclear Insanity

It’s insanity to try the same failed thing and expect a different outcome. So the pro-nuclear crowd seems to be trying a variant. They’re not crazy, calling nukes a success, because Fukushima’s reactors aren’t failures.

I’m seeing stuff like: “Oh, but it’s only in earthquake zones that nuclear can be a bit of a problem — and then only a teeny tiny one!” “Oh, stop bellyaching about radiation. There’s less of it than flying cross-country.” “Oh, yes, some of the fuel melted, but it was only a teeny tiny bit. And look! It didn’t turn into the worst disaster imaginable! Nuclear energy is a success!”

Um, how should I put this politely? If nuclear energy is so disaster-prone that an absence of catastrophic failure can be construed as success, then we really, really, really don’t want to use nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear as I am, I would set the bar for success higher than that. If everything goes right, nukes can produce energy for a few decades without blowing up. It’s also true that if everything goes right, little radiation escapes.

If everything goes right.

Reactors are hugely complex technology with hundreds of potential failure points. Whether it’s an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, rust, power failure, human error, terrorist smuggling, or poor interface design — there are hundreds of different cascades of events that can destroy multiply redundant backup systems and end in disaster. What will fail in any given case will be different.

The important issue is not whether there could be an earthquake here or an erroring human being there. The important issue is that such a hugely complex system has hundreds of ways to fail. It can never be safe.

Sometimes, when there’s no other way to do something vital or fascinating, it’s worth doing despite the risk. The space program is one example.

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is an expensive way to run vast risks that are totally unnecessary.

There’s an expanded list of the points below, but here’s the summary. ■ Useful uranium stocks will run out about the same time as or shortly after oil. ■ The plants take so long to build, it’s physically impossible for them to be an actual solution to energy shortages. ■ They will, however, provide a waste problem forever.

These things are all facts of the simple, do-the-math variety. Uranium is finite. Plants take ±five years to build. Half-lives of radioactive elements are known to the femtosecond.

And then comes the biggest fact of all: NUCLEAR ENERGY IS NOT OUR ONLY CHOICE.

For 2% of global GDP (pdf) we could switch over, by 2050 (pdf), to efficiency, solar, wind, and other sustainable, renewable, and clean energies. And that’s for ALL our energy needs. (Nuclear, in contrast, has no realistic chance of even maintaining it’s current contribution, as you can see in the details below.)

Two percent of your income, if you make a median per capita US income of about $24,000, is $480. That’s less than many people in the US spend on phone bills.

For less than the yearly cost of a phone, we could have a world that’s not going to hell in a handbasket. So the choice is obvious, right?

Let’s all pile into the handbasket.

If you’re like me, you boggle that anyone supports a total loser proposition like nuclear power. What is wrong with these people? Are they nuts?

Well, yes and no. Remember that it costs some $10 billion to build a reactor. That gets paid to somebody. That somebody is getting that huge pile of money, risk-free, courtesy of taxpayers. What’s not to like?

The radioactivity? The waste? The unnecessary risks? The small amount of actual power produced? Somebody else’s problem. The billionaires pushing the boondoggle don’t plan to live downwind.

For the sake of raking in megabucks now, everybody else in time and space can be damned.

Is that insane?

Yes.

+ + +

This repeats what I keep pointing out (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Although newer information shows that nukes are more expensive than I’d read before, and the Stanford and UN studies linked above provide even more proof that a rational energy policy is both doable and affordable.

  • Nuclear reactors don’t get built unless taxpayers pick up the financial risk and the accident risk. That should tell you something about how safe reactors are, financially and physically.
  • It takes about five years to build a gigawatt reactor, and costs some $10,000,000,000 — ten billion — each.
  • To replace the current US stock of aging reactors, all 104 of which will need to be phased out before 2050 means a new reactor has to be built every four to five months for the next fifty years.
  • To get more energy via nukes than they provide now, more plants must be built. To get just one seventh of the energy needed in 2050 from nukes means a new gigawatt reactor would have to be built every month.
  • If we actually ramped up nuclear energy production to that extent, we’d run out of recoverable uranium in fifty to one hundred years. (In what universe is trading one expensive, polluting, nonrenewable resource for another one a sane idea?)
  • No, breeder reactors are not a solution, including the new ones that go by cuter names. They generate more total waste, and much more dangerous waste. And they’re much more vulnerable to weapons proliferation issues. How many Pakistans do we want in exchange for radioactive, non-renewable, and insufficient power?
  • No, fusion is not a practical or current solution. It’s not even working sustainably in labs yet, forget production facilities. It has its own radioactive waste problems.
  • The waste from reactors needs to be carefully stored and avoided for many times longer than all of human history. Somebody will be paying that price in wealth or health long after nuclear power isn’t producing any usable energy.
  • The worst reactor waste, the spent fuel rods, is now stored in “temporary” pools on site because nobody wants the permanent storage anywhere nearby.
  • None but the very smallest and earliest plants, those that could be disposed without taking apart the reactor vessel, have been decommissioned. Estimates (when not from the nuclear industry) are that decommissioning may cost even more than building the things in the first place. There’s also nowhere to store that waste. (See previous point.)
  • And, finally, nuclear is not our only choice. We don’t have to suffer. There are alternatives. The alternatives are cleaner and cheaper. The only ones who lose are the billionaires deprived of short-term taxpayer-funded pork.
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Condemned to Repeat?

Ecological disaster bad enough to destroy people has happened before. The only difference was the limited technology of the times, and therefore the limited scope of the dying.

Sean Gallagher has a striking report, a series of pictures each worth thousands of words.

Parched hills of Yinpan. Soil erosion has uncovered a few skulls in the foreground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

That was then. Two thousand years ago, Yinpan in Central Asia was a major stop on the Silk Road. The water table changed. People couldn’t or didn’t adapt, until the water –and the people — disappeared over a thousand years ago. Soil erosion still uncovers traces of them, but the water never came back.

This is now.

Brownout sky from blowing dust, a sickly tree being shredded in the wind, and rock-strewn waterless ground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

A dust storm raised from the desertified former farm land in China. Life stops. If you have to go outside, you wear a dust mask and choke. The dust is fine as talc and gets everywhere. It’s in your toothbrush, your clothes, your dishes. It clogs your car, it ruins machinery, it gums up your mp3 player. It costs money. It shortens lifespans. The dust travels for hundreds of miles, blanketing Beijing during dry seasons, and sometimes even making murk in the skies of the Western U.S.

The earliest signature of anthropogenic global warming was polar and nighttime warming. We got that, but we’re not polar bears so it wasn’t important. One of the next symptoms is higher temperatures in the middle of large continents. That’s where most of the world’s grain grows. Places like Kansas won’t just be hot in the summer. They’ll be hot enough for old people and babies to die. Plants will wither in the heat no matter how much they’re watered. And it won’t take long before there’s nothing to water them with. If people can’t or won’t adapt, the water table will sink lower and lower. The surface will get drier and drier. There will be dust storms.

Then there’s the future. Photo #1 will describe the future as well as the past.

And you know what’s the worst of it? It doesn’t have to be that way. It Does Not Have To Be That Way. This isn’t the sun going nova on us and frying all life on earth no matter what we do. This isn’t beyond our control. Yet. All we’d have to do is little things, lots and lots of little things, all together, all the time. Nothing heroic, unfortunately. Just wimpy stuff like cooperation and keeping promises.

Sometimes, when the alternative is photo #1, people can do the most amazing things. Even work together.

Here’s just one example of a small unheroic thing that could be part of the solution. I saw this in the news recently.

yellow pontoon-looking thing with the wave power generation unit between the two floats
1) A new, small-scale way of making electricity from wave power. It’s more or less a buoy that bobs up and down, has some gizmos to harvest the energy of the bobbing, and some failsafes in case of storms. It’s easier to maintain and less sinkable than huge megawatt projects, and units can be chained together to yield more power.

2) When a weak electric current is applied to metal scaffolding in seawater, limestone precipitates out of the water onto the metal where it builds up for a while, until the encrustation is thick enough to insulate the current. But — there are two important buts — some limestone forms and the scaffold is colonized by corals if it’s an area where they can grow. It’s not clear yet whether the current helps the corals to grow, but since something to grow on is their limiting factor, some scaffolds mean more corals than no scaffolds. (More here and here.)

Why does that matter, aside from the fact that corals are gorgeous? They’re basically blocks of limestone with a film of life on the surface. And that matters because limestone is calcium carbonate. CaCO3. A molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into every molecule of calcium carbonate.

Imagine fleets of those pontoon wave power things, towing their webs of scaffolding. Besides generating some energy and helping corals to grow, carbon dioxide would be taken out of circulation, one tiny invisible bit at a time. Imagine millions of wave power pontoons, doing this. And when the weight of all those corals and barnacles and whatnot made the thing sink, we’d float out another one. And another one, and another one.

Same as with all the other things we have to do to reverse global warming, it would cost some money and we’d have to keep doing it, all together, all the time. That’s all.

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Krugman on target AGAIN

He’s lucky he’s got tenure. With his track record, he’d be drummed out of economics otherwise. I mean, this is the field which, in all seriousness, avers that we’ll never run out of oil. And they’re right. If oil costs $10,000 a gallon, people will go to any lengths to extract or make another few drops of the stuff. It’s the law of supply and demand. The fact that it has zero practical application at those levels doesn’t enter into it. For economists. So I’m sure a group that believes in fairy stories — the Rational Economic Man is another good one — would get rid of Krugman in a second if they could, him and his big flat feet clumping around insisting on reality.

What brought this on? Another brilliant op-ed An Affordable Salvation and the earlier post on his blog: Anti-green economics.

Clearly, opposition to doing something about climate change has fallen back to a new position: claims that attempting to limit greenhouse gas emissions would be incredibly costly. Yet the most careful studies, like the big MIT study of Congressional proposals, find only modest costs.

I have to jump in to boggle a bit. Let’s even pretend to grant that measures against global warming are “incredibly costly.” That only matters if the alternative is less costly. However, any study that looks at the price of doing nothing concludes that the expense is enormous, bigger than doing something by an order of magnitude. Case in point is the Stern 2006 review of the economics of climate change. (Wikipedia has a simple summary.) His estimate is that 1% of global GDP is the cost of averting “the worst effects” of climate change. The cost of doing nothing is likely to be around 20% of GDP. As time goes by, both estimates grow bigger, and the probable cost of doing nothing grows bigger faster. So, the obvious choice is to . . . do nothing? Hello?

Krugman goes on to demolish the economic argument against government regulations to help save the planet, but my favorite part is this:

Opponents of a policy change generally believe that market economies are wonderful things, able to adapt to just about anything — anything, that is, except a government policy that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Limits on the world supply of oil, land, water — no problem. Limits on the amount of CO2 we can emit — total disaster.

Funny how that is.

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Science Education: Who Needs It?

The evidence suggests an awful lot of people need it. A recent study by Harris Interactive for the California Academy of Sciences found the following:

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

Especially the first one strikes me as a real “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” kind of question. Sad, really.

But not sad enough. Tucked away underneath the outrage over AIG’s criminal greed and use of taxpayer money to sue for bigger tax refunds, tucked away underneath all that has been some talk about education. Obama has said he’s for it. He feels it should be high quality. He feels all children should get the same high standard. He feels good teachers should be rewarded.

How, exactly, will these desirable goals be brought to pass? By means of national standards, apparently, and national tests, and merit pay for teachers with students who do well on the tests. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how the Republicans had it right and some of us just refused to see it. I mean, that’s No Child Left Behind. And, of course, unlike boring and expensive methods such as small class sizes, this system is bound to be successful. What other outcome is possible when success is measured by scores that are assigned by the people to be rewarded based on those scores?

Now comes the part that’s not in the news. This is just rumblings on the grapevine. There was a molecular biology workshop for high school and middle school teachers near here recently. The middlle school teachers were saying that their school districts are talking about the new testing environment. At the middle school level everybody’s concerned about The Basics, Kids will be tested on The Basics. In these days of starvation budgets, there’s no room for luxuries. Luxuries are anything not on the tests, because that won’t be reflected in the schools’ bottom line. So. at least at many districts here in Southern California, the plan is to cancel science classes at middle schools.

Dateline: 2030. A new Harris Interactive study found that 70% of adults know the sun circles the earth. 80% are sure that prayers are directly answered. 67% favor the new trials for witchcraft. Under the circumstances, it is vitally important to stop people from praying for the wrong thing and causing earthquakes.

Obama, education, NCLB, No Child Left Behind

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Geoengineering: a cure worse than the disease

The global warming news is grim. Just two recent headlines: Acid oceans need urgent action and Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. If you follow anybody’s writing on the topic (e.g. mine 2005 and 2007) you know all too much about the grimness. But where we make our mistake, you and me, is assuming that once the slower people finally recognize the facts, they’ll want to stop poisoning the planet.

Ha.

Now that they’re finally noticing that we’re headed to a hot place in a handbasket, they have a better answer. Geoengineering! We’re so good at controlling planetary processes, the best thing to do is mess with them!

Here, just for kicks, are some of the bright ideas, ranging in light level from black hole to guttering-candle-in-the-darkness. (To be fair to some of the scientists involved, they’re perfectly aware that the best of these are stopgaps, not solutions.) Read more »

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About Gooseberries

My issue of the Royal Horticultural Society Garden magazine arrived today, and the first thing I saw was:

Competitive gooseberry growing in northwest England has a long and distinguished history.

With a blurb like that, how could I not read the article? (Web version, which differs from the print one.) So I learned that growing the gooseberry supreme requires “pens” where the bushes can be protected from birds, shaded from excessive sun (In northwest England? You’re kidding me, right?), as well as excess rain which can burst the fruit. In the old days, a rhubarb leaf was inverted over the bush. I’ll dream tonight of shy gooseberry plants, peering out from under their peaked rhubarb leaf hats.

But I jest. Competitive gooseberrying is serious business. Follow me closely here.

The bushes must be carefully pruned like rose trees, and the crown of branches trained flat, like an umbrella, so that the berries hang down. Otherwise wind might blow the prize heavy berry onto the thickly thorn-covered branches of the bush. The berry would burst, and there you’d be at the next meeting of the gooseberry club with nothing to show for all your trouble.

Once a year, in late July or early August, everything must be in readiness for the “getter,” who witnesses the picking of the competition berries, their careful placement in boxes padded with cotton wool, and who seals the box so that no cheating with some kind of ersatz substituted berry can occur. (I think Ohio needs to get a gooseberry club to come and oversee the vote in November.)

Keeping the few prize berries in perfect condition on the tree until the getter arrives is one of the difficult tasks in a devoted gooseberry grower’s life. Months of concentration, watering, shading, and timing go to produce the perfect berry at exactly the week and the day when the judging takes place. That’s why, like migrating swifts who miss the one day the mayflies hatch, the growers are upset about this:

Kelvin [the current prize-holder] feels the gooseberry season is becoming earlier: “You can get them huge a week or so before — the challenge is to keep them intact on the tree until the getting.”

The trees are feeling the heat, and so are the gooseberry societies. They’re talking of moving their shows forward. Gooseberry judging dates: the new measure of global warming. And you thought I was joking when I said it was a serious business.

Technorati Tags: gooseberries, global warming

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Frying lettuce is not the answer

This is another story in the category of “We’re from the government. We’re here to help.” The reporting makes me want to bang my head against the desk, but I can’t because I’m writing this from a lawn chair in my back garden. All the stories stress how safe the process is. That is not the point. Not . . . the . . . point.

FDA to allow radiation of spinach and lettuce

Health regulators have approved the use of ionizing radiation for fresh spinach and lettuce, saying the technique already approved for other foods [ can help control harmful bacteria and other pathogens.

The Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday the radiation treatment also would make the leafy greens last longer and give them greater “shelf-life” for retailers and consumers.

The problem is not –not!– that radiation turns the lettuce into a Green Monster or that is leaves horrible radiation cooties all over the leaves.

The problem is that irradiating food is the equivalent of leaving it out in the sun for a few days. It destroys vitamins and lowers the nutritional value generally.

That is not good. I mean, you’re eating spinach because it’s good for you, for chrissakes. You’re not just trying to ingest a water-based form of greenish tissue paper.

The other problem is that by more or less sterilizing the surface, a host of bad farming practices can be covered up. Some of those bad practices, such as poor harvesting methods or taking longer to get the product to market, also lower nutritional value.

At least they are talking about labelling treated products.

Spinach and lettuce that have been irradiated will have to carry a special “radura” logo and state the product has been “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation,” FDA’s Kwisnek said.

I guess farmers have less clout than Monsanto and their ilk who have successfully kept everyone in the dark about which foods have genetically engineered traits, and what those are. I was, am, and always will be livid that I can’t boycott Round-Up resistant junk — or “Round-Up Ready” as they like to call it.

Technorati Tags: food, radiation, bacteria, FDA

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Less heat, more light: solving the energy crisis

The planet’s big problems relate to energy. Using it is warming the planet. Getting it is causing wars. Running out of it will end in poverty and famine. Now that we’re getting closer to the apocalypse, it looks like the four horsemen are all riding one cloned horse.

The first task is to figure out the scope of the problem. How much energy do we use? How much will we need in, say, 2050? (That’s a favorite year for projections: it’s nice and round, and within many current lifetimes, but not so close that there’s no hope.) The next task is to consider which types of energy could supply the needs. And the final task would be to go out and do it. The system breaks down at that crucial point. There are solutions to the energy crisis. We’ll soon find out if there’s a solution to the “people’s heads in a place where the sun don’t shine” crisis.

(Fair warning: this is another one of my interminable posts…) Read more »

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Support the Biofuels Moratorium

On the BBC, a report on what to do about the bad side of biofuels. Delay use until we can do it right. It’s such a novel concept, it makes headlines.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said …growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels. … [A]n ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel … created a recipe for disaster.

It was, he said, a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel.

He called for a five-year ban on the practice. Within that time, according to Mr Ziegler, technological advances would enable the use of agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and banana leaves, rather than crops themselves to produce fuel.

He’s right on all counts.

It is a crime against humanity. That’s not even hyperbole. What else can you call it when food is burned in front of starving people, and whole countries are dropped into famine, forced migration, and war?

And he’s also right that microbial, non-polluting!, methods to use plant waste rather than food have already been demonstrated in labs. We need some more genetic engineering to improve the microbes and tailor them to work under industrial conditions before they’ll be practical. Given the relatively small scope of the remaining issues, five years will likely be plenty … IF the scientific resources needed are devoted to the problem. (A summary of biofuels in an earlier post of mine.)

I’d be the last person to say that global warming isn’t an emergency. But creating a disaster .. which is profitable for some … by going into a mad panic over another disaster is like the moronic rush to nukes. We could, for once try the breakthrough concept of thinking this thing through. It is not essential to try every bad choice before giving up and trying the actual solution.

Cross-posted to Shakesville

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Nukes can never be the answer

One bizarre effect of global warming is how it’s become a reason to make the problems worse.

Global warming is so bad, that we have to pull out all the stops. That’s true. So far, so good.

But then people go on to lobby for fuel that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases, that takes land away from food production, and that’s already causing food crises and environmental destruction. They lobby for hydrogen made from coal, because hydrogen is so clean-burning. (No, no, don’t look at the coal plant. Look over here at the hydrogen car.) And they lobby for nuclear power. The first application in over twenty years to build a new nuclear reactor was recently submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuke stuff just blows me away. At least the other technologies haven’t been tried on a national scale in the US. If you’re stupid, you could pretend you can’t figure out what the problems are. But nukes have been tried. They did not work. They do not work. They will never work, because they can’t work.

Let me go over exactly why that’s true.
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Profits cost us cures

I know nobody here needs convincing that the free market doesn’t provide the best medical care for all. But it’s not just the care part that struggles. The real heart of medicine is cures and, best of all, preventing disease altogether. Profit-driven drug delivery actually hampers finding the best solutions.

I’d say the most insidious effect is how research gets shunted away from the really good stuff. That takes away benefits in the future, and we don’t even know what we’re missing. It could be the cure for cancer or a vaccine against the common cold. Maybe it’s something that makes childbirth feel like orgasm. (Contractions are contractions. It’s an interesting question why there’s such a big difference in felt sensations.) The point is we don’t even know.

And don’t even get me started on what’s painfully obvious: the fact that prevention can never be a priority in a profit-driven system. Read more »

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Biofuels: good, bad, and ugly

We’re hearing more and more about biofuels because they’re an alternative fuel (i.e. “good”), because they don’t increase carbon dioxide in the air (“good”), because they can be produced any time any where (“good”), they can be used in current cars (best of all), and are generally the solution to a zillion looming problems.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

The first problem with biofuels is figuring out what people are talking about. Ethanol from corn? Crop waste used in power plant cogeneration? Methane gas from landfills? Or composting toilets? Alcohol from cellulose? Fryer oil biodiesel?

The second problem is that “bio” doesn’t equal “good,” no matter how green it sounds. Some of these technologies are shaping up to be worse than our current oil-based one. The worst problems are at the production end, not during consumption, which makes it much easier to bamboozle rich-country consumers into thinking they’re helping the planet. We need to be aware of what different biofuels really mean before rushing into alternative energy “solutions” that are anything but.
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