Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

 


Private companies have been making their electric scooters available for riders to share in cities around the United States and in Europe over the past two years, and the results are a mixed bag. Riders appear to appreciate the service, even if some of them don’t show that appreciation in how they ride or park the e-scooters. City governments appear to like that the service fills gaps in their often inadequate public mass transit services, even though they are learning that more regulation is required of e-scooter companies to rein in their sometimes arrogant disregard for city ordinances and of inconsiderate riders whose behavior can be a public nuisance. Members of the public who have no personal need for the e-scooters are largely tolerant of their presence in their cities, but in many places they are finding their patience tested by the problems mentioned above.

 


The technology behind e-scooters and smartphones or, in some places, simple cellular phones, makes the business model of sharing e-scooters in a city possible. An e-scooter rigged for sharing has a Global Positioning System (GPS) module and an inexpensive, basic cellular connection for small amounts of data transfer to communicate its exact position and condition. A lithium ion battery provides power. A rider needs to use the internet application provided by the company for use on a smartphone to unlock the e-scooter and provide for payment for the service. Some localities insist as a condition for operating in their city that e-scooter companies make the service available to people without a data connection on a simple cellular phone. One of the ideas behind the service, after all, is to provide a low cost transportation option for poor people.


Lime e-scooters, Masarykovo nádraží
Lime e-scooters parked next to a subway entrance at Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Martin2035.


The problems arise because, like all private services which take advantage of the public commons, there are abuses. The private companies either do not seek out and pay for permission to park their e-scooters on public property or they may not hold up their end of agreements they have with cities that allow their operations. Since the e-scooters do not belong to them, some riders are unconcerned about how they use them or park them. Equipment abuse is the lookout of the company operating the service, but the abuse of the commons caused by careless parking is a public nuisance at best, a menace at worst. Crime problems have arisen mostly from overnight vandalism of the equipment and from the dangers to workers who must go out at night to find and maintain the equipment.

Bringing e-scooters into cities is a good idea on its surface, and they solve a mobility problem for some poor people or for commuters without cars who find using them more appealing than walking or biking. But with the problems their presence and use are causing by abuse of the commons, it would be better if cities improved their mass transit systems instead. For one thing, e-scooters are not as ecologically benign overall as people may assume, and certainly not in comparison to mass transit options. For another, solving the problems encountered during the initial rollout of e-scooter sharing programs would appear to take up public resources in the form of tighter regulation and consequent enforcement. Wouldn’t it be easier in that case to regulate a comparatively smaller number of mass transit units and operators rather than thousands or tens of thousands of e-scooter units and operators strewn all over a city?

E-scooter sharing programs may last only a year or two more if the current abuses continue, and that’s a shame because many decent people who appreciate the services and have a dearth of other options would probably like to see them continue. Unfortunately this business model appears to go against human nature in that where the commons are concerned, there are always enough bad faith users around to take unfair or inconsiderate advantage of the situation and eventually push the public at large to demand an end to it for everyone. In the words of James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
— Techly

 

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Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way

 

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is at it again, undercutting support for dissemination of broadband internet service when it doesn’t suit the interests of major telecommunications companies. His latest effort involves capping spending on the FCC’s Universal Service programs, which are intended to make broadband available to poor urban neighborhoods and underserved rural areas. Mr. Pai and the other two Republican commissioners on the five person board have voted for the plan, and the next step will be a three month public comment period before the commissioners take a final vote. If most people commenting on the plan are against it, then Mr. Pai and his fellow Republican commissioners will likely ignore their wishes and subvert the comment period with shenanigans intended to muddy the waters, just as they did two years ago with the net neutrality rule change.

 

Government support – or lack of it – for promoting broadband internet service for the entire country is a mishmash of conflicting goals, regulations, and laws at the federal, state, and municipal levels. The FCC under Mr. Pai serves the interests of telecommunications companies, which often do not coincide with those of citizens, while paying lip service to broadband service for all. The current president, who appointed Mr. Pai chairman, is hopelessly muddled in his understanding of the aims and actions of his own administration, as he demonstrated once again in his recent comments about how farmers cannot connect benefit their operations by connecting to broadband service because of deficient infrastructure in the countryside. Of course he and his followers do not care about the facts behind that deficiency, and he may get around as he always does to blaming Barack Obama and Democrats generally for the problem while he does nothing to alleviate it and his administration actively makes it worse.

20111110-OC-AMW-0030 (39220804105)
A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) photo of a crew installing electric service lines in the countryside. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 brought service to underserved areas through electric cooperatives owned by members, bypassing private utilities which saw little profit in the enterprise.

State legislatures around the country continue passing laws intended to cripple the ability of municipalities to take matters into their own hands and get broadband service to small towns and outlying areas. The legislators, mostly Republican, pass these laws at the behest of lobbyists for the major telecommunications companies, who claim services provided by municipalities would undercut their ability to compete. But the big companies aren’t interested in competing in small towns and the boonies anyway! Really they’re afraid it’s a good idea that will spread, and therefore they attack it as socialism, by which they mean it’s bad. Large telecommunications companies, like the large banks, are all for socialism when it benefits them.

The Flintstones: “They’re the modern stone age family!”

Municipal governments and regional electric cooperatives are the only groups trying to ensure broadband service for poor and rural citizens, and trying to do it without price gouging. They get little help from federal and state governments, which often work either at cross purposes are try to undermine their efforts, again with the strings being pulled behind the scenes by Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Sprint, and the rest of the big telecommunications companies. Naturally absolutely everyone says they are all for expanding broadband internet service at reasonable rates to poor and underserved areas – who wouldn’t come out in favor of that? – but the actions of many legislators, regulators, and company executives tell a different story. It would be best for citizens – customers – if everyone from the top down in government and private industry worked consistently and uniformly toward the one goal they all claim to be their mission, which is better serving the public, no matter who they are or where they live.
— Techly

 

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Anxious Days

 

Editor’s note: This post has been delayed one day on account of dismally slow internet service, most likely caused by the service provider’s defective equipment. Thanks, Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, for continuing to safeguard the interests of monopolistic corporations while disregarding those of ordinary citizens!

Waiting through an outbreak of severe weather can be nerve wracking if you’re one of the millions of Americans living in substandard housing. Related to withstanding severe weather events, substandard housing means no basement or a weak foundation, poorly engineered roofing, shoddy workmanship overall, bad drainage around the structure, easily shattered windows, and any number of other problems large and small generally not present in the well built housing of the upper classes. Should something bad happen to a substandard structure due to severe weather, the people living there often do not have the resources to recover from it.


Severe weather affects everyone, rich and poor, but what is usually overlooked is how the poor disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of it both coming and going. To know that should a tornado, a hurricane, a derecho, a hailstorm, ice storm, or flood deal even a glancing blow to the place you live causes many anxious days, first in watching the weather forecast and then during the day or days of the event. There’s personal safety, of course, and the possibility of unaffordable emergency medical attention, and then the possibility of damage to the structure and the unaffordability of repairs, if it is repairable. The last thing any person living in a structure without a safe, reinforced room or basement wants to hear is the freight train roar of an approaching tornado, and to have children to protect must make even imagining such a scenario unbearable.

Winslow Homer - Hurricane, Bahamas
Hurricane, Bahamas, an 1898 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

All things are relative, and while comparatively few people in the United States have to exist in notoriously unsafe conditions like those in a Brazilian favela, there are still far too many in this rich country who live a hair’s breadth away from personal and financial disaster, a ruin which can befall them in a few unfortunate moments with the caprice of bad weather. As severe weather outbreaks become more frequent and as the population continues to increase, the possibilities for deaths, injuries, and property damage will also increase, all of which burden poor people more than others (yes, even death, because of the costs to survivors).

In the 1978 BBC television production of dramatist Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins as sheet music salesman Arthur Parker encounters a busker called The Accordion Man, played by Kenneth Colley, who in return for Arthur treating him to a meal treats Arthur to a rendition of the song “Pennies from Heaven” (lip synched to a 1937 recording by Arthur Tracy).

Insurance companies’ business model currently has them paying out after disaster strikes (contesting the payout all the way, and digging in their heels where they can), while offering little incentive for builders and developers to proof structures against disaster. Eventually, as expenses incurred by natural disasters mount to insupportable levels, insurance companies will have to come around to a more preventive strategy of offering lower premiums for stronger structures, something easier for them and builders and developers to cooperate on for wealthier homeowners. Where government can step in to protect poor people is to enforce insurance policy standards for their housing, rather than continuing to allow the corruption and slapdash oversight which currently riddles the market. Meantime, as always you’re on your own out there, particularly if you’re not rich, and you have to look out for yourself to stay safe. Good luck.
— Izzy

 

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The Price Is Right for Somebody

 

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
— Genesis 4:9, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Imagine a television game show in which the announcer calls four contestants from the studio audience to the foot of the stage, a stage that is a mock up of a pharmacy, with a counter behind which stands the host, looking like a pharmacist in a white smock. The host directs everyone’s attention to one side of the stage, where an assistant – also in a white smock – presents a year’s worth of a popular prescription drug, let’s say insulin. The host then asks the four contestants to guess the price of the insulin without going over the amount, and the contestant with the closest guess gets to come up on stage for the opportunity to win prizes.


A skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron, Wellcome V0010898
A lithograph promoting James Morison’s alternative medicines, showing a skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron in a parody of Macbeth and the three witches. From the Wellcome Collection gallery, London, England.

The remaining contestants try again on the next round, and some of them go home empty handed. Almost all the studio audience in attendance go home without even having been invited to participate. The few winners in each episode get to take home expensive prizes such as the year’s worth of insulin, valued at thousands of dollars, but the majority of those attending a taping of the game show go home with nothing or with a cheap consolation prize, such as a bottle of gummy vitamins. This game show analogy is not far off how Americans seem to prefer having their health care system operate, particularly drug pricing.

If you’re lucky, if you win the lottery (another gamed system Americans seem to prefer over taxing the rich), then you’re good as gold. The majority, however, may run into problems and tough choices, such as paying the rent or buying insulin; paying utility bills or buying any of the number of the life preserving medications people depend on, particularly as they get older. Prescription drugs are every bit as crucial to survival for some people as food and shelter, and yet Americans seem to prefer to let the drug industry operate like any other capitalist endeavor. Profits for drug manufacturers are more important than a decent life for an unfortunate number of citizens who can’t afford the high prices those manufacturers demand simply because they can, and the people principally to blame for this awful situation are some cretins in Congress.

“Someday Never Comes”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival from their 1972 album Mardi Gras.

Who are the people responsible for putting those cretins in Congress and in positions where they can run cover for the drug companies? Why, they are in large part the same people who struggle to buy overpriced prescription drugs. Why do they do this to themselves? Ah, that is the question bedeviling America’s sickness today. The unfortunate part is that while some voters are caught up in Congressional posturing and not paying attention to substance, there are many voters who don’t share their ignorant love of machismo and capitalist lotteries and yet are forced to share the results of the bad policies ensuing from all that greed and childishness. They have to scramble for the scraps left over from the game, while a few wealthy grifters laugh at how they have duped enough voters to go along with their rigged game to keep it going, dangling prizes before the willing saps. Instead of gambling on a rigged capitalist lottery, sensible adults take measures, even – horrors! – socialist measures, to ensure decent results everyday for everybody when it comes to matters of survival like food, shelter, education, and medical care, including drugs.
— Ed.

 

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The Level Playing Field

 

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

— Barack Obama, speaking at a July 2012 campaign appearance in Virginia. Republicans quickly jumped on his comments, taking them out of context in order to convince business owners he was insulting them and their hard work and initiative.

If anyone needed a reminder there is no such thing as a level playing field, the recent college admissions scandal ought to have brought it home. There was no surprise about wealthy parents greasing the skids to get their children into prestigious universities, and no surprise about the willingness of those institutions to bend their own rules to the breaking point in order get more money in their coffers. The admissions dance between wealthy patrons and their preferred institutions of higher learning has never been particularly secret, either, as can be seen with the admission of Jared Kushner to Harvard in 1999.

 

There’s enough hypocrisy and corruption in this latest scandal to go around many times, equal in its way to college admissions standards being contorted for the benefit of the athletic program and wealthy and amoral alumni supporters who want top athletes for the school no matter how deficient their academic qualifications. Any sober scrutiny of that boondoggle would cause the implosion of most major athletic programs at schools large and small. Poorly qualified students have always entered the doors of academia, whether the ticket they or their parents proffered was wrapped in large amounts of currency or in the promise of athletic prowess.

The Education System in Britain, 1914-1918 Q30858
Eton schoolboys digging potatoes from an allotment allocated for wartime vegetable production on the school playing fields during the First World War. Photo by Horace Nicholls (1867-1941) archived in the Imperial War Museum. Unfortunately, times of dire emergency and full mobilization are required to get the rich and their progeny to pitch in and work like everyone else.

The interesting aspect to examine after the latest revelations is the idea of meritocracy, which seems to offer a delusion of an open society to the poor and the unlucky. Rich, successful people want everyone to believe they achieved their exalted station entirely through their own merits. Many of them fervently believe this themselves. They take little account of the advantages afforded them by the society at large, and especially by dumb luck. This society’s adherence to the tenets of meritocracy results in rich, successful people giving themselves too much credit for their good fortune and poor, working people accepting too much blame for their abysmal circumstances. Meritocracy serves the purposes of the rich in allowing them to excuse their selfish behavior and to have disdain for the poor.

The way the system really works on behalf of well-off individuals and organizations is that they are made to believe a successful business or investment is all their own doing, and therefore they immodestly grab the larger portion of the profits for themselves, while unsuccessful endeavors are the fault of others, usually the workers, who need to accept blame and financial losses in the form of wage cuts or termination of employment. Privatized profits and socialized losses – that’s the American Way. Top executives sit on the boards of companies to look out for the interests of other top executives, members of what has largely been an Old Boys’ Club for as long as elites have dodged responsibility to the greater society, which is to say forever.

An excerpt from the “Dumb Americans” section of George Carlin’s 2005 Life Is Worth Losing performance. Warning: foul language.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with Wall Street bonuses – not pay, but bonuses only – over the past generation, it would stand at $33 an hour today. The people on Wall Street do provide the necessary economic service of concentrating investment capital, but that service is not as vital nor the work as important as portrayed in the 1980s television advertisements for the investment firm Smith Barney, in which the actor and producer John Houseman pompously announced “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” Hogwash! And it has only gotten deeper since the 1980s, to the point we’re all drowning in it, and Wall Street investors would have everyone believe they are the driving force of the economy, not the workers who actually produce useful things. Better education is needed, starting with teaching that rich does not necessarily equate with deserving, and that money is not a measure of worth beyond its contribution to the common good.
— Ed.

 

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Hepcats Build Green

 

“A person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns esp. in music; characterized by a keen informed awareness of or interest in the newest developments.”
— definition of a Hepcat from The World of Swing, Newsletter #2, October 2000.

An 18 story building in Brumunddal, Norway, has taken over the title of world’s tallest timber building after its completion this month. The construction firm Moelven Limitre used cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glued laminated timber (Glulam) to assemble the building’s structural elements. Until the recent development of laminated wood products capable of bearing heavy loads (unlike plywood, another laminated wood product), building heights of more than four or five stories were simply not possible using a wooden structure. For constructing buildings in the middle range of story heights, wood may be a greener alternative than steel, concrete, and brick, all of which have high environmental impacts in their production.

 

The good news in green building is that there are more options than ever, certainly more than the few allotted to the three little pigs in the story for children. Some of these, like straw bale building, will likely never be more than niche choices because of building code hurdles, expense of materials or labor in installation, or maintenance difficulties. Unusual building choices also often require specialized knowledge in their implementation if they are to be successful, and that can add to cost as well as scare off those unwilling to try something with a relatively high chance of failure. Working with wood or with steel and concrete has the advantage of familiarity, even considering new contrivances like wood laminates.

Straw bale house x - Dyssekilde økolandsby ecovillage Denmark
A straw bale house in Denmark. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad.

Anyone in decent physical condition with access to a supply of timber and a hammer and saw could assemble a wooden building using balloon framing, also known as stick building. Since stick building was typically limited to two or three stories at most, it was best used for residential or small business construction. Building with brick or concrete, and especially with steel, required more knowledge and experience, but the buildings could be made much higher than wooden stick buildings, and so they were more suitable for large commercial enterprises and apartment buildings. For all of the twentieth century there existed a bifurcation in building types and uses based on the divide between materials and the expertise and expense involved in assembling them.

 


The Emlen Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey, designed in 1879 in the “Stick Style” by architect Frank Furness. Library of Congress photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Now there is a crossing of the lines, and helpfully it is the search for green options that appears to be causing architects, builders, and the ultimate occupants of the buildings to cross them. For more people than ever before, it is important that a new way of building and living incorporate materials and methods that leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. Certainly the pricing for these novel uses will be high, at least at first, and affordable only to elites, but that’s alright since historically it has been elites who, per capita, have had the heaviest footprints. There are far more poor people than rich people, unfortunately, and in the aggregate they demand a lot of resources, but individually their requisites are relatively light. In the nineteenth century, the Plains Indians required only a few buffalo hides for their individual shelter, while a Manhattan plutocrat deemed it necessary to amass expensive materials from every corner of the Earth to plop himself and his family down in an enormous mansion on 5th Avenue.

An imaginative 1957 reframing of “The Three Little Pigs” by a wonderful ensemble of animators, musicians, and storytellers.

If conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous greening then that’s a move in the right direction, and if prices and usage comes down to the level of ordinary folks, it will have become a movement. It’s definitely better for everyone if builders start looking at environmental impacts as equal to or greater than the lowest possible cost for everything, and consequently the highest possible profit for themselves. That should apply most of all to manufactured housing, typically the lowest cost option of all, but also often the most dangerous to its occupants because of the prevalence of noxious materials, heavy reliance on energy for heating and cooling, and flimsy construction. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a movement started to design and build quality, humble cottages for the poor, and that movement needs rejuvenation if large gains are ever to be made in going green because the idea behind them would change whole neighborhoods and cities eventually, from the ground up rather than the top down, the way green grows naturally.
— Izzy

 

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It Wasn’t Funny Even Then

 

So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.”
— Ezekiel 33:7, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Amid all the furiously backpedaling confusion promulgated by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam over whether he was in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook picture of two male party goers, one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) outfit, there appears to be no acknowledgment from the governor or his staff of why they seem to think blackface is less racist than wearing KKK garb. They appear to assume that it is racism lite, and therefore perhaps excusable, choosing to ignore that even in 1984 such behavior was not acceptable in general society, and certainly not seen as good clean fun. The governor professes confusion over whether he was one of the two men in the photo, but nowhere does he allow the possibility he could have been the one in the KKK outfit. He claims he was either the one in blackface or he was not in the picture at all.


This song and dance is understandable given the feelings of the greater society about the KKK. Apparently Northam feels if he needs to equivocate about his participation in racist costuming, he is safer with blackface than with the utterly out of the fold KKK. But why? Besides the ludicrous assertion that he somehow doesn’t remember participating in the activity depicted in the photo, why does he hide behind blackface as the lesser of two evils? Is ridiculing, mocking, and denigrating black people any less evil than intimidating and threatening them? They are two sides of the same coin. And no, taking the good ol’ frat boy defense that he personally meant no harm doesn’t fly.

Ralph Northam "Coonman"
Ralph Northam’s 1981 VMI yearbook photo showing his nicknames “Goose” and “Coonman”.

Lost in the national coverage of Northam’s foolish, insensitive, and casually hateful youthful behavior is reporting about his less foolish, equally insensitive, and more consciously hateful behavior regarding the Dominion Energy natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline. As always with things like pipelines, the planned route took it through less populous countryside, avoiding the estates of rich folks, of which there are many in Virginia’s horse country surrounding Charlottesville in central Virginia. Instead the route is planned to take it well south of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, through far poorer and far blacker Buckingham County, with a compressor station near Union Hill, a community noted historically for its population of freed black slaves.

 

2016-05-27 10 18 23 View east along Virginia State Route 56 (South James River Road) just after crossing the Wingina Bridge over the James River from Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia to rural Buckingham County, Virginia
View east along Virginia State Route 56 (South James River Road) just after crossing the Wingina Bridge over the James River from Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia, into rural Buckingham County. Photo by Famartin. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would roughly parallel Route 56, intersecting several miles down the road at Union Hill for the compressor station.

Late last year, Governor Northam dismissed two members of the Air Pollution Control Board who disagreed about the pipeline route and placement of the compressor station, thereby assuring a yea vote from the Board. In Virginia, it should be noted, the biggest utility player, Dominion Energy, is also the largest single donor from the energy sector to political campaigns, regardless of party affiliation. Dominion Energy is pushing the pipeline through Buckingham County and its compressor station in Union Hill. Just north of Buckingham County is Albemarle County and its plethora of country estates owned by wealthy white people. South of Buckingham County would apparently be too far out of the way, making the pipeline more expensive.

In lightly populated Buckingham County, Dominion Energy could expect easily overpowered opposition to its pipeline and compressor station from poor, mostly black communities. The only remaining obstacle was two obstinate members of the state Air Pollution Control Board, and with the help of their man in the Governor’s office, they were removed. Like the 1984 yearbook photo, Governor Northam and his friends thought they could dismiss the racism implicit in it all by taking the position that he didn’t mean it that way. How insulting! It matters not at all how these people intend their actions, as if that somehow magically exonerates them, but how their actions ultimately affect the people on the receiving end, and professed ignorance of the effects on those on the receiving end is no excuse, any more than it was for the German people when their leaders packed Jews into cattle cars and sent them to concentration camps.
— Ed.

 

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Hey, Stupid!

 

Donald Trump (40238321295)
Photoshopped picture by Taymaz Valley.

Hey, Stupid! takes your questions about weather, or climate or whatever.

Questioner asks: Last week was bitterly cold throughout much of the U.S., and of course you chimed in about that on Twitter. This week, high temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast are forecast to rebound above freezing, and in Washington, D.C., where you can sometimes be found when you’re not on a golf course, are forecast to be in the 50s, 60s, even 70s. That’s pretty warm for mid-winter, even in D.C.. Will you be making any follow-up comments about that on Twitter?

Hey, Stupid! responds: Pffft! Sounds like good weather – or climate, or, you know, whatever – for hitting the links. Nice to get in 18 holes without having to go all the way to Mar-a-Lago this time of year.


Q: Just what is the difference between weather and climate?

HS: It’s the difference between owning the libs by throwing red meat to my base and another slow news day. Next question!

Q: As an erstwhile casino owner, couldn’t you view weather as individual wins and losses, and climate as long term profits assured by the house edge?

HS: You think you’re real smart, don’t you? Security! Interns!


March for Science NYC (22362)
A demonstrator at the April 2017 March for Science in New York City. Photo by Rhododendrites.

Q: Haven’t you taken practical, business measures to ward off the effects of climate change privately, while denying there are any such effects publicly?

HS: I like walls, that’s all! Border walls, sea walls, all sorts of walls. You keep asking smart aleck questions and you’ll be looking at prison walls.


Doonbeg 14th hole
The green at the 14th hole of Doonbeg Golf Club, now known as Trump International Golf Links and Hotel, Ireland. Photo by Terrance Siemon.

Q: Does your public denial of climate change have anything to do with protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry?

HS: What a dumb question! You’re always asking dumb questions! Of course it does.

Q: When you say “throwing red meat” to your base, what exactly do you mean?

HS: I mean I know what they like, and what they like is anything that gets a rise out of pointy-headed, know-it-all liberals and scientists. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Facts are irrelevant. What matters is reassuring them in their ignorance.


Q: My, that’s a remarkably cogent and well-spoken analysis coming from you. Did someone write it for you?

HS: Nah. But mostly I prefer saying how I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. People like the optics of that.

Q: So it doesn’t make any impact on your base of support to point out how climate change will affect everyone, even them, and especially their kids and grandkids?

HS: First of all, nothing ever affects everyone equally. The rich will always manage to skirt the consequences of their actions. It’s the poors who will suffer the worst effects – and I’m not saying there will be any, because you know it’s a Chinese hoax – anyway, the poors will suffer if there are any problems, and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, get what you can today, Make America Great Again, and let the Chinese worry about tomorrow if global warming is such a big deal to them.


Q: It’s hard to believe you’re openly admitting to contempt for the poor, instead of merely implying it as you always have. Aren’t a fair amount of your supporters working class or poor?

HS: Yeah, but they all imagine they could be like me one day. The people I’m talking about, and they know who they are and my supporters know who they are, are the Other ones, the ones who are looking for government handouts and are rapists and druggies.


Trump Welcome Parties in Greensboro (37312332750)
Supporters of the current president turn out to welcome him on a fundraising trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, in October 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider. The same flubs and ignorant or hateful remarks that dismay Democrats and even some Republicans serve as badges of solidarity for these people.

Q: Ah ha. So getting all this straight now – the cold weather last week was an opportunity to beat up on the libs and the scientists for the benefit of your base, who don’t care whether climate change is real or not because people they resent stand for it’s reality, and your base prefers to take the immature position of opposing whatever those other folks are for, regardless of the merits, and they are either ignorant of or do not care about how they are being used by you and your cronies in the corporate oligarchy. Does that sum things up?

HS: Yup, that’s about the size of it. You forgot to mention jobs. Dangle jobs in front of them and they’ll go for anything, never mind whether the jobs materialize or not, because when they don’t, it happens down the road. They have short memories, these people, Lord love ’em. By the time the temperature hits 70 later in the week, they won’t make any connection with my comments from last week. That kind of critical thinking is for people wearing pointy wizard’s hats, not good ol’ MAGA hat wearing Americans like my people, the Second Amendment people – they’ll only remember the rosy glow of how I outraged the libs and scientists and got them sputtering mad over my very stable genius remarks. Never mind the change in the weather. Or climate or whatever.
— Izzy

 

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The Christmas Goose

 

When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and had it published in 1843, the Christmas goose was a traditional feast, and turkey was an uncommon replacement. Goose was relatively inexpensive and plentiful, and turkey was quite the opposite in Europe at least, where it was not native. After Scrooge, the rich man, has metamorphosed into a warm, charitable human being, he makes a gift of a turkey to the family of his clerk, Tom Cratchit. At the time, a gift of a turkey for Christmas dinner was considered quite an upgrade over goose.

Mixed Greylag & Canada Goose flock, Netherlands
A mixed Greylag and Canada geese flock in a farm field in The Netherlands in February 2011. Photo by Uwactieve. During winter, geese often feed in farmers’ fields, gleaning grain fallen among the stubble of the harvest.

 

Now the tables have turned, so to speak. Turkeys raised on factory farms have become cheap to buy for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but since they have been bred for size and other characteristics, such as being able to withstand close quarters, flavor has been lost in the breeding. Roast goose, meanwhile, has been largely neglected in Western culture over the past 100 years. At the same time, Canada goose (Branta canadensis) numbers have exploded, to the point they are now nuisances in many urban and suburban areas across North America and even western Europe, where they have been both introduced by people and settled by way of natural migration in the past several centuries.

Canada goose populations have followed a curve similar to that of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), another once common North American animal that European settlers hunted to such low numbers by the early twentieth century that conservationists took measures to curtail hunting and preserve and protect both species. From that low point in the early twentieth century, Canada geese and white-tailed deer have rebounded to numbers higher perhaps than they were before Europeans migrated to North America. Both species have adapted so well to modern urban and suburban development, liking and even preferring some human-made habitats over undeveloped country, that many people now consider them pests, and even expanded hunting seasons cannot keep up with controlling their booming numbers.

Branta canadensis (35852362071)
Canada geese have found well-tended parks and golf courses with water features to be ideal habitats year round, making long migrations unnecessary. Photo by Marta Boroń.

Some municipalities in North America hire hunters to cull Canada geese and white-tailed deer, donating the meat to food banks. It’s an interesting development that in 150 years goose has once again become the roast meat at the center of holiday dinners for some poor folks like the Cratchits. They are perhaps eating some of the same Canada geese that have been pestering the rich folks on their golf courses, though naturally the municipalities paying to cull geese to help feed the poor would only do so on public lands, such as public golf courses and parks, and not on privately owned golf courses, since everyone knows rich people don’t believe in government assistance for anyone but themselves.
— Izzy

 

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A Taste Sensation

 

Since 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine editors precipitously and unfairly saddled adverse reactions of some people to Monosodium glutamate (MSG) with the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG has been stigmatized as a food additive that is apart from and somehow unhealthier than other food additives. The first person to report symptoms to the Journal was a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who complained of numbness at the back of his neck, general weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. On this slim testimony and that of several others, the Journal coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Dasima 2
A type of kelp known as Dasima in Korea, and Kombu in Japan, is a key ingredient in Dashi, a broth from which Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda identified the quality of umami in 1908 that led him to the discovery and production of MSG. Photo by freddy an.

 

Use of MSG is not limited to Chinese cookery, however, and it can be found in many processed American foods such as Doritos, which millions of Americans appear to consume regularly without complaint. It would be interesting to see if more people would attest to adverse reactions to eating Doritos if they were made aware the product contained MSG. It is listed among the ingredients on the package, and using its most recognizable name, too, rather than one of the many names that can hide its presence, such as autolyzed yeast.

This is not to say no one can have a real adverse or allergic reaction to MSG. But for just about any ingredient in food there are some people who react badly to ingesting it. The main thing to remember is that in scientific studies of MSG, as opposed to the purely anecdotal stories that appeared to satisfy the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, no one has found that MSG is any more dangerous than any of a multitude of other food additives. If it were as dangerous as some people appear to believe it is, not only would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely take it off its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, but thousands or even millions of Asians and Asian-Americans would be suffering every day from its effects.

 

Yet Asian chefs and home cooks continue to add MSG to their meals. They are either perverse in their determination to eat the possibly unwholesome ingredient, or they are unconvinced by the nearly hysterical denunciations of it coming from some people in North America and Europe. Given the ubiquity of MSG in highly processed foods that Americans eat and enjoy every day, any real or imagined adverse reaction to it could just as easily be called American Junk Food Syndrome. There is already one name for that, which is Obesity. American food processors discovered around the time of World War II that MSG was a useful flavor booster for otherwise bland or even flavorless foods like canned vegetables and corn snacks. MSG by itself does not encourage obesity, but its overuse in helping to make some rather unpalatable and non nutritious foods delicious does contribute to obesity.

Katsuobushi
Shavings of Katsuobushi, a preserved and fermented skipjack tuna used in Dashi, the umami broth from which Professor Ikeda first isolated MSG. Photo by Sakurai Midori.

At the same time as food scientists and agribusinesses were discovering how to make cheaply made, highly profitable junk food flavorful, they were also inadvertently taking the flavor out of healthful foods by manipulating them to improve qualities like pest resistance, standing up to shipping, or tolerating being confined on factory farms, all at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Those practices yielded bland, watery supermarket produce, and meats needing seasoning and breading and all sorts of treatments in order to taste like much of anything. It’s not all that mysterious why shoppers, particularly poor ones who can’t afford to seek out higher quality ingredients, turn to highly processed, highly flavorful foods, even at the cost of poor nutrition and cumulative destructive effects on their health.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society talks about the MSG controversy.

In this country, people like to blame the victim. After all, free enterprise and free choice means people don’t have to eat junk, doesn’t it? It’s also useful to have an Other to blame, as in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The sensible thing would be to teach children in schools about moderation in all things, including sprinkling additives on their food. A little bit of MSG on already healthful food gives an umami flavor boost and has not been shown to do harm to the great majority of people who eat it that way. MSG put on every unwholesome, processed food cannot be healthy since the bad effects of poor quality food combine with excessive amounts of this otherwise relatively harmless additive. Enormous amounts of any additive are probably not healthy, not just MSG. School administrators could stress in the curriculum healthful eating instead of allowing vending machines full of snacks, sodas, and sugary fruit drinks in the hallways. In the case of young people at least, free enterprise and free choice should take a back seat to learning healthy habits.
— Izzy

 

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