Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Deepwater Horizon: a “natural” disaster?

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Rush Limbaugh’s comment about the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher has been widely mocked in the blogosphere. “The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there,” Limbaugh said. “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.” (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/rush-limbaugh-on-oil-spill-debunked.php)

Just how wrong is Limpbaugh, anyway? Let’s look into it. First of all, there is a lot of natural seepage of oil from the ocean floor, so he’s got a point there. A 2003 article from GeoMarine Letters estimates global natural seepage of crude oil into the ocean at 600,000 metric tons/year, although there’s a wide range of uncertainty. This is a bit less than half of the total oil spilling into the oceans currently; the rest we owe to human activity. http://www.springerlink.com/content/bya6g7r7ceebanrl/

What happens to all that oil? A lot of it apparently stays on the bottom, as it’s pretty dense; much of that is consumed by bacteria. So Rush is right that there are natural processes to deal with it. http://www.isa.org/InTechTemplate.cfm?template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=76955

However, those oil-eating bacteria consume oxygen from the water while dealing with the oil, so the environment around a big spill is not too hospitable for other forms of marine life. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/us/16oil.html?hp

As has been widely noted, the current gusher is releasing a lot more than the official estimate of 5000 barrels a day – more like 25,000 to 80,000. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/us/16oil.html?hp

So how does this current “leak” compare to the natural leakage?

Some calculations are in order.

First, a barrel is .1192 cubic meters of oil. http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=barrel

Crude oil has a density somewhere around 800-900 kg/cubic meter (varies). Call it 850.
http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/liquids-densities-d_743.html

And let’s estimate somewhere in the middle range for the size of the “leak” – 50,000 barrels/day.
That means the Deepwater Horizon is pouring 5066 metric tons of oil per day into the Gulf.

At that rate, as of today, it has already poured 1/5 of a year’s global natural leakage into one small part of the Gulf of Mexico. Left uncapped for a total of 118 days, it will have dumped a full year’s worth. And considering that the natural leakage is about equal to the average human-caused leakage, another way of looking at it is that this single accident could double the typical year’s worldwide artificial oil leakage by August 18th.

Think that it’s unlikely to continue this long? The previous record-holder for an offshore oil “leak” was the Ixtoc I well off Campeche, which spilled about 20,000 barrels a day for 290 days in 1979-1980 before it was capped. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ixtoc_I And that one was in only 50m of water rather than almost 2000m, making it technically much easier to deal with.

Now, Rushbo, it’s true that eventually natural processes will deal with this – but the environment of the Gulf of Mexico is going to be profoundly altered by this spill for a long time to come, even if they cap it completely today. The “dead zone” around the mouth of the Mississippi is going to grow enormously, and some of the most important fishing waters around our continent are going to be producing mainly oil-eating bacteria instead of shrimp, oysters, and redfish, probably for years. And I bet even Emeril can’t make a tasty etoufee out of oil-eating bacteria.

So, Rush has his facts right, but the implications totally wrong. It’s a bit like saying that there are traces of cyanide in almonds, and they don’t hurt you, so it’s okay to eat cyanide by the spoonful. Quantity matters, and this catastrophe is huge.

Caster Semenya and the problem of gender

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Semenya
As everyone has probably heard by now, champion runner Caster Semenya is being tested by the IAAF to see if she is actually qualified to compete as a woman.  The issue is complex.   During the Cold War, olympic athletes were tested, first simply by visual inspection, and later by examining their chromosomes.   The testing is now done by a panel, including various medical specialists as well as a psychologist.  How they arrive at a decision is not obvious.

Nor should it be.  The real issue here is that gender is a continuum, or more properly a whole set of continua, and the rules of sport treat it as a dichotomy.  What does it mean to be female or male?  What is gender?

Psychologists and physicians recognize a number of components to gender.  Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Genital — does the individual have a penis and scrotum, or a clitoris and vulva?
  • Chromosomal — XY or XX?
  • Hormonal — high levels of androgens or estrogens?
  • Gender identity — does the individual perceive him or herself as male or female?
  • Sexual orientation — is the individual sexually attracted to females or males?

It should be obvious on reading the list that all of these have the potential to be answered “neither” or “both” or “in between” in some cases.  And, although the items on the list aren’t independent of each other, they’re not absolutely linked either.

A quick review of sex determination in mammals:  In mammals, the default development schema is female.  All embryos start out with a cloacal opening that eventually divides into the anus and another opening.  The second one becomes the vagina in females.  If a Y chromosome is present, at about 10 weeks after fertilization a gene on the Y (known as SRY) is expressed.  The product of this gene is a regulatory protein (also known as SRY) that causes the development of glandular tissue in the sides of the opening — the area that will become the labia in females.  The glandular tissue produces testosterone, a steroid hormone that controls expression of lots of genes.  One consequence of testosterone production is that the labia majora thicken and fuse, closing the vaginal opening.   The labia minora also fuse, forming a tubular sheath around the urethra.  The urogential tubercle, a small swelling at the top of the opening, enlarges in response to testosterone and becomes the glans of the penis.   Without SRY, none of this occurs.  The urogenital tubercle remains small and becomes the clitoris, and the labia remain separate on the sides of the vaginal opening.

Fetal genital development

Fetal genital development

There’s a range of “normal” responses to SRY, so that different individuals will have varying amounts of testosterone production.  There’s a range of “normal” responses to testosterone, so that different individuals with the same testosterone levels will show different levels of expression of the genes that are regulated by it.  This means, among other things, that the clitoris can vary in size, as can the penis.  It means that around 1 to 4 % of male babies are born with incomplete closure of the penile shaft, leaving an opening on the underside of the penis; this condition, known as hypospadias, has increased in frequency in recent years.

Testosterone binds in the cell to a protein called the androgen receptor, which then binds to DNA and affects gene expression.  Androgen receptor proteins vary, as does their effectiveness in mediating testosterone’s effect.  Individuals who lack functional androgen receptors are said to have androgen insensitivity, and XY individuals with this condition may produce lots of testosterone but develop (at least superficially) as female.

Androgen insensitive XY siblings

Androgen insensitive XY siblings

I once was explaining this to a class, and after seeing this textbook photo, a student asked “Couldn’t that lead to homosexuality?”  I initially thought she meant that, being XY, they’d want to have sex with women, and that would make them lesbians.   It took a few minutes of rather confusing discussion before I realized that she meant that they’d probably have sex with guys, and being XY, that would make them gay.    I think the class found it fairly disturbing that their terminology wasn’t working in this instance.

Androgen insensitivity and hypospadias are examples of the range of conditions known as intersex.    The term itself reflects the general discomfort of people toward any admission that gender is not an absolute dichotomy.  And of course, that discomfort exists in part because a large majority of individuals do cluster close to the ends of the continuum, at least when it comes to genital morphology.

When you consider, as discussed in the recent New York Times essay on this issue, that muscular development is strongly influenced by testosterone levels and the efficiency of the testosterone regulatory response, and you consider that both of those vary considerably in individuals of either gender, it becomes clear that the IAAF is trying to fight a losing battle.

Inevitably, in many sports where amount of muscular development is important for success in competition, the women’s competitions are going to be dominated by individuals who happen to fall just as far  toward the “masculine” end of the various continua as the rules committee will permit.  When there is no absolute standard, but rather some sort of consensus based on a panel of experts in various fields, it’s going to be a messy process, and some people are going to feel that they’ve been treated unfairly regardless of what the decision is.

Jesus loves you to waterboard Muslins [sic]

Friday, May 1st, 2009

The Pew Research Center just published this study showing the relationship between religion and agreement with the statement that torture should be used on suspected terrorists.


It’s no big surprise; the people I know who would approve of torture are mostly white evangelicals. But why is this? What’s the connection between, say, a belief that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him might not perish, but have eternal life, and the belief that it’s okay to torture people? I’m just having trouble finding the path that connects these views.

In other Pew Center news, over 10% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, and about 20% of white evangelicals do.   Hmmm.  Are evangelicals thinking that “terrorist” and “Muslim” are synonyms, and that’s why they’re ready to torture them?  What proportion of church-goers are ready to torture Obama?

In their defense, I should point out that the church in which I was raised, the Episcopalians, were among the least likely to approve of torture — almost as opposed to it as atheists are.

Eeek! Sex in the university!

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

So, a funny thing happened the other day.  A representative from Georgia, Calvin Hill (R-Canton), got hold of the media guide from Georgia State University — you know, one of those lists of “who to call for a quote about X” things.  And on there, he found people with expertise in things like male prostitution and oral sex.  He thought he was looking at a course catalog, and immediately got all bent out of shape about people teaching our children courses in oral sex, because of course this is a waste of taxpayer dollars, as kids know more about it than we do.  Ha ha, just kidding, I mean because nobody should know anything about it ever.

 

So then his colleague Charlice Byrd (R-Woodstock) got up on the House floor during prime C-Span hours (i.e. everyone else was asleep) and called for a grass-roots campaign to kick out professors who teach stuff like that, and especially “queer theory.”

“This is not considered higher education,” she said. “If legislators are going to dole out the dollars, we should have a say-so in where they go.”

Byrd and her supporters, including state Rep. Calvin Hill, said they will team with the Christian Coalition and other religious groups to pressure fellow lawmakers and the Board of Regents to eliminate the jobs.

“Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, math,” said Hill, a vice chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. He said professors aren’t going to meet those needs “by teaching a class in queer theory.”
(Fort Mill Times)

The whole thing more or less blew over — turns out that Kirk Elifson does fairly important research on the spread of HIV by male prostitutes, and Mindy Stombler is a sociologist studying attitudes of teens about sexual practices, and somehow it doesn’t sound as bad when you use your brain for an instant or two. Hill tried to back-pedal:

Several members of the committee praised Elifson and Stombler for their work; Hill, too, spoke to the committee but given the chance, did not ask the GSU faculty any questions.

He defended his interest in the issue and said he never specifically accused GSU of anything. He also said the media had blown the subject out of proportion.

“It’s been taken sideways by people who like the titillating words,” he said.

He argued that in a time of budget cuts universities should not offer classes that do not help students get jobs.(Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Because all he really meant to say was that higher education should be transformed into vo-tech.  Still, not everybody is ready to give up on this.   Just today the conservative blog Human Events published a philippic on the topic, supporting Byrd’s original plan to expunge all this nasty stuff from tax-supported educational institutions.

This is a management issue. Over the last thirty years, even in the bastion of large public universities, the mantra has been “let’s shock the parents.” Maybe it hasn’t been official or stated but it’s been there. The Deans of the Schools and the management structure of the University must be able to not only balance the curriculum, but also manage it through hard times. Too many times these academics don’t know how to manage people because they are academics and not business people.

If this is happening in University System in Georgia, it’s happening in your state, too. Go online and look at the course offerings at your son or daughter’s university and you’ll find these fringes offered there, too. They are counting on parents to be too intimidated to get involved. Parents should take charge of their child’s education at every level.

And taxpayers should demand better administration of college funds. If we are graduating people who can’t do math, don’t know science and can’t write or speak English well, why in Heaven’s name are we spending money on anything but to improve those results?

There you go! Higher education should be confined to teaching math, science (not the nasty kind, I’m guessing) and English. Out with those other fripperies like the arts, so-called sciences like sociology, and, I guess, epidemiology.  I mean, just while the economy is bad.  Once things get rolling again, we can just rebuild all those departments that we abolished before, no problem.

My lousy senator fights spending for alternative transportation

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I just got a little note from MoBikeFed, the state bike advocacy group, with some interesting information.

Kit Bond, paleocon, Missouri’s senior senator, is sponsoring amendments to the stimulus bill that would strip all transportation funding except the part that goes to highways.  Like this:

[Bond] plans to offer an amendment that would transfer $5.5 billion in the bill for surface transportation competitive grants to the highway and bridge formula. The grants are meant for larger projects of national or regional significance that can be started within three years. Bond said that is not stimulative.

This is because bigger and better highways promote more gas-powered transportation, and as we know, gasoline is

a) Free

b) Not produced by countries that hate us

c) Non-polluting and non-CO2 producing (Not that Kit worries about global warming)

d) The most healthful way to get around

And, as Bond says, it’s “not stimulative” to spend money on alternative transportation.

Way to go, Kit!  Don’t waste taxpayer money on modernizing our infrastructure with light rail, buses, electric cars, bicycle paths, and pedestrian walkways.  Let’s invest in what got us where we are now.  Forward into the past!

Oh, btw, you can send your senators a message on this issue right here, if you’re interested.

I’m famous.

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Walt and I were looking at the county-by-county electoral map on November 6, and saw that curving blue line across the deep south.   I said, “What the hell is that?  It’s got to be some kind of geographic feature.”  We looked in Google Earth and didn’t see anything obvious, and then I got an idea and googled “Cotton Production 1860″.   Voila, the maps match perfectly.  I cropped the national electoral map to match the cotton map and put them both up on a page that very afternoon.

See this post on Wonkette, titled “Slaves vote heavily in Obama’s favor?“   Wonkette got it from Andrew Sullivan, who got it from Strange Maps, who got it from Pin the Tail, who apparently got it from me and posted it a week after my page went up.

Update: After this post went up, both Strange Maps and The Vigorous North cited my original post.  They also add considerable interesting content, and The Vigorous North traces the landforms and soil types responsible for this pattern back to the late Cretaceous shoreline.  Worth a look.

Update to the Update: Now featured on Rachel Maddow’s blog as part of an even more comprehensive discussion.

History

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

That was the moment we knew.  When Ohio was called for Obama, he had 195 electoral votes, and with the near-certainty that IA, CA, OR, and WA would follow, he had 275 votes and the presidency.

No election in my life has moved me as much as this one.

Election Night

Now we’ve got what we wanted, and the real work starts — we’ve just handed Obama some of the worst national problems in recent history.  I can only wish him strength, good advice, and wisdom.

Election Day

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Saturday Sophie and I volunteered to canvass for Obama, and although she had to work Sunday, I went back and volunteered again.  This close to the election, all the effort is directed at getting out the vote, so we were visiting households already identified as favoring Obama or at least leaning that way.  Even so, it was kind of a revelation to us.  These were overwhelmingly white neighborhoods we were in.  Most of the people we saw were elderly – just the kind of Democrats who were supposed to be pissed off because Hilary didn’t get the nomination.  And yet we repeatedly heard things like “Oh, yes, I’m voting for Obama.  Yes, I know where the polling place is.  I never miss an election.”  Or as one old guy said, “Well, I guess I’ll vote for him.  I’m sure as hell not voting for a Republican!” 

Considering all the right-wing rants I read in the call-in column in the local paper, it restores my faith in my fellow man to find out that there really are Democrats in Southeast Missouri.   These people live in modest homes in middle-class neighborhoods; a lot of them are retired, and living on fixed incomes, and they clearly see that Obama is the candidate with their economic interests at heart.   I don’t think the Bradley effect is happening here; they weren’t trying to tell me what I wanted to hear, while secretly planning to vote for the white guy.  The few people we ran into who seemed like they opposed him on racial grounds were pretty openly hostile.  Ironically, those few were in the poorest neighborhoods, and had the most to lose from a continuation of trickle-down economics. 

 

Missouri overall leans slightly toward McCain, and this part of the state is strongly Republican.  However, if we can get about 40% of the vote in this region, the strongly Democratic populations of St. Louis and Kansas City can put Missouri in the Obama column.  The last time I actively worked for a presidential candidate was when Bill Clinton ran the first time, and I think there’s even more enthusiasm for Obama this year than there was for Clinton in 1992.  Even out in the boonies where we live, there are Obama supporters – Obama yard signs in Fruitland!  On highway Y!  At the livestock auction yard on highway C! 

 

The national polls and electoral maps look good.  Still, I’m anxious.  As one of Cabell’s friends blogged, “”I feel like it’s Christmas Eve, only with the suspense of wondering whether Santa is going to bring me a pony or set my house on fire.”

Wingnuts

Friday, October 31st, 2008

A contact of mine in Flickr posted this pic of a defaced Obama sign, I commented sympathetically, and one of the people in the comment thread wound up sending me this Flickr Mail message:

:: OBAMA

HE WENT TO CHURCH FOR 25 YEARS WITH PREACHER WRONG. HE SAID
HE WAS ONE OF HIS TOP ADDVISERS. WRONG 5PREACHED HATE
AGAINST WHITE MEN AND OBAMA ACCTED LIKE HE NEVER SAW
ANYTHING BULLSHIT. HE FINALLY THREW  WRONG UNDER THE BUS
WHEN HE SEEN HOW PEOPLE WERE TURNING ON HIM.  BILL AYERS
AND HIM ARE LIKE BROTHERS AND THE MAN IS A TERROIST. HE
SAID HE WILL MEET WITH ALL THE ROGUE COUNTRIES LIKE IRAN
WITH OUT PRE-CONDITIONS HELL THAT CRAZY. HE USE TO BE HEAD
OF SIGNING PEOPLE UP TO VOTE WHEN THEY DIDN’T HAVE
ADDRESSES. HE HAS FLIP FLOPED ON EVERTHIG HE HAS SAID IT IS
JUST WHAT CROWD HE IS PLAYING. HE WANTS TO RAISE TAXES WHEN
THE IN A RECEASION. HE IS THE MOST LIBERAL PERSON IN THE
SENATE.  HES FRIENDS WITH LUIS FARAKKAN. HE WILL NOT PUT
HIS HAND OVER HIS HEART WHEN THE PLEGE OF ALLEGANCE IS
SAID. HE  WILL NOT WEAR A AMERICAN FLAG PIN. WHAT DAM MORE
DO YOU WANT THE SON OF A BITCH SHOULD BE RUN OUT OF THE
COUNTRY. IF DON’T SEE IT YOU NEED A SHRINK. BUT IF HE DOES
WIN IT WOULDN’T SURPRISE ME IS SOMEONE DIDN’T TAKE THE
BLACK BASTARD OUT BEFORE HE GETS TO THE WHITE HOUSE. ONE
MORE HOLIDAY. THANKS     PS IRAN NUKE THE BASTARDS. HAVE A
NCE DAY

Now, my initial response is two words: Snopes.com.  But this guy is pretty clearly immune to rational argument. Actually, I’m a bit disappointed that he missed the late-breaking news that Obama is actually the illegitimate son of Malcolm X.

What is it with the all-caps crowd, anyway?  I used to say it was the equivalent of shouting all the time, but I think it’s more like shouting all the time and spraying spittle in the process.

I don’t guess the Secret Service would consider this guy’s message an actual death threat against Obama, but I do hope that security is tight.  How do Republicans who actually have two neurons to rub together feel about the supporters they’re courting?  Bill Buckley must be spinning in his grave.

Hey, Joe.

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Let’s see — it’s a weird and twisted journey that gets me to the point of this.  I was doing my patriotic duty by watching the debate and reading Wonkette‘s liveblogging of it, and Wonkette pointed out that, in the process of pandering to the middle class, both candidates managed to say “Hey, Joe”.  This led to this video clip. And then, of course, I spent way too much time looking at related clips, winding up with this one.  The thing about Red House is that hearing it always makes me so sad that Hendrix died so young.  Imagine the blues he’d be playing now.  It’s a tragic loss to all of us.

On the plus side,  a contact of mine on Flickr just posted this:

The day before his 81st birthday, playing in Rotterdam.  Thank you, God, but why the hell couldn’t we have Jimi that long?