April 2007 Archives

Kongo Gumi

Are you ready for spring? It may have exceeded 300 Kelvin (80F) yesterday, but only a couple of weeks ago there was still snow on the the ground.

So on a lighter note, over the weekend my peeps in Chicago held a naming party for this year's instantiation of the F.I.S.T., and the result plays nicely to my delusions of godhood. While we are almost universally referenced in extreme shorthand (FIST being probably most common), our full name is a bit of a mouthful:

Lush Puppies mk. VII; F.I.S.T. pt. sex; Deleuzian Potato Homefries; Billmire's Scrod Double-Teams Stony; No Blank, All Umlaut; Rösëbüd, Still the Fucking Sled; Vagrant Sun Gods

Vagrant Sun Gods being the latest addition, that is. There is a common misconception that the leading portion of our name is but ancestry, baggage carried along out of a quaint appreciation for our own history. This is incorrect -- the prefixes evolve from year to year, and how could we be descended from the seventh iteration of the Lush Puppies? No, the correct attitude is to approach the prefixes as necessary and descriptive sovereign style, that component of our name that recognizes our conquest of vast and growing swaths of mythic terrain. In a formal setting it would be no more appropriate to refer to us as "the FIST" than to introduce "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith" as Lizzie.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Scavhunt doesn't actually have any formal settings.

Speaking of institutions with ephemeral staying power, the oldest company in the world finally went belly-up this month. (Via the Long Now Blog) Not that Kongo Gumi is actually out of business, but after 1400 years of building Buddhist temples, accumulated debt from the 1980s bubble economy pushed the company into bankrupcy and acquisition.

This buddhist temple construction company Kongo Gumi had been in operation since 578 CE, give or take. How come so many of the oldest companies are Japanese? Probably the same reason they've had an unbroken imperial line for about that long as well. The list also includes a bunch of medieval European inns and breweries, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about Europe.

Another Uncompromising Quote-Post

I made the point a few posts back that you simply cannot compromise with anti-choicers, or wingnut conservatives in general. As usual, Digby makes the point much more thoroughly.

...And this is why it is a terrible idea to try to make common cause with these people. They are liars and they are slightly insane. The dangers of smoking are scientifically valid. The dangers of "post-abortion syndrome" are not. When Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton call abortion a tragedy in order to make common cause with these people they are bringing the day closer when women will be crawling out of back alleys gushing blood again --- a process that truly does cause terrible trauma. The real kind.

You cannot allow anti-intellectual nonsense to dictate public policy, whether its anti-semitic drivel about evolution or made up statistics about "post-abortion syndrome." The very fact that they are lying and cheating and "strategizing" their allegedly moral appeal against the right to abortion should be clue enough that they do not have faith that they can convince people with an honest argument. I find this time and time again with the anti-choice crowd --- a disingenuousness that borders on psychopathy.

Please, read the whole thing.

On which topic, the most interesting thing I read this weekend was this article, from 2000 but still keenly relevant, on the anti-choice women who have abortions. The take-away message: "The only moral abortion is my abortion."

P.S. This is apparently my 500th post. But not really, because that counts the dozen or so unfinished thoughts sitting in the drafts queue.


It's that time of year again; now that's its warm the plaza outside (onto which my lab's windows face) tends to host various musical acts during lunchtime. Today it's Generic Christian Rock, again. Now aside from the fact that it's usually just bad music (due to the inherent contradiction implied by attempting to rock as inoffensively as possible, I suppose), I have nothing against Christian Rock per se. However, I can't but note that we have one of these acts on probably a weekly basis, but I can't recall once having heard an analogous explicitly Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever group out there.

As an aside, I would also point out that Christian Rock is not really a sufficiently descriptive term, since these groups are pretty uniformly evangelical Protestants. For instance, the closest thing I can come up with to a Catholic Rock group is U2, which isn't the same thing at all.

Delightful things from the Chicago Critical Mass list this week:

"The first rule of Pillow Fight Club is..." This came up because the Massers have noticed that the next pillow fight will roughly coincide in time and space with the start of the April Critical Mass ride. I wonder how they would react if a few hundred cyclists with pillows showed up.

Slate's unconventional economic columnist on staff makes the argument that the environmental costs of parking your car are even worse than the costs of driving it. Different (global warming versus chewing up public space), but worse per average car. Back when he started writing for Slate he began with a provocative article that he's now expanded into a new book that might be worth a read. In More Sex is Safer Sex he implores all you non-promiscuous (and conscientiously promiscuous) folks to get out there and have more casual sex. Monogamy gave us AIDS, apparently.

Amnesia and Earthshine

Closer ...
Closer ...
Not bad for digital camera work. The top two images are from my new Canon S2, and it's lovely how much better the color reproduction is with the longer shutter times that the image stabilizer allows. Bottom image from my A610, since the S2's barrel is too large to fit my binoculars.

Spent a delightful weekend in Chicago catching up with good friends both old and not. Left newly envious of Chicago's cyclists, as I am reminded of how wide, well-paved, and extremely flat the place's roads are. Here one must constantly climb in and out of the Mississippi river bottoms to get anywhere, and if that does not exactly make us another Bay Area it nevertheless makes long rides harder than they might otherwise be.

Which I would be just fine with if Minneapolis actually had enough topography not to look perfectly flat.

It's been a while since I did any astrophotography, and I figured it was time to test the low-light capabilities of my shiny new Canon S2, so here is a series of photos that I took about 36 hours after the last new moon. My students, on the other hand, complain that they can't find the Moon anywhere as much as four or five days to either side of new.

Since the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seems to provoke extreme and highly polarized reactions in various of my readers, here's a fun finding that I ran across recently:
how to erase a single memory (from a rat's mind). Highly unsafe, I'm certain, but how long can it possibly be until some adventureous type tries this on themselves? Just don't say your name.

Handmaids, all

Lynn Paltrow explains the real trouble with this week's Supreme Court ruling. Even Ezra Klein didn't immediately see it:

I didn't have a particularly full understanding of the argument until Ann finally sat me down (well, we were walking, but still) and explained it to me. The Partial Birth Abortion Act is in the rich naming tradition of The Healthy Forests Act, in that the legislation's title suggests a rather different purpose. I'd assumed it banned late-term abortions, an assumption that seemed backed by the arguments over maternal health. I was wrong. It actually bans intact Dilation and Extraction, a procedure conducted as early as the 13th week, depending on the condition of the fetus and the particular circumstances of the mother. So what the legislation actually does is outlaw a type of abortive procedure, not a timeframe or circumstance.

As Paltrow points out, this is actually very important, because it opens a nasty (if you're a woman, liberal, or otherwise sane) legal trapdoor:

Indeed, the ruling effectively reverses more than 30 years of precedent requiring that laws regulating abortion ensure protection not only of the woman's life, but also her health. ... The decision thus has grave implications for all pregnant women, not only those seeking to end pregnancies. If the government can choose to advance fetal interests over the pregnant woman's health in the context of abortion, why can't so-called "fetal rights" prevail in the context of birth?

In fact, this argument is already being used to justify court-ordered Cesarean sections in cases where physicians believe that a c-section will prove more beneficial to the fetus (this despite the fact that c-sections constitute major surgery and pose increased health risks to the pregnant woman and in some cases the fetus as well). True, most courts so far rule that such interventions unconstitutionally strip women of their civil and human rights, including bodily integrity, informed medical decision-making, liberty, and, in one case, life itself. In that case, later reversed by an appellate court, both the woman and her baby died after a forced c-section ordered to protect fetal life.

But at least one federal court has said that sending police to a woman's home, taking her into custody while in active labor and near delivery, strapping her legs together and her body down to transport her against her will to a hospital, and then forcing her, without access to counsel or court review to undergo major surgery constituted no violation of her civil rights at all. The rationale? If the state can limit women's access to abortions after viability, it can subject her to the lesser state intrusion of insisting on one method of delivery over another.

Which is why it's sort of no good being pro-choice unless you're an absolutist about it. With different opponents we could maybe have a reasonable debate. Movement conservatives, on the other hand? Let them keep propagating the notion that foeti are people into our jurisprudence, and they can, will, and just did use it to define away the civil rights of pregnant women.

And they've already started on the pre-pregnant, too. That means you.

Bomb? Sigh.


So half of campus is shut down because some fool issued a bomb threat. Handily, my building is not slated for evacuation, so I can sit here and blog about it, although the helicopters are noisy and our windows face out onto the distracting excitement. I would imagine this is correlated either to events in Virginia or to a Special Olympics tent that materialized on the Mall overnight. Or, possibly, because it's a nice day and someone wanted to get out of class.

(As an aside, may I say that the bomb threat hoax is so played out. You want to cause a delightful ruckus, call in a radioactive llama threat and see what happens. Go on, try it. I'll wait.)

Our Israeli grad student, meanwhile, is a bit horrified that we all immediately assume it's a hoax, but given that these things always are (in the United States, anyway), I think it's a fair assumption.

National Security Letter

This is kind of old news, but a very interesting article nonetheless: national security and the permanent gag order.

Living under the gag order has been stressful and surreal. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case -- including the mere fact that I received an [national security letter] -- from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

On which topic, check out the plea agreement of David Hicks. An an Australian held illegally and allegedly abused at Guantanamo for five years, he'd become a bit of a diplomatic issue. So they convinced him to plea guilty to minor charges, and he gets to serve nine months in an Australian jail. One condition: he can't talk to the media, or make any claims of illegal treatment, for at least a year. Convenient -- Australian prime minister John Howard is up for election in nine months!

Except apparently the Aussie attorney general can't think of how to enforce such a condition, and thus doesn't anticipate extraditing Hicks should be choose to ignore it.

Farewell, Kurt Vonnegut

Judging by one of his last interviews, while he dearly despised Bush and would probably have enjoyed seeing his comeuppance, it sounds like he was pretty much ready to leave. To a professional prophet of doom, our present world became a very bleak place indeed.



Ah, the subtle art of producing clear figures. Here's a picture that just obviates the need for lengthy description (via the consumerist):

The only note I would add, for those not used to looking at economic plots, is that this is in inflation-adjusted dollars. So if your pay were just keeping up with inflation, it would be a straight line here.


I had entirely forgotten that Bread and Puppet is in town, and it was only by happenstance that while strolling down University Ave yesterday afternoon I spotted the big blue schoolbus that passes for the Bread and Puppet tourbus. When I first saw it approaching I must have thought something along the lines of, why is there a truck covered in bicycles?

So I will clearly have to check out the Everything is Fine Circus tomorrow, which I feel will be a most appropriate use of an Easter afternoon. Even if it will be a freakishly arctic cold April day. I blame global warming! (At least it won't be snowing -- what was up with that?)

Michael Bérubé has penned an only mildly parodic scenario that perfectly captures the nonsense that is Bill Donohue, Catholic League wingnut extraordinaire. Imagine for a moment: the Cadbury Creme Christ!

Blog Against Theocracy

I just wanted to highlight this in case you want something to read this Easter weekend -- April 6 - 8 is the Blog Against Theocracy blogathon. Bloggers everywhere* will be updating throughout the weekend on the topic; you can find the latest entries here. Interesting and provocative, from what I've read so far.

Of course, I probably have even fewer qualms than Connor about mixing invective with my Tridiuum. And if it annoys the Christianist demagogues, so much the better. So I'll probably have more to say on the topic later in the weekend.

* In theory

After Oil

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, one of the tallest buildings in the world. Wikimedia Commons

The end of cheap energy will be perhaps the central problem of the 21st century global civilization, impacting as it does every aspect of the infrastructure of global life -- how we move people and things around; how we power our technology; how we make stuff. Interconnectivity may make the world smaller, but high technology only gets you so far. After all, you can run all the computers in the world on solar energy, but refining every last scrap of organic matter on Earth into gasoline wouldn't power half the cars we have today. So you're left with the observation that when oil gets scarce, we'd better have another way of getting supplies to the plant that makes the solar panels and food to the people that run the computers, or the whole system grinds to a halt.

Probably in the ugliest way possible.

James Howard Kunstler has been getting attention for the New Urbanists for a while now with titles like The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, the latter of which deals precisely with the consequences of cheap energy being a historical anomaly. I highly recommend either book, but for a shorter version, he gave an excellent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California the other day, available here as text or MP3.

Peak oil is a provocative tautology only because it runs against two centuries of abnormal experience:

Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. ... In 1970, we were producing about 10 million barrels a day. Now we're down to less than five -- and we consume over 20 million barrels a day. We have compensated for that since 1970 by importing oil from other nations. Today we import about two-thirds of all the oil we use. Today, the world is consuming all the oil it can produce. As global production passes its own peak, the world will not be able to compensate for its shortfall by importing oil from other planets.

The oil industry has been dominated by what are called supergiant fields. ... The Burgan field of Kuwait, the Daqing of China, Cantarell of Mexico, and Ghawar of Saudi Arabia. Together in recent decades they were responsible for 14 percent of the world's oil production, and they are now in decline. ...

Both The North Sea and Alaska are now past peak and in depletion. Prudhoe Bay proved to be Alaska's only super giant oil field. ... Now 57 of Norway's 69 oil fields are past peak and the average post-peak decline rates average 17 percent a year. The UK's share of the North Sea has declined to the extent that England is now a net energy importer. ...

Russia, despite current high levels of post-Soviet-era production, peaked in the 1980s ... Iran is past peak. Indonesia, an OPEC member, is so far past peak it became a net oil importer last year. Venezuela is past peak.

As a result, the size of modern things becomes a problem:

The key to all our everyday activities in the future is scale. We will probably have to live more locally than has been the case in recent decades. I think we can state categorically that anything organized on the gigantic scale, whether it is an agricultural system, or a finance system, or a corporation, or a chain of stores, or a school, or a government, is going to run into trouble. ...

Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble -- the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.

Not surprisingly, China is mentioned a number of times in this talk. I'm fascinated by the architectural revolution going on there (here's an interesting gallery examining some of the highlights). Like it or not, China is modernizing and needs to make room for huge new urban populations, and accomodate enormous new demands on its energy resources. So you have two countervailing trends linked by a common aspiration to grandiose scale: on the one hand the cities are being built out along current Western lines, which all the disastrous long-term impacts that will entail (i.e. see above); on the other, the Chinese (unlike, say, America of 50 years ago) are well aware of this reality and are pushing for development along more sustainable lines. It will be interesting to see if the developing world can leapfrog entirely past the age of suburbia.

The desire for enormity of scale is hardly unique to China, of course. Anyplace that wants to emphasize its membership in the global civilization will be tempted to pursue the grand. Huge, after all, is easy to confuse with permanent. Thus the present run-up of supertall buildings throughout the eastern hemisphere. 15 of the 20 tallest skyscrapers are currently on the Pacific Rim, and of those, 12 were built in the last 10 years. Burj Dubai is under construction. Numerous 600+ meter towers are in various stages of planning. Kuwait's Mubarak al-Kabir tower is a particularly striking example, that would rise to over a kilometer in height if it gets built.

Nor is the good old United States immune to the tendancy towards gigantism -- when complete, you'll practically be able to see the Chicago Spire from here! Many of these new projects, you'll notice, intend to bring offices and high-rise residences into proximity as virtual arcologies, part of a conscious effort to increase urban core density and reduce commute distances. While this is a goal Kunstler is actually working to advance, the concern is that doing so by way of these high-tech, vast-scale new buildings isn't really sustainable. However, several of the buildings I've cited here consider low energy and ecological impact as explicit design goals -- more of them will have to reach completion before we can really evaluate how well they do in that respect.

Still Busy

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I am, however, amused by the fact that the United States Postal Service webpage now has a "Star Wars Experience" on/off button.

Also amusing: the twitter curve. It's only sad because it's true, although I'm still about three notches back from the brink of asymptotic Armageddon.

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