July 2008 Archives

Science Columnists Sell You Short

Un-Science Tuesday

A while ago, some self-appointed science public relations coaches took to criticizing scientists who published important science news on Fridays. Of course up to that point, for me, Fridays had been for science reading -- a little journal club and catching up on the literature. Science Friday wasn't just an NPR show. But these folks sternly instructed scientists to publish the big news at the beginning of the week, at the start of the "news cycle". They publicly scolded scientists when they didn't.

I'm still not too sure that science fits in the whole "news cycle" paradigm -- the crazy and consumptive frenzy. Can science really be skimmed, emoted, and flushed? I suppose if science is to be "news" it must adapt. Accordingly then, even though economists say "there is no Friday Effect", some science publicists dutifully publish their Big Science News at the beginning of the week.

It follows then with just as much logic, that if Monday is the big day for science news than Tuesdays must be the day for big anti-Science news. No, you say, Tuesday's a big science day too. The New York Times runs their weekly Science section on Tuesdays. True, but consider that columnists steer the opinion ship for the NYT and on Tuesday John Tierney the "science columnist" runs his distinctively un-Science section. Just yesterday he assured us in his article in "10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List", that the Arctic ice isn't melting, cellphones don't cause cancer, hot dogs are good for you, and bisphenol-A is one of life's essential building blocks.

On one hand I understand his feelings. Every time you turn around there's another disturbing warning. Recently, radium emitting granite counter tops attracted attention of the type that manufacturers will resent, and that after warnings on cellphones, jalapeno peppers, salmonella tainted tomatoes swamped the news.

There is an economic downside to all of this. The salmonella warnings caused the price of tomatoes to fall by $3.00 per pound in my area. Of course, this was good for me. I took a small personal risk and bought some local-ish tomatoes, despite frenzied media calls to avoid them. Tierney the New York Times"science columnist" hounds others to adapt his anti-global warming, anti-recycling, anti-science positions. Unlike Tierney, who likes to turn his personal choices into the reader's public policy, I didn't march around the produce section with a megaphone hectoring other shoppers to buy tomatoes.

You'd think New York Times wouldn't choose as "science columnists" writers who tell people to ignore scientists, but I can only conclude that when your paper's profit drops 82% in a quarter, the "fit to print" standard plummets as well. (Although Tierney's been at this for a while, I argue he's reached a new low.) Here's the science behind some of Tierney's science fact denialism.

  • Now that the "nitrite scare" has passed Tierney says, and grilled food is ok, rest assured that hot dogs are ok too. However doctors who read research don't agree. Doctors say nitrites are linked to stomach cancer. Who do you believe? The Mayo Clinic? Or John Tierney?
  • John Tierney has long claimed that global warming is trumped up fear mongering, that the Arctic ice isn't melting and by extension there's no global warming. Last week, a huge 4 kilometer piece broke off the Arctic shelf. Derek Mueller, a polar scientist and research fellow at Trent University, in Peterborough, commented "Ice shelves don't just break up. There's no karate chop". He went on to note the shelf's "gradual weakening over time as a result of warming temperatures." Of course, John Tierney didn't say "a 4 mile block of ice didn't break of last week". He just didn't mention the fact.
  • Recently a panel of more than 20 scientists looked at various cell phone studies and found some alarming evidence that pointed to increased risks for brain cancer. They recommended taking 10 simple precautions while using cell phones which the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute announced last week. John Tierney skips over that information.

    Instead he says that despite the fact that "prominent brain surgeons" talk publicly about cell phone dangers, his "colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted that there is no known biological mechanism for the phones' non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones." Who do you trust? Prominent brains surgeons or Tierney's parsing of his colleague's column?

    Tierney skips the part of Parker-Pope's that about article 1 research showing "increases in three cancers: glioma; cancer of the parotid, a salivary gland near the ear; and acoustic neuroma, a tumor that essentially occurs where the ear meets the brain." Parker-Pope also noted that researchers are concerned about the design flaws and duration of many of the previous studies which showed no harm from cell phones.

    Another recent article on cellphones makes it clear:"The scientists agree on two things: there's no formal proof of the cell phone's harmfulness, but a risk exists that it promotes the appearance of cancers in cases of long-term exposure."

  • On bisphenol A, Tierney writes that he still uses his "old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with [bisphenol-A] BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts". He warns that "if they ever try recalling it, they'll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers". Of course this is his choice, nevertheless, scientists show in hundreds of studies that BPA is an endocrine disruptor that's unnecessary to the manufacture of baby bottles.

So in your experience -- think climate change, tobacco, asbestos, beryllium -- when science doesn't "know for sure", is that the time to pull out the stops and go all cavalier with risky behavior...? When it's so incredibly easy to reduce your family's personal risk? By publishing a jumble of half-truths and incorrect information, laced with that devil may care attitude, the New York Times erodes its credibility and does a disservice to both science and consumers.

The Campaign to Stop the Worry. Aren't They Thoughtful?

Not all Tierney's 'things you don't need to worry about' are equally risky. But his presentation, incomplete facts and distorted interpretations aim not to clarify but to muddy the waters.

Different "worries" carry different risks. It's easier to manage some risks than others. I don't know what the risk associated with his 10th point, "unmarked wormholes" is, and I personally can't ameliorate it. Scientists don't know the exact risk of cellphones, but individuals can do something about it. And that's the real worry -- for manufacturers of chemicals, plastics and cell phones.

Tierney doesn't name any scientists, instead he makes science and scientists the amorphous enemy. (I've listed the names of the doctors and scientists who served on Pitt's cellphone panel below.1). Tierney's article cheekily and disingenuously appears under "Findings", as though he's presenting some science research. And as icing on the cake, the New York Times lists as a source for more information, the ACSH, an industry funded public relations firm. ACSH does not currently make public its donors, but to get an idea, the Union of Concerned Scientist's report on industry funded non-profits informs us that Exxon-Mobil donated to ACSH for work on work on "climate change issues" (see PDF).

The most alarming point of Tierney's article to me, aside from the fact that it's supposedly "science", is the premise: that new knowledge stemming from science research somehow causes "worry...fear, guilt or angst". Is that true? Or does such knowledge help protect the public by alerting them to health hazards?

Why is there a constant drumbeat about protecting the populace from "fear"? Selective protection? There's never a worry about protecting the public from unnecessary fear when it comes to terrorism.

There has been a decades long media blitz to "stop the worry" by ACSH. Just this year ACSH put out (this 01/08 Top Ten list of 'silly scares' and this Top 5 list. Are we really afraid of their unreasonable fears?

The truth is we can control lots of BPA exposure by using readily available glass or metal containers. If hot dogs are the most tasty treat for you, than there's plenty of nitrate-free processed organic meat products. Or, you're still free to live worry free and enter hot dog eating contests around the country. Reduce your cell phone exposure by using earplugs. Stop contributing to global warming by biking. Don't bike? Walk. Carpool and meet new people. Read research! Think!

How did Tierney's ancestors confront tigers given that his brain seems forever paralyzed in attachment to plastic bottles? Of the millions of products available to us, do we really need Nalgene bottles? If so we're a pathetic species. The end result of this corporate funded campaign is that adults are encouraged to act like three year olds clinging to a special toy, standing in an ever-rising sea of toys.

Mighty Myths: Scientists are Terrorists, But Science Can Fight Terrorism

Also penning a few un-science ideas on Tuesdays is Clive Crook of the Financial Times. Crook "is the FT's science editor". He wrote in an article yesterday with Sir Richard Mottram, the former "permanent secretary for intelligence, security and resilience in the UK Cabinet Office." In their article, "Careful science can help to fight terrorism", the authors first frame a three part problem: 1) Scientists are likely terrorists 2) Science and technology increases terrorism 3) Science and technology used to prevent terrorism constrains free society. As they put it:

  • "For a start, scientists, engineers and doctors have played a considerable role as terrorists since the mid-20th century." They authors don't see fit to provide evidence, rather they then assert: "something about the certainties enshrined in many scientific disciplines may also chime with the inflexible philosophy of some terrorist groups."
  • Next they say, "unconstrained dissemination of scientific knowledge may enhance the terrorist threat in its most severe forms"
  • And finally, "unconstrained use of scientific and technological solutions in countering terrorism - for example, exploiting developments in sensors and in biometrics, information-handling and communications - could themselves damage the free society"

As I said, they provide zero evidence for their three suppositions, although all three appeal to common perceptions in a familiar muddly way, and the third seems quite probable. The authors then go on to say that although science is bad, science can also be good:

"Science can help strengthen infrastructure and mitigate the effects of an attack, particularly if a nuclear or biological weapon were to be used. And we can expect disciplines such as psychology and the social sciences to contribute more to our understanding of what drives terrorism - and therefore how best to prevent it.

I'm not arguing with all of Crook and Mottram's points. But they strain to construct some image of science, technology, and scientists, then once they establish that, they go on to vilify that image. I guess to build reader alliance? Acronym Required has followed various crises -- hurricanes, tsunamis, AIDS, bridge failures, pandemics, healthcare, etc. In each crisis, people assert with confidence that science and technology can solve the the very same problem...sometime in the future.

However failure is often not a technology hitch but a political and/or management issue. 9/11 wasn't a technology failure. The US government failed on the ground to pay attention to intelligence indicating that such an attack was likely. FBI agencies didn't use email, moreover they didn't communicate any way. Bridges fall down because of inspectors. Hurricanes cause more damage when FEMA is a "dumping ground" for ineffectual political appointees and levees aren't built due to politics. AIDS kills more people when health ministers counsel citizens that http://acronymrequired.com/2006/09/south-africa-peddling-beetroot.html">beetroot is a cure, etc.

Scientists and their science, and the technology that interfaces with society are all very important, yes, critical to the progress of civilization. But to reiterate our belief and one of the eternal themes of this blog: science, scientists and technology won't save us from ourselves.


1 Tara Parker-Pope's lede for the cellphone story June 3, 2008 was: "What do brain surgeons know about cellphone safety that the rest of us don't?" This has a certain libertarian populace appeal of "Hey! No one tells us what to do." It may more accurately be called University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's panel: "What do French brain surgeons know about cellphone safety that the rest of us don't?" Not only are they scientists, they're French also. Here's the list of panel members:

1. Bernard Asselain, MD, Chief of the Cancer Biostatistics Service, Curie Institute, Paris, France
2. Franco Berrino, MD. Director of the Department of Preventative and Predictive Medicine of the National Cancer Institute, Milan, Italy
3. Thierry Bouillet, MD Oncologist, Director of the Radiation Institute, Avicenne University Hospital Center, Avicenne, Bobigny, France
4. David Carpenter, MD, Director Institute of Health and the Environment, University of Albany, former Dean, School of Public Health
5. Christian Chenal, MD, Emeritus Professor of Oncology, University of Rennes I, France and former director of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) team "Radiation, Environment, Adaptation"
6. Pr Jan Willem Coebergh, Oncologist, Department of Public Health, University of Rotterday, The Netherlands
7. Yvan Coscas, MD Oncologist, Chief of the Department of Radiotherapy, Hopital de Poissy St Germain, France
8. Pr Jean-Marc Cosset, Honorary Chief of Oncology/Radiotherapy of the Curie Institute, Paris, France
9. Pr Devra Lee Davis, Diretor, Center for Environmental Oncology of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institure, USA
10. Michel Hery, MD Oncologist, Chief of the Department of Radiotherapy, Princess Grace Hospital Center, Monaco
11. Dr Ronald Herberman, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, USA
12. Pr Lucien Israel, Emeritus Professor of Oncology, University of Paris X!!!, Member of the Institut de France
13. Jacques Marilleau, Engineer SUPELEC, former physicist at the Commissariat of Atomic Energy and at CNRS Orsay, France
14. Jean-Loup Mouyesset, MD Oncologist, Polyclinique Rambot-Provencale, Aix-en-Provence, France
15. Philippe Presles, MD, President of the Institut Moncey for the Prevention and Health, Paris, France
16. Pr Henri Pujol, PhD Oncologist, former President of the National Federation Cancer Centers, France
17. Joel de Rosnay, PhD, Former Assistant Professor of Biology, MIT, Boston, USA
18. Simone Saez, PHD, former Director of the Cancer Biology unit of the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Lyon, France
19. Annie Sasco, MD, Doctor of Public Health, Medical epidemiologist, Director of the Epidemiology Team for Cancer
Prevention -- INSERM, University Victor Segalen, Bordeau 2, France
20. David Sevan-Schreiber, MD, PhD, Doctor of Science, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh
21. Patrick Souvet, MD, Cardiologist, President of the Association Sante Environnement Provence Aix-en Provence, France
22. Pr. Dan WArtenberg, Chief, Division of Environmental Epidemiology, UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
23. Jacques Vilcoq, MD, Oncologist, Clinique Hartmann, Neuilly-sur-seine, France

Science Publishing Kerfuffle - PLoS and Nature

(Extracted and republished 01/10 From "We The Thin Skinned, The Media and the Public)

The Science Publishing We Knew

Science moves slowly. Experiments are painstaking. People think "science", and they think "technology" -- change, change, change. Misconception. Much of science moves slowly. With its gels and agar plates, long experiments, models to be tested, precision and publication, doesn't always make for exciting press. Any one event could bore readers to tears because progress is so incremental. It doesn't lend itself to advertising.

By comparison, the media follows politicians changing opinions on important policies day to day and the public is riveted by politics, back and forth, like an epic tennis match. People want science to fall into the news cycle though, so you get the whole misleading "breakthrough" headline churn. This confuses outside observers -- "why can't scientists make up their minds?". But science will always be science and will always move slowly.

Science publishing with peer review has been the standard for decades, but the internet presents a challenge. Everyone in media, from radio and TV to scientific journals is rethinking publishing. Some news outlets have simply done away with science news. Others are trying to adapt science to the internet.

Open Access

In 2003 the online open access science journal group Public Library of Science PLoS broke the science publishing model by launching one of the first open access journals. PLoS caused a bit of a stir. Publishing reflects the staid deliberation of labwork. There's the lengthy peer-review process, the need to do new experiments sometimes, and rewriting. Publications have been staid. Nature has published since the 1860's under only seven editors.

PLoS was a great experiment in open access publishing. Scientists applauded the PLoS concept but no one knew how it would work, accustomed as we were to the way things were. Open-access gives everyone the right to view the research free of charge. This is great, when the average study can cost $25-60 to view. Teachers, students and citizens have total freedom to view original science publications at PLoS, which is great, since many interested and effected groups are not be able to afford expensive journal subscriptions. Open-access journals get huge support from science, education, and journalism audiences, including Acronym Required, here, and here, and here, and here.

We learned more of the history of PLoS when we happened upon a group of companies presenting their Web 2.0 business strategies at a Creative Commons gathering back in 2006. A hip, non-sciencey crowd convened in an informal setting under unfortunate harsh lighting and silver spinning disco balls. The PLoS bizdev team talked about their open-access publishing model which, although revolutionary in the science publishing world, was a bit of a yawn to the Web 2.0 crowd.

PLoS was at end of their "roadshow", but game to present to the informal crowd at the L-shaped bar. While they were describing the open-access model, an eager employee of an online music company waved her hand and interrupted her gum chewing to suggest that PLoS should update their strategy and leave peer-review to the online community. The online community expertly recognizes value, she explained, pointing out their success as an on-line song start-up.

The PLoS team politely suggested that science research papers might be different than songs. While happy to distinguish themselves from the 'entrenched publishing model of science journals established back in the 1800's', the PLoS presenters knew that embracing "community peer-review", as in the "web-community", would be a big step for science. But PLoS also had a surprise for those gathered there at the bar that night, an "experiment", an up and coming PLoS journal where research articles would actually be reviewed by the audience.

PLoS closed their talk with stories of dwindling capital and start-up woes more familiar to the youthful start-up denizens, and exited in a hurry, leaving behind a perplexed Web 2.0 ensconced audience trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the only business model they know -- online-community peer-review, could actually be, for scientists, a radical publishing venture.

And as if this were some great new experiment, we scientists gathered around the PLoS bench to see the result with our own eyes.


The new journal that PLoS launched later that year, not without caution, was PLoS One, one of the first science journals to be both open-access and "community" peer reviewed (after publishing, rather than before.)

Peer review, though flawed, is a the cornerstone of science publishing and progress. Editors or referees solicit experts in the field to review submitted research and to help assess which of the many submitter articles warrant publication. Research is based on the articles' probable impact, importance and relevance to that field of science, the methods the researchers used to answer their questions, and other factors. Peer-review is unquestionably an imperfect process in that it can be biased by cronyism and ends up from the authors' point of view, causing publication delays because of lengthy revisions and additional research. Nevertheless, peer-review underpins much of science progress. It assures that research methods and conclusions presented by the authors are reviewed by other researchers doing similar study.

What this all means to readers of PLoS One, especially when they're not familiar with the science in a particular article, need to also read the on-line ratings and comments to try and get a sense of value of the research. Although PLoS One does vet papers, it provides a very streamlined referee review process which helps research get published more quickly.

On launch, the journal advertised that for a fee of $1250 ($750 before launch) PLoS One would "publish anything scientifically legitimate". PLoS One promised "a 'hassle-free' process that gets your work online within weeks" -- in fact -- "10-14 days". This turnaround time defies the months long process that is typical in science publishing.

The streamlined process also means that only one PLoS "Academic Editor" needs to read the submission to assure its "legitimacy".

Its all Fun and Games Until You Lose an Eye

When scientists do experiments, they're supposed to be unbiased. You set up your positive and negative controls, and more than 50% of the time the test doesn't match your hypothesis. Because it's an experiment.

But when a Nature News article a couple of years ago by Declan Butler pointed out that PLoS was dependent on outside funding ("Open-access journal hits rocky times", June, 2006), commenters who supported the open-access ideal, and therefore PLoS, became very angry. People saw Butler's piece as a grave indiscretion, one person said it made them "see red".

Despite the outrage, the gist of the article was correct. PLoS was dependent on outside funding, from the Moore Foundation. Phillip E. Bourne, Editor-in-Chief of PLoS Computational Biology acknowledged Butler's point in comments on Nature, saying: "Clearly financial realities...must be dealt with", and adding that the journal "may yet balance the books" with software tools and PLoS One -- a "high throughput publishing option". PLoS's words.

PLoS One aimed for a "high-throughput" model. Now, two years later PLoS One publishes about 50 papers a week at an author cost of $1250 per paper.

So when Declan Butler wrote about PLoS again last month, this time he focused on PLoS One ("PLoS Stays Afloat With Bulk Publishing", 22 June 2008). Along with some optimistic views (yes), Butler quoted John Hawley, Executive Director of the free access Journal of Clinical Investigation, who said:

"There's so much in PLoS One that it is difficult to judge the overall quality and, simply because of this volume, it's going to be considered a dumping ground, justified or not... But nonetheless, it introduces a sub-standard journal to their mix."

Butler has acknowledged what PLoS Computational Biology's own Editor-in-Chief had said. And quoted the Executive Director of journal with a related business model to much of PLoS's.

But PLoS supporters called the 2008 article an "attack piece", "nasty", and "mean in spirit". They labeled Nature authors "in-house rottweilers" and launched discussions about whether science journal authors were stupider than bench scientists. Some irate PLoS One protectors flooded the blogosphere with graphs and charts on journal impact factors they thought proved their points.

When the Public Judges

Although the PLoS business model has necessarily evolved since 2006, PLoS's volatile support base of blogging scientists paired their commentary about Nature with images of guns aimed at kittens. Guns!!! Kittens!!! PLoS is not-for-profit, they wrote angrily, therefore the for profit journal Nature has no right to criticize.

OK true, PloS is not for profit. We love PLoS. But some of the "volunteer" editors have been entrepreneurs in the for-profit world. And the journals are funded by foundations whose owners were entrepreneurs in for-profit business. It's not a simple demarcation, profit vs. non-profit, it's a way of organizing your business for the your most beneficial tax and funding preferences. But Nature has interest in open-access and has long supported the model. OK, the article was critical? Maybe? But c'mon, are you joking? A gun aimed at a kitten?

No one thought to say how ironic it was that PLoS loyalists were trying to smother OPEN DISCUSSION of the open access model -- "criticism" as they saw it? Here's how the PLoS management envisioned PLoS One back in 2006:

"Each article will generate a thread for comment and review. Great papers will be recognized by the discussion they generate, and bad ones will fade away."[accessed July, 2008]

What happened? PLoS is all about discussion right? Community? You'd think anyone interested in open access, interested in science, or wanting to see PLoS thrive would appreciate Hawley's questions, even if channeled through Nature. Butler spoke of a classic and interesting business dilemma very much worth consideration.

Butler's points are interesting for both profits and non-profits. Can a company (PLoS) brand for a different market (PLoS One) without cannibalizing their main brand (the other peer-reviewed journals)? The hundreds of mergers in the past decade made corporations and consumers much more flexible about this than ten years ago, but it's still an important business consideration. What is PLoS's brand? Is it Medicine and Biology? Or is it PLoS One? Argue you may, but PLoS One is not like other PLoS journals.

Many people don't understand the differences between em>PLoS's different journals. Sure, as people point out, Nature also grapples with a diverse stable of publications. But its history is very different than PLoS's and its reputation much more established. It doesn't have a PLoS One.

Another question: will dependence on PLoS One income force the journal to accept papers using looser standards, as Hawley wondered? Again PLoS has company in the science publishing arena. At the open access physics publication ArXiv, readers pick through various quality papers to find the good ones. But will depending on readers' assessments work for PLoS? How will journalists assess PLoS papers? If PLoS is out to change science publishing, what will the changes look like once they finish accommodating their business needs? Shall we turn judgment over to the public? The "science community"?

Good questions that many people are thinking about. Too bad scientists couldn't have the discussion.


(Acronym Required covered some of the open access news here and here and here, and here.)

Knol - Sounds Like, Knowledge Truncated?

Knowledge Sharing, Not Like Preschool

Google just launched "Knol" -- as in knowledge -- their long-discussed, potential Wikipedia competitor. Google has previously tried applications with similar features but technology has progressed in ways that may improve Knol's chances over other "flops" like "Answers". A main difference between Knol and Wikipedia, and one that Google infers makes Knol special is that each "authoritative article" will be written by someone with knowledge. First the somebodies were "experts", but apparently now anybody can simply verify who they are and write a "knol", sharing their knowledge, opinions, whatever. Then the author can choose to allow others to edit or not. If not, then people are left simply comment.

This streamlines control for Knol contributors, compared to Wikipedia, but transfers messiness to the reader. Content creation will be easier for contributors, and much harder for a general reader searching for a concise framing of issues around a topic, especially if there's disagreement. Interactive mechanisms in Wikipedia, by contrast, force people with disparate views to work together and collaborate on articles. Look for instance at the entry and discussion page for the Wikipedia entry for String Theory, an interesting example of Wikipedia's transparent and deliberate process.

Wikipedia's different approach forces collaboration and debate amongst those who care - whether or not they have particular academic pedigree. This lowers the bar to authors inclined to do research. "Experts" can always edit later. When everyone's collaborating there's may be no identified expert, but that doesn't mean expert information isn't produced.

Knol also makes a strange move in many articles of returning to pre-World-Wide-Web footnotes rather than in-text links, which for some reason reminds us of Michael Crichton's "Footnotes are real." statement at the beginning of "State of Fear". Ideally (in my opinion) readers should be able to access and judge "footnotes" easily and independently to verify the source, context and appropriateness to the argument. Unlinkable footnotes from an antiquated time before the Internet frustrates this inquiry. Wikipedia links within the text to other Wikipedia articles (sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying) then includes linkable footnotes to outside sources at the bottom of the page.

Knol also suffers from inconsistent presentation. At this point using Wikipedia is like landing in a foreign country with a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide, whereas Knol is like arriving with a sheath of unbound scrolls somebody dug out of their attic and passed to you on the plane. Sure you know who penned it on account of the embossed paper, but there's no order, no index, and no familiar "Dangers and Annoyances" section.

When Everyone is an Expert

Will experts make information better? There's a full range of opinions about Wikipedia's accuracy, with the general conclusion being that it's pretty good, even when compared with commercial offerings like Britannica. Not to say Wikipedia is perfect. I followed their coverage of certain chemicals like bisphenol-A for years without ever linking to the article, because the information wasn't consistently accurate, errors were sporadically introduced, and the page frequently included industry marketing. But the same drawback applies to Sourcewatch and other wikis. It's hard to see how Knol will resolve this.

Reliance on experts and credentials harmonizes well with a "Googly" worldview, although Google has backed off its original "expert" theme and now it say Knol can replace blogging. Or any web page? Everyone's an expert! We suspect that Knol will find it hard to avoid the irksome pollution of the uninformed, yet opinionated crowd that plagues Yahoo! answers. The Yahoo! attempt at a crowd-sourcing approach doesn't work because it's a larger proportion of relatively uninformed readers determine an answer's rating.

At this stage it appears Google will attempt to work around this potential morass via some kind of ranking mechanism tied to credentials, but it's unclear how this will play out. Google's offer of payment infers that there will be some financial reward. If that doesn't pan out will real "experts" choose to use their time seeing patients for a few hundred dollars an hour instead of Adcents?

In Wikipedia, no one is a verified expert, in Knol everyone is a verified expert. Which room would you rather be in?

Grabbing at The Gold Ring: The Third Page

Google said last December: "We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that." Really? You don't need to wade too far into the web to see that there's not exactly a barrier to entry.

It's no secret why Google would consider launching a competitor to Wikipedia. It's safe to say that Knol isn't just retaliation for Wikia's recently launched open source search engine (Steve Ballmer's not running the show). Wikipedia is a huge site with no advertising revenue for Google. Google is the main driver of traffic to Wikipedia. Wikipedia ranked ( #3 of outbound referrals from Google in 2007. Wikipedia doesn't run ads, so all clicks from Google to Wikipedia bring nothing back to Google.

Regardless of the stated intent: sending more researchers to Knol will bring guaranteed revenue to Google, compared with guaranteed zero revenue from a similar referral to Wikipedia. It must have been a painful reality all these years for Google to have been sending away such a large proportion of its searchers to a non-revenue generating website like Wikipedia. (Next Craigslist?).

But Knol seems as much a competitor to Wikipedia as the Mayo Clinic site and many other sites, sort of like Google's standalone web. Similarly, stores like REI or Whole Foods or Walgreens, etc., that start out selling other product brands, come around to calculate that they can make more money branding their own products. Then there's Blackbird, Microsoft's standalone web aborted when browser technology made corralling users to your site seem silly.

Besides signaling quality with proxies such as "expert" status and footnotes, it's unclear that Google's really aiming for quality. There's no motivation for Google to limit the number of authors, or pages -- in fact more pages, more money.The more hemorrhoid experts there are the more "100% Cure Hemorrhoids" ads Google can sell. Is Google really motivated to ridding the web of Wikipedia's "anal retentive authors" who get waylaid asserting that Wikipedia "is not some shock website", disagreeing with those who insist that the "disgusting" photos of hemorrhoids need to be included on behalf of need-to-no medical students?

Google warns against using Knol for advertising, but how does Google intend to take the commercial out of capitalism? If one writes an article on the dangers of silicone breast implants, as we found out, Google serves up "NYC MD, Dr. Slice and Stuff, Millions of Implants Every Week, 212-...Call Today!!". How will Knol change this? There's a tremendous amount of content that doesn't have an easy target product. Moreover how will a reader decide whether a medical doctor or a salesman selling water filtration devices is being "authoritative" or writing an infomercial? What will differentiate Knol? Perhaps all the different opinions can be gathered on a Google metapage, then a reader can click through all the pages to find what suits him. Click; ads, click; ads, click; ads, click; ads.

Content is King

The big Internet slogan used to be "Content is King". Before the effective advertising that Google introduced though, it was an empty, not royal, premise. Search became the focus, but clearly the "third page", as some call it, is still the prize. (The first page being the web query page, the second, the results page, and the third the clicked destination page.) Combining infinite pages with Google's control of search presents an ideal opportunity for a publicly traded growth-hungry advertising+search company. Google can choose to tinker the search algorithm to favor it's own pages and shepherd searchers to Knol content, which some suspect it's already doing.

Thin content is the immediate obstacle for Knol, but there's a simple economic answer. Google believes that sharing ad revenue with content creators will help jumpstart Knol's repository and motivate Wikipedia authors to move to Knol. How? At one end of the spectrum is probably some archetypal Wikipedia contributor who might not be motivated by money, and there will be people honored by the opportunity (random academics and doctors) or who see it as a way of advertising their practice. However I suspect that many profiteers will also engage in some fast and furious cut and paste knowledge transfer from Wikipedia to Knol pages. Given the permissive Wikipedia licensing scheme, such acts will likely be legal and permissible. Although of dubious integrity, they'll bring economic benefit to Google, an outcome I'm sure Google anticipates. Today, for Google, this natural business move, hopefully Knol won't go the way of Orkut.

And about the pronunciation? Knol is apparently not pronounced like "knoll", although knoll is a synonym for "mound", and the original definition for "mound" (archaic), was "to enclose or fortify with a fence or a ridge of earth." As apropos as that may seem, knol is apparently pronounced "knowl-", rhymes with wall.


Disclaimer: Acronym Required often links to Wikipedia.

Acronym Required previously wrote on the Britannica, Wikipedia dispute in Who Controls Information"

We The Thin Skinned: The Public and The Media

  • Golf As Solidarity -- Final Blow

    The court of public opinion can seem like a sand trap. In 2002 Thomas Friedman watched George W. Bush talk on CNN about the need to bring democracy to an Iraq called threatening by the US. Then in his column he chastised Bush about playing golf:

    "I had no problem with what the president was saying. What bothered me, though, was that he was saying it in a golf shirt, standing on the tee with his golf clubs....[H]e shows real contempt for the world, and a real lack of seriousness, when he says from the golf tee, as he did on another occasion: 'I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.'"

    Flash forward six years to May, 2008, when George Bush told Politico that he'd quit playing golf. "I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."

    2008 is not 2002 and Bush's gesture of solidarity raised hackles. Satirist Steve Young called it an occasion for "satirical nirvana" and in "solidarity" gave up satire for a week. The web mob ripped into Bush's out-dated gesture but the anger wasn't contained to the internet. Keith Olbermann raged on Countdown, MSNBC, that Bush delivered a "final blow to our solar plexus". As he said in his 10 minute rant:

    "...Mr. Bush, I hate to break it to you six and a half years after you yoked this nation and your place in history to the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people, but the war in Iraq is not about you. . . It is not, Mr. Bush, about your golf game! "

    Olbermann counseled Bush to "shut the hell up" on future golf questions. As the New Yorker describes the episode, when challenged ahead of the broadcast by the show's producers about the divisiveness of "shut the hell up", Olbermann responded that he favored "shut the f_ck up" but had censored his ending.

    The president was out of sync with the nation's mood on golf vis-a-vis Iraq. In 2008, the public, once reticent about invading Iraq and putty in the Bush's hands, expresses moral outrage about the US state of affairs. 4000 deaths? How dare Bush think about golf!

  • Manhattan's Tasteless, Meanspirited, Malignant Rag: The New Yorker and the Obamas

    Moral outrage of a milder sort arose over the New Yorker cover showing Barack Obama in "what many [Americans] see as 'Muslim clothing'", as Al Jazeera put it, standing with his wife in front of a fireplace with a burning flag. Only a couple of years earlier the country expressed bewilderment when European Muslims protested Danish cartoons featuring Muhammad. In response, the US shh-shhed so as not to inflame, while parading its tolerant, liberal sensibilities to the world. Yet last week the US population became apoplectic, in its own little way, over the cartoon of Obama.

    The New Yorker maybe didn't predict the ire. The magazine enjoys a coveted position in print publishing, with more subscription requests, a slew of journalism awards, and a positive balance sheet. Four days earlier, the Financial Times "Lunch with FT" section featured an interview [accessed July 23, 2008] with editor David Remnick, who on that occasion had "much to celebrate after 10 years". Remnick had turned around a "desperate" situation at the New Yorker, the FT wrote, and over lavish lunch Remnick commented appreciatively (or hopefully in jest?), "We can't live without the goose prosciutto".

    Then abruptly Remnick found himself plunked unceremoniously in a distant place, explaining defensively to his now disenchanted "18-to-24 readership [that] grew by 24 per cent and 25-to-34 readership [that] rose 52 per cent", how the New Yorker publishes pages and pages non-offensive journalism about Obama too. His audience called the cover a despicable and not-at-all-amusing attempt at satire, a "angry, hateful, violent and unpatriotic", "most malignant, vicious", "tasteless", and "mean spirited" cartoon. One befuddled commenter mistook the magazine for the New York Post.

    The audience predicted that the likes of Rush Limbaugh would use the cartoon to promote malevolent myths about Obama and doom his campaign. But nobody died and nobody lost a campaign, so what gives? Maybe the outraged wanted to guard the naive against exposure to incorrect images? Protect Obama, the fragile flower? Did they read the article?

    In the flurry of discontent, few said anything about the 14,600 word essay on Barack Obama inside the cover. The profile detailed Obama's deliberate navigation through rough and tumble world of Chicago and Illinois politics. It firmly dispelled the message everyone thought everyone else would get from the cover with an extensive reporting on Obama's history, concluding:

    "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions..."

    The article (and the roiling aftermath of the cover's release) brought the spot-on satire into sharp relief.

  • If Comments Could Kill: Science Commenters Out of Control

    I sometimes find these adrenaline frenzied episodes enthralling compared to the drama under the much dimmer science limelight, where for better or worse, humor and satire are dished out in miserly portions. Like politics, the biggest breaches in real science can get only sporadic fleeting attention. But oh how the small science tiffs inspire big (embarrassing) headlines about itty-bitty squabbles where the stakes are squeamishly low.

    Don't get me wrong. The science brand of satire gets so vicious on religious subjects that Danish cartoons and satirical New Yorker covers seem positively warm and fuzzy. But the consequences tell the sorry tale. One misstep of political satire and the New Yorker loses access to the front-running U.S. presidential candidates (one it's loyal to) and might be barred from Obama's campaign plane. Sure, not the end of the world, but disconcerting.

    Compare this to brutishly spiteful science satire. One person says communion is but a biscuit (wafer, actually), the next threatens to kill them, then the first calls on a frothing pack to snap at the threatener's heels. The tragic outcome of this science satire gone awry is that somebody loses their job at 1-800-Flowers. That's about as funny as it gets. Yeah.

AIDS Trial Narrowed, Research Progresses

The NIH narrowed an AIDS vaccine trial planned for U.S. testing. The trial, called Partnership for AIDS Vaccine Evaluation (PAVE 100) will be pared down to focus on the question of whether the vaccine lowers amount of HIV virus in the blood of those who are subsequently infected after vaccination. Scientists questioned the sense of moving forward with this larger trial last year in light of the failure of the multi-country Merck vaccine trials, as we commented in "New Directions for AIDS Research Funding".

In other AIDS research news,Weijing He and a team of colleagues in the US and UK found that a protein called DARC (Duffy antigen receptor for chemokines), that makes some African people resistant to malaria may influence HIV infections and AIDS outcomes. The small study published by Cell Host & Microbes shows that the existence of certain DARC mutations enables resistance to some malaria parasites -- though not Plasmodium falciparum, the most prevalent and deadly parasite.

The DARC mutation that prevents infection by some malaria parasites also seems to influence how successfully HIV invades and attacks the immune system. DARC codes a receptor on the surface of red blood cells that binds or tethers the HIV virus. The researchers found that a particular mutation of DARC increases the odds of acquiring HIV-1.

However the mutation also seems to increase the DARC protein's interactions with chemokines. Chemokines are proteins in the immune system that trigger inflammation, and they interact with HIV virus. Researchers have shown that the DARC protein acts by scavenging, retention, or transporting chemokines, and mutated DARC protein seems to lower levels of chemokines. In this study, once infected, people with the mutated DARC lived 2 years longer than those with the normal copy of the protein. While the study helps pave an outline of these interactions the authors predict (with understatement) that future research will show "the net effect of the relationship between DARC and chemokines on HIV disease in vivo is likely to be much more complex."

Whales in Court

Mitigation, then Warrior Safety

In Whales In a Time of War, we reported that Judge Andrew Kleinfeld of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had noted during his 2-1 ruling allowing the Navy to continue sonar training in whale breeding grounds: "the safety of the whales must be weighed, and so must the safety of our warriors. And of our country."

The judge framed his (the presidential office's) decision as one of national security, saying: "we customarily give considerable deference to the executive branch's judgment regarding foreign policy and national defense."

Mid-frequency sonar testing causes whale strandings and deaths that have been frequently documented; in North Carolina (2005); at Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State (2003); in the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985); Madeira (2000); the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998); Greece (1996), and the Bahamas (2000). At one time the Navy took precautions to prevent unnecessary damage to the whales. The Navy did this without neglecting the excellent testing and training of sonar that the US national defense demands. However; the Navy's previous caution has lapsed according to environmental agencies.

The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and several other groups sued the Navy back in 2005, requesting the mitigatory action to spare marine mammals that get disoriented, stranded, or killed following sonar exposure. The August 2007 decision turned into a long back and forth negotiation between the courts, environmental groups, and the Navy. Here's some (not all) of the outcomes:

  • August, 2007: U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper orders a temporary injunction based on submitted evidence that bans all training exercises off Southern California waters saying that there was "'near certainty"' that "8,000 whales or dolphins potentially experiencing temporary hearing loss and an estimated 466 cases of permanent injury to whales."
  • August 31, 2007, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals invokes national security and says the Navy can go ahead with testing.
  • November 13, 2007: A different 9th Circuit Court Appeals panel says that the Navy can continue exercises scheduled until November 22, but then must resume mitigation efforts such as staying a certain distance from shore and posting scouts on deck during exercises to try to prevent harm to marine life.

Suicide Pact?

By January, 2008, Judge Cooper had thoroughly reviewed the Navy's records and science documents, and found that the Navy's mitigation efforts were "grossly inadequate to protect marine mammals from debilitating levels of sonar exposure". The Navy's sonar testing would leave 30 species of marine mammals at risk including 5 species of endangered whales. The Navy's research indicated that the testing could harm thousands of animals, however they didn't do an environmental impact statement as demanded by law.

  • January, 2008. The judge issues a more detailed order that allows the Navy to continue the sonar testing while taking precautions to protect endangered marine animals.
  • January 14, 2008: The district court denies a Navy stay application.
  • January 15, 2008: George Bush grants the Navy two waivers to conduct it's sonar testing under Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), and and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in an effort to sidestep the court's findings, claiming national security.
  • January 17, 2008: Judge Cooper issues a partial stay of her orders that keeps some of the previous mitigation measures intact, but allows the Navy to use sonar when marine animals even if animals were detected within 2,000 meters of the sonar source.
  • February 29, 2008: The court follows up on the order, allowing the Navy to continue testing but with mitigation measures to protect whales.
  • April, 2008: The Navy petitions the Supreme court to review the lower court's decision citing emergency national security.

Despite accommodation by the lower court for the Navy's readiness mandate, the Navy disagrees that its previous mitigation efforts need to be continued. Environmental regulations should not be a "suicide pact", said the Bush administration hyperbollically. In a decision last month, the Supreme Court decided to hear Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council in the next session.

Clean Clear Air, Nothing To See Here, Drive Through Please

Court Declares Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) Not Patchwork Enough

Back in December, 2007, the EPA denied California the waiver the state requested under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The state wanted to set its own tougher emissions standards, which at least 18 other states would have adopted. However the auto and energy industries lobbied successfully against the waiver to an administration as dedicated as they were to denying global warming. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson defended the denial, saying the waiver would have created a "patchwork quilt" of regulation.

At the time, Bush had just signed the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mileage standards passed by Congress under the National Highway Transportation Safety Act, and he defended the EPA's denial, saying: "Director Johnson made a decision based upon the fact that we passed a piece of legislation that enables us to have a national strategy, which is the -- increasing CAFE standards..."

Last week, the administration might have had another opportunity to point to the success of its own brand of environment legislation, while once again shooting down the Clean Air Act. The EPA announced its decision to ignore the Supreme Court order in Massachusetts v. EPA to regulate greenhouse gases and instead decided to issue an Advance Notice of Public Rulemaking (ANPR)1. But unlike the CAFE standards which Congress passed and Bush signed into law, the Bush administration's Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) aimed at regulating sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from stationary polluters was challenged by the state of North Carolina and rejected by a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit.

CAIR was a cap and trade system for large stationary polluters in the framework of Bush's "Clear Skies". It required 28 eastern states to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions (not carbon) that contribute to air pollution. The D.C. court disputed the EPA's regional plan: "The EPA's approach, region-wide caps with no state-specific quantitative contribution determinations or emissions requirements, is fundamentally flawed....the trading program is unlawful, because it does not connect states' emissions reductions to any measure of their own significant contributions."

Environmental groups thought it ironic that the conservative court overturned what some considered the best-of conservative Bush legislation on greenhouse gases .Although attempts to project the exact effects of CAIR fell short of providing a thorough understanding of outcomes and overall there was very little reaction from either science and environmental groups, almost everyone, including utility companies, agreed that effort was worthy. The projected benefits to health and air quality under CAIR would have improved acid rain and air quality on the eastern seaboard. According to the EPA CAIR would reduce SO2 emissions by over 70% and NOx emissions by over 60% from 2003 levels.

Ill-suited, Ill-suited, Ill-suited

While people were taken aback that the court struck down CAIR in its entirety, no one was surprised that the EPA's Stephen Johnson announced the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) instead of working to create new Clean Air Act regulation. He had responded to Representative Waxman (D-CA) several months ago with his intention, as we wrote in "The EPA: Mulish Days, Staring out to Pasture".

At that time, many saw the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), especially the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) headed by Susan Dudley, as in the "catbird seat" over federal regulation as Public Citizen put it, and therefore overlord of the EPA's actions. People weren't sure that "Director Johnson" really had too much choice in the issue. Susan Dudley had a long history in conservative think tanks advocating the types of cost benefit analyses that the Bush administration sought to impose, as we described in "EPA, OMB and OIRA: The Biggest Kid on the Block is Back". The OIRA footprint was evident under the Bush administration, especially in the EPA's lack of action on the environment.

When the EPA released its several hundred page document last week, it of course included a statement from the OIRA head Susan Dudley, who rejected the EPA's staff's recommendations, writing: "the [EPA] draft cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration". Dudley magnanimously added that given the Supreme Court ruling the EPA could go ahead and seek public comment.

Considering the previous repudiation of the OMB/OIRA from critics who called the agency on its interference with the EPA's mandate to protect clean air,2, it's not surprising that the OMB recruited additional support from the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Energy. They too denounced the EPA draft in 75 pages of testimony, saying:

  1. The Clean Air Act (CAA) is "fundamentally ill-suited to the effective regulation of GHG emissions" because the US cannot control emissions from other countries, so state or regional reductions could be "replaced with emissions increases elsewhere"
  2. CAA would hurt international competitiveness
  3. The EPA draft "suggests that regulating GHGs under the Clean Air Act would be workable. We disagree. The draft offers a number of legal constructs to support its position but there is no certainty of how those theories will work out in actuality, or whether they would be unheld by the courts."

The Secretaries cited the "burdens, difficulties, and costs, and likely limited benefits" of CAA. Of course this is familiar Bush rhetoric, delivered with orchestral cohesion. However if the Clean Air Act is ill-suited for the task, shouldn't the reasons be grounded in fact rather than fear laden campaign?

The Wall Street Journal described Johnson as being stuck in between his staff and the White House, and as if to illustrate the dysfunction, Johnson disagreed with the conclusions of his staff, calling CAA "ill-suited for the task of regulating global greenhouse gases."

The Administration's Gut

The document was a product of "career EPA's" critics said, with the hint of a sneer they might use for "teacher's unions". Piling on the hyperbole, William Kovacs, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington told the Wall Street Journal "This is a classic example of EPA staff saying we can manage the economy of the United States better than the president." (WSJ July 11, 2008) (To which some economists gasped in surprise -- Aha, the president's running the economy?)

The Bush administration has led a sustained attack on the Clean Air Act and the EPA. Last fall Bush publicly conflated the Clean Air Act emissions standards with CAFE standards, acting as though they were the same thing. But they're not. The NHTSA in the Department of Transportation (DOT) sets gas mileage standards through (CAFE). The energy bill that Congress passed and Bush signed (H.R. 6) last December improves long term mileage standards (barely).

The EPA regulates carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, through the Clean Air Act. Several industries argue that the EPA should not regulate emissions because of "regulatory overlap" between the NHTSA and EPA, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument in Massachusetts v. EPA. Said the court, the EPA "has been charged with protecting the publics 'health' and 'welfare'", whereas "DOT sets mileage standards".

The legislative goal of CAA was to protect considerations about healthy air and water from being corrupted by private interests and business. It's this goal that industries resent. As we described in previous posts, the petroleum and auto industries petitioned the EPA and the Bush administration to deny the California waiver. Industries argued that the EPA should adopt the notion of "maximum feasibility", and "set standards that take account of the limits on the investment capabilities and product cycles of the industry, just as NHTSA does...", as Chrysler put it in a memo last year.

One-Two Punch

There are legitimate criticisms of Clean Air Act, however the auto industry simply wants to continue its 30 year run of little to no regulation, despite the evidence that this damages health, the environment and the auto industry.

As the administration winds down, the Bush administration now seems more then ever about criticizing the EPA document directly. Bush chose the familiar war theme when he called the EPA outline a "'command-and-control' regime that would regulate virtually every aspect of American life from cars to factories, hotels and lawnmowers". "Command and control" is a conservative slur you run across scanning the conservative op-eds, as in "command and control communism", "command and control socialism", and "enemy of the free-market".

The push by the OIRA, the administration, industry, and much of congress for measures that considers projected costs to industry when determining whether or not to regulate of course has valid points, but is subject to abuse. If the cost to industry is used to determine whether industry should clean up the mess it makes of air and water, then why shouldn't industry make a really BIG mess and what incentive is there to accurately estimate either costs or benefits?

An example of how costs and benefits can be manipulated is in the latest report from the EPA on CAA. The Los Angeles Times reported that the benefits section of the current draft was "sharply revised" from a May draft that calculated savings to consumers of up to $2 trillion dollars.

"$2 trillion in savings to consumers at the gas pump and elsewhere could be achieved if greenhouse gas regulations were implemented.. [In the current draft], that number was slashed to $830 billion, and the price of gas was calculated at $2 a gallon for the next 30 years.

According to the LA Times EPA press secretary Jonathan Schradar said "he did not know why the numbers had been changed". Or perhaps he knew why but didn't know how or who or when? An inherent danger of such analyses?


1 (ANPR) Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act.

2 Congressman Waxman's Committee of Oversight and Government Reform has a long running investigation of the OMB and EPA's actions on the environment/. He held the two agencies in contempt of court for refusing to release documents related to decisions about the ozone and the California waiver, to which President Bush claimed executive privilege.

Curvilinear Thinking on Climate Change

The MPG Illusion -- Needing Math?

Now that gas is almost $5.00 per gallon many people seem to be more than a little worried, if not about global warming than simply about the price of gas. Of course some lobbyists and commentators continue their efforts to preserve status quo, whole hog energy use that exacerbates global warming. These efforts ultimately undermine independence from foreign oil and adaptation of measures that would stem to pace of global warming. In "Communicating Climate Change", last year I wrote:

"If we've moved beyond the climate change "debate", however, as I argue we have, we've only entered another stage. I'm not sure what to call it, but it if we appropriated something like the familiar five stages of dealing with catastrophe- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, then maybe people have moved on to some sort of denial/bargaining phase. People get ideas about how we can buy our way out, with some carbon credits, some alternative energy, or some prizes. Again, this is procrastination. If buying our way out doesn't work, at least we've bought some time."

Science published an article the other day in their Policy Forum section from a couple of Duke business professors. "The MPG Illusion" (June 20th) argued that people misunderstand the miles per gallon (mpg) standard. The authors ask the question, if you had a choice of upgrading one of two cars with a car with a better MPG rating which would you replace? Unlike Europe, where the mileage standard is expressed in liters per 100 kilometer, in the US, miles per gallon (mpg) refers to the distance a gallon of gas will achieve in a vehicle: 1000 gallons per 10,000 miles equals 10mpg. Not very many people understand that, according to their poll.

Increases in mileage are calculated so that 30% better gas mileage means 23% less gas used. 30% greater "mpg" means greater distance per gallon of gas, instead of traveling 100 miles you would now be able to travel 130 miles, so 100%/1.3 = 76.9, 23% less fuel. Most people assume the relationship between miles driven and gas consumed is linear, but its actually curvilinear. From there, the authors argue that small upgrades, say from a "10 mpg" rated car to a "20 mpg" car, may save the consumer more on gas than upgrading from 25mpg to 50mpg.

Their goal was to see whether people ranked choices in mathematically correct ways and so they structured their question carefully. But if their point is to illustrate that the standard is deceiving, as they say in the video, why do they need to publish an article in Science, and perambulate through all the math and graphs?

Promoting a clearer standard isn't their only goal. They open their Science piece criticizing a NYT columnist who questioned the sense of giving an IRS hybrid car tax break to people who buy "a hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source."

But doesn't the NYT author have a point? Why would the government offer a credit? The authors acknowledge this: "The basic argument is correct: The environment would benefit most if all consumers purchased highly efficient cars that get 40 MPG, not 14, and incentives should be tied to achieving such efficiency." This hat tip to clear thinking is only 27 words of their Science article, versus 1708 words explaining calculations that in effect justify why upgrading from a 1978 Cadillac or your grandpa's farm tractor to an SUV is a choice that consumers should feel good about. While the question is carefully constructed around consumer choices about two cars driven equally and yields a conclusion showing that consumers don't understand mpg math, why this question?

In effect, the authors' piece would be brilliant in a Dodge Durango or Ford ad to boost those double digit sales drops. But back to the New York Times article. Why wouldn't a person upgrade from a 10mpg car to a 50mpg car? A 10 mpg car would use 1000 gallons per 10,000 miles, and a 50mpg would use 200 gallons per 10,000 miles. 800 fewer gallons of gas. That much less pollution. $5,000 of gas, versus $1,000. Why can't we shoot for that?

Consumers are making exactly these choices. Ford sold 55% fewer SUV's last month, and 40% fewer pick-ups then in the previous year. In our last post we quoted from the NYT article, America, Asleep at the Spigot", in which Congressman Dingell (D-MI) [correction, 11/07/08], told the NYT" "He likes it sitting in his driveway, he likes it big, he likes it safe". It seems that "He" is changing "His" mind about "Big" and "Safe", when faced with $150 per fill-up. "He" is choosing a Prius instead of a pick-up.

Global Warming: Too Much Evidence

There's a direct correlation between energy cost and use, just as there's a direct correlation between increased cigarette taxes, and decreased smoking. Lobbyists routinely argue the opposite in order to justify low taxes and minimal regulation. But the fact that car owners are switching to more efficient cars is a market coup for global warming as well as free-market advocates. This should please all of us who support liberal economic policies, as well as "let the market" commentators. But paradoxically, some of columnists are still stuck with in their delusional refrains from 2005.

A Wall Street Journal blogger now claims there's too much evidence on global warming, so much that it's not believable (WSJ July 1, 2008, "Global Warming as Mass Neurosis"). "What isn't evidence of global warming?" he asks. My favorite! For years it was, "there is not enough evidence". And now, simply invert the sentence to arrive at your next phase of denial. Last year when you pulled his string he said "Not Enough Evidence!!!" and alarms rang -- Whooop! Whooop! Whooop! This year they retooled, so yank the cord to hear, "Too Much Evidence!!! Whooop! Whooop! Whooop! American Girl could immortalize his likeness as the Denier Doll from the historical series "When Carbon was King" or "When the Air was Breathable". Of course next he instructs: "[s]o let's stop fussing about the interpretation of ice core samples from the South Pole". He will no doubt shuffle around in these arguments until the water's licking up around his ankles.

He insists that global warming is either a socialist, religious, or psychological affront to our way of life by those who believe that prosperity is corrupt. Last year we wrote in "Climate Change: Fueling the "Debate", "if you're crazy-dizzy snapping your head around to follow first the one side, than the other, simply follow the money for the truth." Perhaps our columnist hasn't invested in any emerging energy markets.

Sanity and Samsø

As last year and the year before, available at our fingertips, along with the woulda-coulda-shoulda crowd and the bloviators, is the full range of serious and interesting discussions. Consumers are making changes around global warming not only by buying Priuses, but by using alternative energy sources or cutting back their energy use.

In the New Yorker this month, Elizabeth Kobert wrote a great article called "The Island in The Wind". The first part of the article was about the residents of Samsø an island in Denmark that progressed from consuming enough oil and electricity to provide energy for 4,300 people, to generating enough renewable energy through wind turbines and other sources to produce energy for the whole island and sell some back to the grid. The island accomplished this with a combination of initiative, work, leadership and community investment, but with no initial motivating monetary reward.

While generating their own energy however, the islanders didn't reduce their consumption. For that part of the story Kolbert goes to Switzerland, where the 2,000-Watt Society aims to motivate people to reduce energy consumption to 2,000 Watts per person with only 500 Watts consumed from non-renewable sources. Scandinavians consume 6,000 Watts per year per person, and US citizens consume ~15,000 Watts per year per person, so the 2,000 Watt goal gives some populations room to grow while others should strive to cut back on energy use.

When we wrote "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster" in 2006 it seemed like we'd never turn a corner. We wrote "We need no more evidence. We have decades of studies indicating that our lives will change, but its easier to wait for another headline and hope a miracle intervenes, if nothing else than in the guise of government action." Times are decidedly more optimistic. Of course there the same gradient of action, inaction, denial, and procrastination, but when I reflect on the general attitudes of the past couple of years I'm amazed at all the change happening in 2008.

Congress on CAFE: Detroit misled us

Nature Loves Our Cars, Really

In April of 2007, Acronym Required wrote satirically about US auto owners in denial in "Cars: Buying Cognitive Dissonance" . While headlines blared warnings on climate change and the reality of driving was smog filled lanes of traffic jams, automobile ads featured cars climbing to the tops of unpolluted mountains, amidst pristine forests and zooming past glaciers. We commented on the delusional love affair drivers have with cars, and the spectacle of all those slick, shiny, plastic-y, carbon emitting SUVs posed ironically in not yet ruined landscapes:

"...I remind myself that it's not only the Queen of England, with her privilege and idle time, her Landrover and a vast territory of heaths and heathers, who can see a fourteen-point buck in the countryside (--as in the movie The Queen--). Nothing stops me from doing the same, from being the Queen of England for a day. All I have to do is purchase a new Subaru from my local dealer and any day I can crash through beautiful forests in four wheel drive comfort. Then, according to one Subaru ad, a deer will emerge magically from the forest, stand next to my windshield and gaze at me appreciatively, the two of us, bonded by nature and my new car."

Today, more so than last decade or the decade before that, we have fires in California, hot and erratic weather predictions, floods in the midwest, suffocating summer heat, and brutal winters. As they did twenty years ago, scientists make hand-wringing pleas to a mostly impassive Congress. Regardless of reality, Americans gluttonous devotion to Automobile, would lead the to continue throttling their SUV's with calvalier glee. Except now gas is $5.00 per gallon ( its $4.75, but it will be there as soon as I publish this) and consumers are trading their SUVs in for Priuses. Times change.

Leaders "Furious with Detroit"

While consumers respond to the change, why did recognition of the impending climate change and an effort to curb carbon emissions take so long? Last Sunday, the New York Times offered up quotes from senators who say we should have acted earlier in America, Asleep at the Spigot". Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who had in recent years rather unsuccessfully encouraged Congress to increase CAFE standards said: "It was a bipartisan failure to act." Once upon a time, there was such an effort. Former Sierra Club lobbyist Dan Becker recalled 1990, watching "Mr. Levin and Mr. Helms, diametrically opposed on most issues, walk amiably together onto the Senate floor to cast their votes, on a CAFE standards bill in 1990. 'This wasn't East-West, right-left, or North-South,' he says. 'But had we passed that bill, we'd be using three million barrels less oil a day now.'"

For every member of Congress who tried to pass legislation on emissions in the 1990's, or who like Domenici started in 2005 to put effort into gathering support for CAFE standards, many others have not yet come to their senses. Besides Domenici, Congress expressed little remorse about missed opportunities to avert the current energy situation, but is righteously indignant, "furious with Detroit for fighting so hard".

Scapegoating is exactly what I would hope for from the leaders I elect. When the repercussions of their failures to act on behalf of their constituents come to light, the least they can do is cast around quickly for someone else to blame. But it's not Detroit's fault for aggressively seeking profit, that's their job, it's their obligation to their shareholders. It's is the legislature's job to balance the competing ambitions of their constituents, corporations and individuals.

Blaming Detroit, Blaming Consumers

If blaming corporations gets too close for comfort, as a senator or congressman of course you can always blame the consumer. After the credit crisis, pundits and financial leaders blamed consumers for the country's economic woes. They scolded consumers for spending too much on their credit cards and called for better consumer training, but said nothing about the Fed's out of control spending, nothing about regulation cuts, nothing about Bush's plea to keep shopping right after 9/11. Similarly, Representative John D. Dingell, who has long defended the auto industry for his state and who now burnishes his environmental credentials by taking on bisphenol-A, blames the American consumer: "He likes it sitting in his driveway, he likes it big, he likes it safe", he told NYT. Which, coincidentally, is also what the lobbyists insist.

This is one great thing about representative government. Representatives can ultimately blame the people or, more accurately, people's wanton wims. But given the number of Priuses and Minis that now inhabit our streets, you would never believe "he likes it big". Ford sold 55% fewer SUV's last month, and 40% fewer pick-ups then in the previous year.

As last year and the year before, available at our fingertips, along with the woulda-coulda-shoulda crowd, is the full range of serious and interesting discussions from dedicated representatives. Bill Moyers talked to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) last week about her efforts on the cap and trade initiative.

Boxer took over as Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at mid-term election, and led the charge on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) had previously chaired the committee, and on his watch he never had any intention of leading the country away from oil consumption. Inhofe famously said: "Could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is." He brought his preposterous attitudes to the committee, and even tried under Boxer's watch to prevent Al Gore from testifying. Boxer basically wrested control of the gavel from him, saying: "you're not making the rules". As she explained to Moyers "times have changed...the environment is back front and center"

Boxer's efforts were not enough this time, because Republicans mounted a filibuster and defeated the Climate Initiative Act. Again, a bipartisan failure to act. Yet Boxer viewed the effort optimistically, despite the bill's ultimate defeat. She called it a milestone towards charging for carbon emissions and weaning off foreign oil. "Change is coming. We're going to fix this problem because we have to", she said.

Prions at Large

Making Grad Work Easier

In "The Companions of Mad Cows" a couple of years ago we mentioned that veterinarians in Alabama had diagnosed mad-cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a downer cow. According to the Wall Street Journal article, officials had buried the cow on a farm in Alabama, but refused to divulge where. They were also searching for the bovine's "companions", to assure the disease was confined to one cow and hadn't been contracted through feed eaten by many cows. (Scientists don't think BSE is transmissible from cow to cow.) We wrote in that post: "we suspect that perhaps someday when the BSE stricken cow has long since been forgotten and decayed, some inquiring grad student will be stunned by the number of prions they unearth in a random soil sample of the unidentified burial site."

Now, a recent study indicates that prions could be made more infectious via certain soils. From the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Christopher Johnson et al. tested prions' ability to bind to different minerals that could then be orally transmitted to grazing animals. They published their results in PLoS Pathogens. According to the study, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), (which include BSE, scrapie in sheep, and chronic wasting disease) not only survive in some soils, but because prions selectively bind to certain minerals, might be more infectious in mineral laden clays.

Researchers in another study found that prions remain in biowaste after sewage treatment. Glen T. Hinckley and fellow scientists at University of Wisconsin published research in ASAP Environmental Science and Technology (via Nature News) showing that prions survive activated sludge treatment and anaerobic sludge digestion that's used to degrade waste in waste water treatment plants.

Lurking on Your Portabellos?

Nature News suggested forebodingly that we should assume prions are in biosolids leftover from wastewater treatment, and since "biosolids are often used as crop fertilizer, this raises the prospect of small amounts of prions being present on the surfaces of the crop plants - and without careful washing, they could therefore be ingested when the food is consumed." (Taken at face value this is bad and good. Bad for obvious reasons. But think how much less work grad students would have to do in gathering their specimens? -- straight from the dining hall salad bar to the bench.)

But really? Prions on your crudités? So far prions have not been found in wastewater, only in biosolids, and aside from the current research they haven't ever been found in routine tests -- although the authors of the wastewater paper point out that the the tests aren't sensitive enough to detect them. Prions would occur at very low levels since they are rarely found in humans, so the possibility that they would somehow end up on salad is not impossible, but according to an EPA scientist interviewed by New Scientist is quite remote. She added that alkaline treatment used by some treatment plants, though not the Madison one, would deactivate the prions.

Prions are know to be resilient to conditions that would kill viruses and bacteria, but studies have also shown prions sensitive to extremes in PH. For instance researchers found that prions that mice were less susceptible to prions than cows, because mice digestive systems contain greater amounts of hydrochloric acid. Authors of the first paper above hypothesize that when prions attach to minerals in soil this might protect them from acid and explain their enhanced ability to infect the host.

Democracy is Like A.....

Democracy is Like An Orchid? A Tree?

A months ago, in an interview with Charlie Rose, George Will said he opposed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, because the bill essentially "empowers the government" to "limit [aspects of] political speech", making it he said, "probably the most dangerous [legislation] since the fugitive slave act". To which we ask in jest: Why didn't we ratify the George Will version of the First Amendment long ago? Freedom isn't freedom, see, and liberty isn't liberty; money is freedom, and money is liberty; therefore more money equals more freer speech. That's what he says.

Anyone can see the twisted logic of the argument, but Will had talking points to deliver, and he hit them with authority, bullishly marketing a Bill of Goods in place of the Bill of Rights.

However he was much more reticent discussing his prior policy recommendations. When Rose asked Will about his lack of discussion of Iraq in his new book, he stared him down as if -- "Iraq is dead to me". He now considers "nation-building as oxymoronic a phrase as orchid-building".

This is a change, since Will had long agitated for the war, writing syndicated columns for decades that turned up in hundreds of newspapers. He was relentless. In 1991 he wrote "a sensible war aim is a new regime in Iraq"1. He often taunted Clinton's hesitancy for military engagement, for instance, saying: "Getting a democracy to do what does not come naturally it requires leadership. To get that for the defense of this democracy, a different commander in chief is required. 2 When Bush got into office his drumbeat continued in columns penned under headlines like this one from August, 2002: "Iraq Attack Would Nudge Mideast Toward Democracy"3.

He now explains his changed opinion on Iraq as his "quickened sense" of the "brute inertias in the world rooted in religion and ethnicity".

Like orchids, Will noted, democracies are "not built, they're a product of a long complicated organic evolution". After writing scores of columns under titles like "The Politics of Manliness"; after relentlessly chastising Democrats for their "feminization of politics", characterized, and he quoted Carnes Lord of the Naval War College, by "'competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command'", his startling summons to visualize democracy as "orchids" is more than a bowtie's worth of change. As commanded, I dutifully visualized orchids and recalled their cultivation history, but I quite honestly struggled with the analogy to democracy.

We can test his analogy, though. Democracy is to Orchid, as Marriage is to....Old Man of the Mountain? No. Hmmm...Democracy is to Orchid, as Raising Children is to...Poodles? I was still pondering these comparisons when I happened to be listening to another Charlie Rose interview. Talking about his new book, "Democracy's Good Name", John Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum declared to my surprise that "democracy is not like a pizza" (it cannot simply be delivered), it's "more like a tree". Now I was really confused.

Democracy is Like Rising Rafts, and Tides, and Botany

Wrapping my mind around pizzas and orchids and trees, then comparing and contrasting them to democracy proved taxing, so I searched back in history to acquire more perspective. Jimmy Carter once said:

"The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself -- always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity."

This seems like a more apt analogy, if more nuanced and difficult to grasp then simple nouns like trees and flowers.

Democracy was described differently in the past. We know that Lincoln stuck close to the Greek roots of the word democracy, demos kratia, for his oft quoted description of democracy as "of the people, by the people, and for the people".

But it seems now that people want something more tangible from their democracy. As democracy spreads more people feel more free to conceptualize it in their own terms. There are the water analogies:

  • "Democracy is like a rising tide; it only ebbs to flood back with greater force, and soon one sees that for all its fluctuation it is always gaining ground." (Alexis de Tocqueville)
  • "Democracy is like a raft. You never sink, but, damn it, your feet are always in the water." (Fisher Ames)

There are many botany analogies. Some have said democracy is "like a reed", "like a flower in the desert", "like a seed", "like a delicate flower", or like a tree and/or its components. Ralph Nader said: "Democracy is like a tree; the people are the roots and the trunk, the politicians are like the branches and the twigs."

Also in the plant theme, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in comments to the Carnegie Council, about the publication of her book: "Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope":

"For me, democracy is like a flower. This is a flower that can flourish and bloom only in favorable circumstances, where you have calm, you have peace, where you can give plenty of water and nourishment and sunlight to this flower. Obviously, if you have torrents pouring down on the flower from the sky, that flower cannot bloom. This is precisely the reason why we are opposed to any kind of military attack."

Democracy is Like Riding a Bike, Like Motherhood, Like Blowing Your Nose

Recently, people draft alternative definitions for democracy in context of Iran and Iraq. Rumsfeld once told the French that democracy in Iraq was like teaching a kid how to "ride a bike". Like riding a bike, he said, you might at first need the trainer to hang on to the bike with four fingers, then three fingers. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described the Middle East as going through "birth pangs". However, H.D.S. Greenway warned in the Boston Globe:

"Democracy is like motherhood: well worth supporting. But democracy, like motherhood, should not arrive in the Middle East as a result of an armed invasion and soldiers breaking down the door in the middle of the night, Fallujah-style."

Back in 2004 the blog Flavog, a satirist blog, had a more satirical take, in an "interview" with the "interim Prime Minister" of Iraq: "'....Fafnir, democracy is like a horse, or a beautiful woman. It is a fine thing to see, and everyone admires it, but in order to get it to behave sometimes you must beat it and torture it and shock its genitals.'"[sic]

Many, like George Will, proselytized the government's democratic intentions for the US invasion, but later became doubtful. However some never trusted the Bush administrations' inclination or their entreaties to "bring democracy to Iraq", even if those reasons had been true. G.K. Chesterton once wrote "Democracy is like blowing your nose. You may not do it well, but it's something you ought to do yourself."

Democracy is Like A Stovkel, A Three Legged Stool, Marketing, A Rolls Royce...Rolls Royce? What!?

While people make easy comparisons of democracy to plants and natural elements, others don't hesitate to compare democracy to inanimate objects -- drugs, a poem, a forum, a gate, or entwine it with capitalism. Many quote theologian Michael Novak, who said: "...liberal democracy is like a three-legged stool. Political freedom is the first leg, economic freedom the second, and moral responsibility the third. Weaken any leg, and the stool topples." Citizens of neoliberal inclination or persuaded by "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" choose stronger commercial comparisons. Democracy is "like a high quality wine", they say, "a house", or a "Rolls-Royce".

Hernando De Soto would superimpose capitalism smack on top democracy, as he put it: "[D]emocracy is like a constant marketing program, it allows you to get the feedback and knowing that you take out a product that is useful to everybody." In his view democracy as more useful for capitalism than for its appeals to freedom and equality.

If democracy confuses people, it's clear that they define it in their own terms. They're no more shy about saying democracy is like a stokvel, then they are saying that bad democracy is like a bad toupe.

But no wonder democracy is tough to adopt when no one can agree whether it looks like a stream or a soft drink, a bank, a TV dinner, a giant Redwood tree or Niagara Falls. Democracy is not obvious, cannot be shrunk down to a convenient tagline, cannot be flashed on the screen, cannot be turned into technology, has no clear visible outline, and is never convenient.

Democracy is Sovereignty of the People, Human Rights, Equality, Due Process, Pluralism Tolerance, Pragmatism, Cooperation, and Compromise

Can George Will et al. convince us that like the air and the sea and the forests, we should monetize freedom, democracy? Likewise in De Soto's definition he asks us to sidle towards an interpretation that libertarians like George Will advocate. They would prefer the government institutions that help preserve our freedom be "drown in the bathtub" as Grover Norquist put it, so we can "free the market" and make it king -- or dictator.

However, unfettered capitalism, freeing the market threatens to supplant the original intentions of democracy -- freeing the people. Lincoln defined democracy as "of the people, by the people, and for the people". Now people straining to make democracy an easy to grasp idea excise the "people" from it. Even those who see democracy threatened, like Mandelbaum, are tempted by simple comparisons: "oil is the enemy of democracy". While his point is easy to assimilate, can a noun either threaten or define democracy? Or is it the follies and sentiments of people that threaten democracy? The US Department of State reminds us in "Pillars of Democracy" that democracy is:

"sovereignty of the people, government based upon consent of the governed, majority rule, minority rights, guarantee of basic human rights, free and fair elections, equality before the law, due process of law, constitutional limits on government, social, economic, and political pluralism and values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation, and compromise."

People chuckled when, Erdogan, then mayor of Instanbul, now Prime Minister of Turkey famously said "Democracy is like a street car; you ride it as far as you need, and then you get off". Democracy often seems tentative at best, sometimes touted before it ever becomes real-- and is always an elusive goal that demands intention and vigilance. Fortunately Erogan's once cynical view doesn't always hold up to history, since Democracies continue to spring up and thrive throughout the world. In the end, perhaps democracy is like a chess game, a fight between ideologies. But in true democracy, constructed with a balance of powers in government and an attentive population, more people can play and win -- economically, politically and personally, even if we can't discern every Pareto efficiency of every freedom.

1St. Petersburg Times, February, 1991
2 Plain Dealer, June, 1996
3 Deseret News, August , 2002

Finding Green Spirit

Last year we wrote in "Green Spirit", about the wave of environmental sentiment sweeping the US. The New Yorker had captured the mood in a cartoon depicting one plant executive asking another whether they could dye the smoke from the stacks green.

The most unlikely corporations were hopping all over themselves to play green. BP had just launched two sites, The Green Curve, and A Little Better Gas Station, complete with games like "Gas Mania" and kid friendly distractions. The BP sites are no longer standalone so not quite so much fun, but have been incorporated into bp.com in all their original kelly green and neon yellow glory.

These sites come and go, and of course now other companies have launched a new crop of green spirit. First up is Chevron's www.willyoujoinus.com. "Will you join us" is a collaboration between The Economist, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, and the oil company. The site tells us that "the demand for energy becomes greater, and every day it becomes harder to find". Driving home the point, a global oil consumption ticker spins through millions of barrels consumed during your site visit. The homepage asks viewers to "join the discussion". I suppose it would be impertinent to ask them to put a profits ticker underneath the consumption ticker -- "finding energy" is research and capital intensive.

The current discussion topic is "Global Food Prices & Energy Supplies, Finding a Balance". Fortunately, it's not all gloom and doom, you can "Play Energyville" too.

Teletubbies vs. Robots


You'll be hearing squeals about Wall-E the robot all summer because it's a charming movie and robots can be engaging. But a bunch of very cynical people made Wall-E, I thought, watching the characters. The flubbery-blubbery adult animations loll about their space station and move by pushing buttons on their giant motorized recliners with attached TVs. "Blue is the new red", they announce, changing their outfits in unison with a click of a button.

Earth is uninhabitable, so these "people" are confined to an enormous space station. Previous generations overwhelmed Earth with consumer products and now a lone robot branded "Wall-E" industriously compacts and arranges the detritus into tall neat piles the rubble -- all that's left of the planet.

Up in space, the adult characters blink alert when abrupt change shakes their routine of TV staring and reclined motoring from nowhere to nowhere. They're not going to waddle upright anytime soon in this dystopia. They finally bob alert after being disrupted from their monotonous marbling, TV watching, liquid slurping existence. "I didn't know we had a [running] track" the teletubbie-looking being exclaims, "I didn't know we had a pool", another says.

A Movie For All

The movie makes multiple appeals to different audiences. It appeals to environmentalists, as well as those who think corporations are running amok. Libertarians say the relentless advertising in the space craft represents big government. The potential for such conflicting interpretations to coexist is masterly and apropos. We are, after all a world of conflicting impulses, aware of nutrition but fat, worried about the environment but ardent polluters, safety conscious but reckless. We're tremendously cynical, but the less people believe it seems, the more talk-show hosts run segments titled "THIS I BELIEVE!"

Nobody believes. At the end of the Bush II era we see politicians abruptly tack away from positions they took to win a place of power. We shrug. Bush staffers who haven't yet fled the ship grumble that Scot McClellan being "disloyal". Pure theatre. Look at his unwavering loyalty to the Bush legacy. Look how ably he regards the camera while delivering a straight-faced market tested message of the moment, and how surely he will grab the gold ring (His book now sits on the NYT best seller list). McClellan and McCain and Obama all follow along in the Bush wake, tacking here, tch-tching there, many messages each day, carefully measured out, tested, and contradictory, but true to personal brand adhesion measured by spectator feedback. Now comes Wall-E the movie, with a message for everyone and so in sync with the time.

A Kiddie Flick, A Chick Flick, and A Geek Flick Too

We happened to go to the early evening show of Wall-E, forgetting that it would be a kids' bazaar. Of course then we listened to the same 3-4 year old childrens' commentary that we described a few years ago in "March On Penguins". The kids cried, laughed, and asked for explanations, which served to heighten our appreciation of the movie's different appeals. To the 3 and 4 year olds, Wall-E probably looked like Saturday morning TV and the same free-for-all questioning occured. The adults (in two rows, bringing up the average age in the theater by 25 years or so) followed the adult themes and the subtle and unsubtle humor.

The movie favors robots over humans, flipping 2001: A Space Odyssey" on its head. In Space Odyssey, the humans, in the end, outwitted the computer gone amok. In Wall-E, select computers hold the wisdom of the world, while the humans have lost their senses.

The movie celebrates technology through Wall-E, the completely resilient, unrealistic product that survives the catastrophic mendacity (we're led to assume) which led to the planet's destruction. Wall-E is stalwart -- matter-a-factly hoisting a downed blubbery person back onto their rolling cart to the alarm of the space system's bureaucratic robots. The robot has outlasted every appliance, computer, car and gadget anyone in the Western world currently owns -- longevity that is a quaint myth. Wall-E represents the antithesis of a robot, even before it becomes tenderly smitten by Eve.

If the movie may be a warning about throw away gadgetry with its discarded Rubik's Cube, lighters, and lightbulbs, it is simultaneously a celebration of the slick shiny clean gadget each one of those outdated toys once was.

Eve is Wall-E's slick upgrade that would put the Wall-E of today's new gadget world in the dump. Wall-E pines for Eve as people pine for a new iPod, a new MacBook Air. Some say the movie is a warning to us, that the message reviles consumerism. But I think that the movie celebrates consumerism. It celebrates it through Eve, the slick shiny clean, blue-eyed robot-babe, with a quick trigger arm that smites perceived enemies with slick weaponry. Despite mechanical deftness, Eve is incongruously a machine that is soft, gentle and wise.

In the end the movie returns to early caveman civilization. It's only a cartoon, but if the audience chooses it can take home the message that humans will consume until consuming forces them start over from scratch, or that consumerism decimates life, or that the human quest for convenience is suicidal. Of course the adults in the audience will realize that nothing is ever so simple, there is no warning to be heeded from the movie just as there is no solution.

There is no time when the population of the world is satisfied with the rate of development, resource utilization, or production of consumer products. Western world may not really need a Rubrik's Cube or an upgraded appliance. But do people in rural Africa or Asia have enough stuff just because we do? There will always be people who want newly manufactured products, better technology solutions, tastier food, and more markets to sell to. The conundrum is in the continuum.

And Where are We, On the Continuum?

The movie "Up The Yangtze", is not Wall-E, but there's a common thread. In Up The Yangtze, the Chinese government forces a family to move from their home, a shack along the river that will be flooded by the huge project to dam the waterway for electricity.

To many people the poor family's self-reliant river-front existence would look as dystopian as Wall-E's lonely, robotical organizing quest on ravaged Earth. Their move to a new place off the riverbank, with some furniture and electricity could be seen as an improvement. But this means that their daughter needs to work instead of going to college, in order to pay for the family's basic necessities like food, which they once grew themselves. And of course such progress means chopping down the trees, damming the river and forcing families out of their homes and livelihoods.

Wall-E's message is necessarily simplistic, it is a children's movie, after all. Every person and country is in a different place on the continuum when environmental failure happens. Maybe they live in New York, it the midst of the epic consumerism that resembles the post-habitable world that Wall-E tools around in. Or perhaps the live in the types of places that 3/4 of the world inhabits, some desolate hut with not enough food to eat. In that case, who says they can't have an upgrade? All the fair sentiments that drive the market, that make Eve look slick, are our environmental undoing.

Perhaps Wall-E is a vehicle for a nervous society's worries about the environment, or perhaps the movie is no more than a collection ideas that leave computer geeks feeling cozy -- humans are stupid, computers that utter something no more threatening that beeps are my friends. Whatever your interpretation -- or not -- Wall-E is great entertainment. Do see it. I see merchandising opportunities. And a sequel.

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