The NRA: towards a better understanding

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In its January/February issue, Mother Jones covered a report on the link between lead and human behavior. Rick Nevin, a consultant at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development ran some tests on the link between lead and violent crime:

In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

As the graph linking pirates and global warming famously shows, it’s possible to commit a correlation/causation fallacy any which way you like, so Nevin repeated his research in other countries for confirmation:

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A frum post on how a Frum tax could stop global warming

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On December 8, Jews celebrated the first night of Chanukah. On December 9, the UN Climate Change talks failed in Doha (See Reuters, Despair after climate conference, but U.N. still offers hope). The two events were not only temporally linked, but featured a decidedly similar focus: oil that burned far longer than it ever should have.

The weekly Torah portion read on December 1 (just one week before Chanukah, and right in the imddle of the UN conference) contained some topical advice for those seeking to address the climate crisis — if you look hard enough.

Vayishlach begins with a confrontation between two brothers, (#team) Jacob and Esau. In preparation for an encounter with his vengeful brother, Jacob sends flock after flock of she-goats, he-goats, ewes, rams (and more — see Genesis, 32:15 for the complete list; and for a treat, take a look at the verse in Hebrew and see if you can figure out what makes it unique). When the two finally meet, Esau makes to turn down the gift: “I have a lot; my brother, let that which thou hast be thine” (33:9). Undeterred, Jacob urges him to accept the gift, because “God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have all” (33:11).

The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jewish sage Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (the Kli Yakar) famously jumps on this exchange to highlight a key difference between the brothers. On the one hand, Jacob recognizes that God is with him and has given him everything he needs. But Esau, whose measure of wealth is material possession, admits to owning merely ‘a lot’ – implying that he could always use a little more. In the end, Esau accepts the gifts.

The Kli Yakar could not have chosen a better time of year to highlight the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’ – between the religious and the secular — between the spiritual and the material — on the heels (Hebrew pun intended) of Cyber Monday, Black Friday, and Gray Thursday (they renamed Thanksgiving), and in the run up to Chanukah and Christmas.

It’s easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit — sometimes, a little too caught up.

Winter is a time of giving and sharing, but too often, our  gifts sit in disuse on a shelf, in a closet, or off in a landfill. But these transient gifts — along with all the other material possessions we take for granted — have effects that last far longer. From manufacturing to transportation, from packaging to disposal, everything we buy carries a cost beyond the discount that appears on the price tag. And that price takes its toll on the planet we like to call home.

Obviously, people have material needs. We eat, we sleep, and during finals, we study. But at some point, we move beyond what we need to live, or even what we need to live comfortably, and start to accumulate things that we decidedly don’t.

And at that point, the pursuit of things transforms us from Jacob into Esau, from people who recognize that they are fortunate to live in the most prosperous nation the world has ever seen, to people for whom holiday sales are more meaningful than the holidays themselves. We change from people who are blessed with everything to people for whom even that can never be enough.

It’s easy to read everything I just wrote as a moralizing sermon, an admonishment against buying the very things that make you happy. And on some level, it is. But I think that focusing on individual choice distracts us from making the choices that matter — the choices that can make a difference — as a nation.

Doha is over, and Doha failed, but as talk picks up regarding a domestic carbon tax (see, David Frum: A tax we could learn to love), you’re going to hear politicians caution against a reduction in the ‘quality of life’ the electorate has come to enjoy as a matter of right.

Ignore them.

Yes, prices are going to rise. And some people will have less than they did before. But there are ways to ensure less means less wants not less needs, less quantity not less quality. It’s not fair to ask only the most conscious and aware among us to shoulder the burden, any more than it’s right to deprive anyone of those things they genuinely need. But there are policy solutions to these challenges, and no amount of protest should preclude us putting a market signal (i.e. a price) on carbon.

It would be a shame to let a family of paper tigers derail real progress in the fight against climate change. A world is a terrible thing to waste.

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Was Sandy a guy or girl?

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Now that Sandy has finally dissipated in fact — if not in effect — people want to know all sorts of things: what does Sandy mean for the election? Was it caused by global warming? Will power ever be restored on Long Island?

But I’ve come across only one person asking the truly important questions:

Hurricane Sandy. Sandy? What kind of name is that? Are you a dude storm or a lady storm?

Sandy, like Sandy Koufax (Dodgers) and Sandy Cohen (the OC)? Or Sandy, like Sandy Day O’Connor — OK, is the lack of women I immediately recognize on Wikipedia’s list of people named Sandy an indication that Sandy was a guy?

Turns out there’s a definitive answer: Hurricane Sandy was a chick.

Hurricane Names are chosen years ahead of time, but follow two very predictable patterns: One, their names go in order of the Alphabet, so Hurricane Alastair always comes before Hurricane Bishnu comes before Hurricane Caligula, and so on. Two, their names alternate by gender, so Hurricane Moses would never by followed by Hurricane Nachman m’Uman – though Hurricane Miriam might.

So all you have to do to determine Sandy’s gender is look at this year’s pre-published Hurricane list and figure out whether the odd names are male and the even female, or vice versa. Here’s the list:

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The Hidden Hidden (yes: two ‘Hidden’s – now three) Costs of Hamburgers

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One month ago, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a video titled The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers.

If you think the cost of a hamburger is the price you pay in the store (and judging by the reactions I get when explain why I don’t eat meat, chances are you do), I would definitely recommend watching:

The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers is generally accessible, nicely-illustrated, and sticks to the narrative of hidden costs (as described in its title) of raising and slaughtering livestock for meat on a mass scale. In a relatively short time, the video manages to briefly address a myriad of environmental issues, including (spoiler alert!) the production of greenhouse gases (especially methane and nitrous oxide), inefficient land and energy use, rainforest destruction, pollution, fertilizer runoff and oceanic dead zones, water use, transportation pollution, unhealthy diets, and the risk of infection from E. coli.

Yet! – though this extensive list might give the impression that the video covers all the bases, the frightening thing is that it does not. You see, while the CFIR mentions the risk of infection from E. coli, weight gain, and other health risks posed by industrial agriculture, it fails to address the most serious one: antibiotic resistance.

I’ve written about this already twice – see Gonorrhea: It’s what’s for Dinner and Putting Lipstick on a Pig Flu – and it’s no surprise that the issue gets comparatively little mention in mainstream media sources. But I do think it noteworthy when an organization that calls itself the ‘Center for Investigative Reporting’ manages to overlook antibiotic resistance in the process of creating a video clearly designed to encourage viewers to eat less meat. Considering that this is the impact of industrial agriculture most likely to significantly and incontrovertibly affect nearly everyone’s life for the worse, I believe it deserved at least passing mention.

But don’t let that stop you from watching the video.

What not to do when you’re introduced to someone from Seattle

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Whenever I tell someone where I’m from, the response is always predictable, and always about the rain. Nevermind that Seattle gets less annual precipitation than New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, or Washington DC – people know one thing about Seattle, and that thing is rain.

Furthermore, the banal comment always insinuates that the rain is negative, e.g. ‘Why would you want to live there?’ ‘Doesn’t it just make you want to kill yourself?’ ‘Dentists in Seattle must have it pretty rough! :)

Don’t be that person.

I’m here to suggest an alternative, courtesy of one John Nelson. Last week, Nelson published a historical map of wildfires in the United States using data collected by NASA satellites:

On a stark black background, complete with topographic features, the map shows not only where fires have burned between 2001 and July 2012, but also shows their intensity, veering from a wash of purplish dots for the smallest fires, up through stipples of red and smears of searing yellow for the mightiest blazes.

Without further ado, here’s the map he created:

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The future belongs to the vegetarians

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But first, a disclaimer: As you may have gathered, I only eat vegetables (& fruits, etc.). My reasons to give up being happily carnivorous were largely environmental: the burden of producing meat so greatly exceeds that of vegetable products – here’s just one example – that I felt uncomfortable continuing to consume it. While I do believe people should eat considerably less meat, that doesn’t mean I think everyone should be vegetarian. In this post, I outline a few reasons they might not have much of a choice.

In the 1950s, the average American consumed 7 pounds of meat a year. In 2004, American meat consumption peaked at 184 pounds/person. This year, the expected number is down to 166, and that’s a trend I think likely to continue. It’s nice to imagine people are choosing to eat less meat solely out of an increased sense of responsibility for the planet or animal welfare, but the declines are more likely the product of health concern and increased cost due to competition with consumers from rapidly-developing countries.

In this post, I would like to highlight a few emerging technologies, discoveries, and trends that could accelerate the decreased consumption, and push levels closer to where they were in the 50s:

One) The cost of real meat will go up, and there’s not much you can do about it: This morning, the US Department of Agriculture declared a natural disaster in more than 1,000 counties across 26 separate states. The reason? Drought. To help you visualize the extent of the natural disaster, it’s a map!

Drought is, of course, the product of high temperature, and the first half of 2012 was the hottest half-year on record. Given recent trends  in both climate and human behavior, global warming is likely to continue apace. What does all this have to do with beef? Well, raising cattle is a rather water-intensive activity; it takes about 2,500 pounds of water to produce one pound of beef. Or, as Newsweek once put it, “the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer.” As water becomes more scarce, its cost will go up. And you thought it was tough not watering your lawn.

Two) The cost of synthetic meat – real, edible, synthetic meat – will go down: You’ve probably heard about the $330,000 synthetic burger set to be served as early as October. But you might not have heard of Beyond Meat, the chicken substitute that “badly” fooled New York Times ‘Commander in Chef’ Mark Bittman in a blind taste test. Beyond meat is a mixture of soy and pea powder, carrot fiber, and gluten-free flour subjected to heat, cold, and pressure before being extruded into chicken-like shreds. And if that sounds like too much of an industrial process to you, it’s probably worth checking where your meat comes from now. These products will undoubtedly encounter some resistance from consumers, but if they can compete on price – and Beyond Meat insists its product will sell for less than real chicken – they could make a serious dent in consumer habits.

Three) A PETA superweapon is now possible: In 2008, PETA offered a $1 million bounty to the first person to serve a test-tube chicken. The developments described in Two) mean that this bounty might realistically be collected before the June 2013 deadline. But if PETA wants to make a real difference in American consumption patterns, I would suggest they look to the University of Virginia, where one researcher has discovered that the bite of a specific variety of tick could make you allergic to red meat. In the words of Emily Main, writing for Men’s Health – because, obviously, eating meat is a manly thing to do – the tick transmits “an antibody that causes the immune system to overreact in the presence of sugars found in red meat, leading to an allergic reaction that usually shows up as itchy, burning hives all over your trunk and back.” Forget the too-sexy-for-the-Superbowl ads: once PETA weaponizes this antibody, it could be the end of meat as we know it.

Look, I made my own Admiral Ackbar joke

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Join me, as I continue my epic journey through old print material. My latest adventure is drawn from the Science Times published May 1 of this year; more specifically, from an article entitled Life in the Sea Found Its Fate in a Paroxysm of Extinction. The article’s content is actually quite worrisome, but discussing its actual content is not the purpose of this post, so I encourage you to read it on your own time.

Meanwhile, I would like to call your attention to a single paragraph about midway through:

Scientists suspect that the answer lies in the biggest volcanic event of the past 500 million years — the eruptions that formed the Siberian Traps, the stairlike hilly region in northern Russia.

A stairlike hilly region called the Traps? And I’ve never heard of it? (I imagine you can see where this is going – my apologies):

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Classic New Yorker

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In a New Yorker article dated January 16*, Hendrik Hertzberg took time out from ridiculing Mitt Romney to ridicule Rick Santorum (this was back when Rick Santorum was a thing):

And more: he calls global warming “junk science”; he wants to keep American troops in Afghanistan until they achieve “victory”; he believes that the West Bank is “Israeli land,” as Israeli as Arizona is American; he blames the rape of children by priests on “academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America.”

If it wasn’t clear from the tone, the context, or the ideas themselves, Hertzberg does not think very highly of Santorum’s politics. And to be honest, on most counts, I’m with Hendrik.

One exception.

I’m not here to make a moral or political argument about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Whatever you think of it, you think of it, and nothing I write is going to change your opinion. But I am going to take issue with Hertzberg’s specific example of land that is indisputably American. Let’s review:

he believes that the West Bank is “Israeli land,” as Israeli as Arizona is American

To Hertzberg, Santorum’s position is patently ridiculous: Arizona’s as American as Iced Tea.

But here’s my problem: try as I might, I can find few meaningful differences between Israeli ownership of the West Bank and American ownership of Arizona.

If anything, Israel might have a stronger claim to the West Bank than America does to Arizona: When Jews settled Yehuda and Shomron, at least they returned to land once occupied by their ancestors. When the United States took Arizona from Mexico (Jordan), who had in turn dispossessed the Native Mexican inhabitants (Palestinian Arabs), they did so solely out of an unbridled sense of Manifest Destiny. And I think one would be hard pressed to argue that Israelis have treated Palestinians worse – in any meaningful way – than the US has dealt with its own native population.

So next time Hendrik wants to condemn the Israeli occupation, I suggest he spend some time coming up with a better way to do it. Unless, of course, he’d be happy to just give the West Bank a tax-free casino and call it a day.

Jeri-casino? I hope they come up with a better name.

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