Health vs Growth

10 07 2012

When discussing the environment, I often get into the same argument. I advocate for strengthening environmental protections at the state at federal levels and the other person often opposes those measure, concerned that more regulation would harm economic recovery and growth. I think that the “economy versus environment” argument is a false choice, for two reasons.

First, investing in newer, cleaner technologies will create new jobs, particularly ones in engineering, math, science, and manufacturing, all types of jobs that America desperately needs. Take wind turbines, for example. We need people to design and test them. We will then need trained people to build, transport, assemble, and maintain them. These are all positions that could be occupied by trained, educated American workers.

Second, if we have a planet with unbreathable air and undrinkable water because we polluted the fuck out of it, that 1% increase in last quarter’s profits does not really seem to count for much of it. Saying, “I am okay with relaxing caps on CO2 emissions to help the economy,” is akin to saying, “I will poison myself and everyone else on this planet for money.”

Ultimately, we have to make the decision about how badly we are willing to poison our air, water, and land in order to get some kind of an economic payoff. I would like to think that a properly-informed population would decide to give the environment’s stability more thought that the economy. There are jobs and there is no money in a poisoned world.

Why GMOs aren’t all bad

18 06 2012

Recently, I have been reading Michael Specter’s book, Denialism. In it, he explores the topic of science denial in first-world countries. He dedicates a chapter to the subject of genetically-modified foods (GMOs.) Reading this book and seeing friends’ anti-GMO posts on Facebook made me really start to think about the application of science and how it should be regarded.

Casava roots

Casava (Source: Wikipedia)

There has been talk that corn and other foods are now toxic because of genetic modifications. These claims have been made and disputed. Unfortunately, the result of all this talk and the lack of noise from the scientific community on this topic has caused people to become fearful of all genetic modification.

I am dubious of the motivations of companies like Monsanto. These are massive biotech companies and they work to make a profit. Profit motive should always elicit some skepticism. I do not doubt that they have professionals who want to wield the awesome power of genetics wisely. Unfortunately, some things are created by these companies that should not have been introduced to world.

When I listen to this conversation, it seems like some have forgotten that many of the foods we would not normally think of as GMOs have been bred by humans for thousands of years.

All of the food we eat, every grain of rice and ear of corn, has been manipulated by man; there is no such thing as food that hasn’t been genetically modified.

Denialism, page 3

GMOs are as old as agriculture. Now, the tools are much more precise and only enhance our ability to engineer food to bring out the desired traits. This could mean an incredible opportunity to reduce famine and malnutrition worldwide.

There is a root vegetable from South America called cassava. It is used to make tapioca. It is very starchy and rich in carbohydrates, but not much else. Cassava grows well in dry, arid environments. It has been imported to Sub-Saharan Africa where it is now a staple. Unfortunately, it cannot meet a person’s dietary needs and it has resulted in malnutrition while keeping people from starving.

It is within our capabilities to make a protein-rich version of this vegetable. It may not be able to completely meet a person’s nutritional needs, but it would be better than what they have now.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that all technology is a double-edged sword and it is not fair to completely reject a technology because of a few abuses or mistakes. I willingly admit that there are many things I do not know about. If you think I am wrong, please say something in the comments. This blog does not get many views, but maybe we could start some kind of a conversation here.

My issues with the Weather Channel

24 05 2012

The Weather Channel is just terrible. In the past, it served a useful purpose. I remember watching it as a kid in the 90s. (I was a weird kid.) It was fairly straightforward with its purpose and implementation. It was a 24/7 cable channel where people could go get weather information for their own area as well as the rest of the country. It had incredible utility and was very good at what it did.

Unfortunately, as television executives are prone to doing, they took a perfectly good thing and fucked it up, royally. They must have had some top-level executive meeting ten years ago where they talked about all the things they could do to remove all but the most subtle signs of utility from the Weather Channel.

First, they added programming. They started putting on shows like “Storm Stories,” where rednecks are interviewed about their impressions of the inside of a fucking hurricane. It is a show that showcases the stories of people either unlucky enough to be in the path of a tornado or stupid enough to sit through a Category 4 hurricane.

Second, they added advertising. Granted, ads were on the Weather Channel for a long, long time. Unfortunately, there are way too many and they get more screen time than the weather itself.

Third, they have a morning show. It has Al Roker, no less. The Weather Channel has a morning show. You might be thinking, “Oh, great! I will get some national news while I get my weather!” Nope. “Wake Up With Al” has as tenuous a grasp on news reporting as Roker’s last show, the horrendous “Today” show on NBC.

There is, however, still weather on the Weather Channel. “Local on the 8s” is the last remaining fragment of TWC’s focused and purposeful lineup. Local on the 8s gives a minute or so of actual weather information every ten minutes.

What really pisses me off about weather reporting in general is the lack of climate change coverage. On TWC and local news channels, they go on and on about how we are having record temperatures, record precipitation, and record drought but do not ever once suggest why these things are happening. I know, it’s the Weather Channel, not the Climate Channel. Still, these two are inextricably linked with one another and with virtually every other area of our lives, yet climate change gets virtually no coverage on a network that is dedicated to reporting the weather. I would not expect much, maybe something like, “Hey, you know it’s 120ºF in shade because…” It should not be a big deal.

In a television world where shows and news coverage is mediocre at best, one would think that we could get something as basic as weather reporting right. Unfortunately, due to focus groups and TV executives trying to appeal to a “broader audience,” we are left with another shitty, half-assed news channel like CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. Of course there alternatives to finding weather information, such as local news stations, NOAA, and the old standby, looking out the god damned window.

America is not exceptional

16 05 2011

Something that bothers me about the American political dialogue, especially on the right, is the idea of American exceptionalism. America might have been on the leading edge of a wave of European colonies breaking with their distant governments and declaring independence. Rather than submitting to a distant government, headed by a monarch, American colonists decided to rebel and form a new type of society, one governed by law that is determined by a representative democracy.

That sounds great, and it is, but you also have to consider that we are still working toward the ideals that were outlined in documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Things did not turn out entirely as planned. It took 70 years before slavery was abolished. It was another century before the civil rights movement ensured equal voting rights for all citizens. Women were denied equal voting rights until 1920. It has only been 91 years since women in the United States were allowed to vote.

Even now, we are fighting about whether to grant equal rights to same-sex couples, among other things. We are second to none in debt. Our illiteracy rates and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the industrialized world. America is becoming scientifically illiterate and intellectually shallow. We are the only industrialized nation not to ensure all of its citizens can afford to see a doctor.

These are not things to be proud of. We might have had grounds, in the past, to say that America was the greatest nation on Earth, not anymore. We have fallen behind by not moving forward. “Exceptional” implies that there is nothing that we can learn by looking outside our borders when our friends and allies in Europe have done so many of the things we have not and they have done them successfully. Maybe if Americans got off their high horse and really considered how other nations have dealt with their problems, we could deal with ours and move on.

For some entertaining discussion on this topic:

More than a body of knowledge

28 12 2010

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grand children’s time … when awesome technologi­cal powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representi­ng the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgea­bly question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes­, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguis­h between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstiti­ons and darkness.”

-Carl Sagan

Welcome to Mars National Park

6 08 2010

This is old news in astronomy circles but I just started thinking about it recently – we may have been polluting Mars for decades. I don’t mean landing probes, rovers, and the like on its surface since the first Viking mission in 1976. Microbes may have been hitching a ride on those probes and spreading to a degree in the areas surrounding those landing sites. There are two big ways this could be bad thing. It is possibly the pollution (even if accidental) of another world and it can interfere with scientific investigations to detect native Martian life.

NASA has long since been cleaning, baking, and otherwise disinfecting its probes before they ever get close to a launch pad. They are nowgiving a special eye to making sure the probes are absolutely sterile. There are some environments on Mars in which Earth-native microbes could survive and grow.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about Earth life growing on Mars. In a way, it’s kind of uplifting and encouraging. It would mean that life is possible on Mars, it could be common in the universe, and it might be possible for us to grow our own food there, a necessary first step toward colonization. The greatest drawback would be that it could contaminate Martian soil samples and make it difficult to determine if life already exists there.

Mars, for the most part, is untouched by human hands. It is a perfectly natural world. As missions to Mars become more common, we will have to decide how important it is to preserve Mars. Maybe we should declare certain areas of the planet to be off-limits to human exploration in order to preserve them, in much the same way we create national parks and reserves to preserve nature here on Earth.

This is really something that bears consideration as we plan for more missions to Mars. We have already made a mark upon our own world; we should be careful not to do the same to others.

Lessons to be learned about public transit from other cities

9 07 2010

About six weeks ago, I joined a small group of people who are fellow students at IUPUI and concerned by Indianapolis, Indiana’s stark lack of transportation planning and public transit availability. The group is called Hoosier Progress. Just this evening, we were discussing the differences between Indianapolis and Madison, Wisconsin when it came to commuting options. Madison is laden with bicycles and crisscrossed with a network of bike and foot paths that would make any city in the nation envious.

The likely root cause of this situation is geography. The heart of Madison is situated on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, Monona and Mendota. This is likely what encouraged higher population density, which in turn led to tighter city blocks on the isthmus and smaller residential properties. Madison was founded in 1836. Needless to say, there were few cars on the road and public transportation had not yet taken off. Therefore, there was a greater need to move about the city on foot.

Indianapolis is built on flat, open land, with only a river and a smattering of man-made lakes on the edge of town to determine how things are laid out. There are no natural barriers to determine the size of house lots or the shape of neighborhoods. It also means cheaper land for newer, more land-intensive housing tracts in the suburbs. Like Madison, the older parts of the city have smaller blocks, but this is a relic from a time when few people owned cars and the population was much smaller.

As a consequence of these two different city development paths, Madison has about 50 percent greater population density. The greater Madison area also has about a third the population of Indianapolis, this makes it easier to get from place to place within Madison. Madison also benefits from a comprehensive network of bicycle paths.

When considering Indianapolis’ abysmal public transportation and bicycle infrastructure, there are things to be learned from citys like Madison. Encouraging increased population density when creating or rebuilding neighborhoods can make it easier for residents to go about their day without a car.

Increasing population density would also make it easier to determine where bike paths should be laid. Currently, they are restricted to abandoned rail lines and along major waterways. A comprehensive trail network should connect neighborhood centers, residential areas, and major attractions like museums, parks, and airports.

Indianapolis still has a long way to go when it comes to building out non-automotive traffic infrastructure. However, we do not have to reinvent the wheel (so to speak.) We can look at the ways it is been successfully implemented in other places and try to apply those lessons here.