Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fools rush in

Skyrocketing fuel prices? Dig up the oil sands in Canada! Skyrocketing food prices? Tear out the Amazon rainforest for agricultural use!

Seemingly easy solutions like these are awful tempting when we're faced with ever increasingly daunting challenges in the world. A global food crisis is at hand (or already in progress, depending on how you look at it), and we're all feeling the pinch at the gas pumps. But is more really the answer? And more important, is easy really better?

An argument can be made for the former question--increased efficiency, better technology and new sources may help us increase food and fuel production without overwhelmingly negative consequences--but as for the latter, it's not likely.

Dan Gunderson, in an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, argues that we need to up production in places like Alberta, Canada where vast oil sand reserves live:
While "renewability" is an important factor in our future energy choices, reliability is also essential. Contrary to popular perception, world oil and gas reserves remain abundant. But the lack of access to these reserves is a primary limiting factor in our domestic energy supply.

More than 20 years of ill-considered public policy that restricted access to government lands or prohibited exploration activities has led to higher prices and a significant tightening in current global energy supplies.


Not everyone understands that the oil sands and other petroleum resources found in places like Canada increase U.S. energy reliability and security. Some people even suggest that we can simply eliminate petroleum from the American way of life and the economy will continue to grow and create jobs and the promise of a better quality of life for future generations. These folks, it seems, would simply turn 300 million automobiles into so many lawn ornaments, eliminate millions of jobs, do without valuable products, and use the bicycles that the Chinese and Indian people are so eager to abandon.
While I agree that we can't afford to simply and immediately eliminate all petroleum from our lives, to reach the important long-term goal of at least mostly phasing out its use we must think long-term.

Oil sands production and refining is extremely energy intensive, requiring a great deal of natural gas and water. Natural gas production in Alberta has apparently already peaked, and any increase in oil sands production is likely to accompany a reduction in natural gas imports to the United States. Not a great outcome. Plus, oil sands extraction is "generally held to be more environmentally damaging than conventional crude oil - carbon dioxide emissions, for example, are roughly three to five times greater with tar sands extraction." Plus, digging up huge swaths of land, in this case Boreal Forest, is very likely to cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

What's important is that we increase the efficiency and safety standards for current production sites while also working hard to create and improve more sustainable, renewable sources of energy. These new sources, like any new market, will help to create a great number of new jobs, many of which aren't likely to require a great deal of retraining for workers already skilled at jobs in existing energy fields. The trick in all of this, of course, is doing our best to make the transition as smooth as possible. Kinks will be inevitable, but certainly human ingenuity can help to minimize their impact and maximize the positive results.

Plowing ahead with the same old methods without thinking through their long-term effects and consequences is what got us into our current mess. Why repeat the same old mistakes?

Under the guise of growing a more en vogue crop, that's exactly what Blairo Maggi, the governor of Brazil's chief soy-producing state, would have us do. Now, I'm a huge fan of soy--as a vegetarian, it's probably my largest food group. But we don't need to plow under the Amazon rainforest to grow it. Maggi, however, seems to think otherwise:
"With the worsening of the global food crisis, the time is coming when it will be inevitable to discuss whether we preserve the environment or produce more food. There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and taking down more trees," Maggi told Folha de Sao Paulo. "In this moment of crisis, the world needs to understand that the country has space to raise its production."

He's right on the last count, but the country has space outside of the rainforest to raise its production. This according to their own government officials:
Still, Brazilian government officials maintain that agricultural expansion need not come at the expense of the Amazon rainforest. In January Brazilian Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes told Reuters that outside the Amazon, Brazil has 100 million hectares of land available for cultivation, including 50 million hectares of degraded pasture land and 50 million hectares of cerrado, a grassland ecosystem bordering the Amazon rainforest.

So why on Earth would you choose to destroy one of the world's most valuable and fragile resources instead? The soil in the rainforest is extremely bad for agricultural uses. "The soil in the rainforest is very fertile but only the top few inches and only while the rainforest itself is left in place. If you take away the rainforest, the soil itself is not very good at all. The soil's fertility derives from the intense biological activity in the rainforest. This activity is so rapid that biomass from dead plants is recycled and the nutrients made again available in a matter of weeks." Once you clear all of the flora that sustains this cycle, the land begins to erode and degrade at a rapid pace.

Plus, undisturbed rainforests (of which there are few, if any, left) help maintain a worldwide balance between oxygen output and carbon dioxide intake. Greater rates of tree felling and organic decomposition lead to far greater amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the air, as does burning large swaths of the forest. And the repercussions wouldn't end there.

Fact is, we need to apply our vast cerebral and monetary resources to developing and improving more sustainable, more long-term productive methods of fuel and food production. This is possible. It already exists. All that seems to be lacking is education and willpower.

(photo credits here and here, h/t John A. for the subject)


In what has sadly become an ever more rare instance of good judgment by a school board*, Edgerton will continue to allow students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish a few times a year, despite some protest from the community. I wrote about this a few days ago, when the controversy first bubbled to the surface. I was heartened to read this article in todays' Capital Times (still publishing online, though now defunct in print):
After an emotional meeting of the Edgerton School Board, which attracted a crowd so large that the session had to be moved from the usual meeting room to the school cafeteria, board members voted unanimously to support the administration's experiment in bilingual patriotism.


The pledge is recited daily over the Edgerton High School's public address system, as is required by state law. Most days, the recitation is in English. But, at the request of students in a foreign-language class, a determination was made to allow an occasional repetition of the patriotic statement in Spanish.

That brought objections from some parents and from some older veterans in the community, who claimed that reciting the pledge in any language other than English was disrespectful of those who had served in the military in the past and are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As it turned out, not all veterans agreed.

One of the first speakers of the evening was Jennifer Malinski, an Edgerton High School Class of 1991 graduate who served eight years in the U.S. Army. Recalling that "every day I put on my uniform I worked shoulder to shoulder with dozens of Spanish-speaking soldiers," Malinski told the board, "I would not refuse these Spanish-speaking soldiers the right to say the pledge in whatever language came to their lips, and I hope to God that we don't do that here."

*This isn't an entirely fair statement. I suspect that the majority of school boards around the nation do good, solid, reasonable work. The ones that make it into the news, however, seem to be up to as much no good as they can muster, and it tends to taint my overall view of them.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What a tool

'nuff said. Comments? Questions?

Instead of a latte

Jen over at the Daily Mitzvah posted a link to a great site (My Bednet) where you can donate just $5 to buy a bednet for someone in a malaria-stricken region of the world. I checked it out, and from what I can tell, every last cent of your five bucks goes directly toward the purchase of one of these nets, with distribution and other administrative costs being covered by private donors.

It's a great cause, and extremely easy to contribute to. I strongly encourage you to head on over, take a look around, and donate $5 to help save someone's life.

P.S. In the comments section of the DM, the author mentions perhaps trying to organize a day for several bloggers to mention this cause/site (called "Instead of a Latte"), so I apologize for jumping the gun. It's a great cause, though, and I wanted to jump on this particular bandwagon right away!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Brunch: "The Machine Girl" trailer

This has the potential to be either the most awesome movie ever, or the worst. Possibly both, I can't decide.

(Parental discretion advised for completely unrealistic jets of blood, a drill bra, and general mayhem)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Esta tierra es tuya

It is strange to me that the Pledge of Allegiance can stir up so much controversy. Yet time and time again, both nationally and in my own personal life, it does just that, causing passions to run high on both sides of the debate.

There have been arguments about whether or not the recitation of said pledge should be compulsory for public school children (in 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that it cannot, as that would be a violation of the First Amendment), whether the late addition of "under God" is constitutional (the issue has so far been dodged by the Supreme Court), and now, most recently, whether or not the pledge must be recited in English only.

Edgerton High School, in Edgerton, Wisconsin, has been facing that last issue head-on.

For many years now, Edgerton High School in Wisconsin has allowed students in its Spanish class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish over the Intercom one day of the school year. It also invites foreign exchange students (the school now has three) to say it in their own language.

This year, when Spanish students recited the Pledge on March 11, it caused a ruckus.

Parents complained. They demanded that the Spanish teacher, the principal, and the superintendent be fired. And they intend to press the issue at the school board meeting on April 28.

The superintendent, Dr. Norman Fjelstad, has even been physically threatened.

I am, quite honestly, appalled by the reaction of parents and members of the community to this. First and foremost, the pledge is something people can choose to say or not, and if they do, what does it matter what language it's said in? We are a free country, made up of people from all walks of life and hundreds of different ethnic and national backgrounds. English, by dint of chance, has become the most dominant language in the country, but we've kept it from being designated the "official" language for good reason.

What makes us American is not so much what language we speak but what ideals we hold dear. One of those ideals is that the diversity of humanity is a strength, not a weakness.

Sadly, there are those who believe that somehow, just by saying the Pledge in a different language, it dishonors the men and women who've fought to make this country what it is. Frankly, I think it honors them. After all, haven't we been struggling to become and continue to be a free and inclusive society?

Too, shouldn't we be encouraging our children (and adults) to branch out and learn other languages? Bilingual education is especially important in our increasingly global community. Having even a basic understanding of another language (and, by proxy, another culture) does wonders in helping to bridge cultural gaps, make us savvier in the business world, and generally increase our ability to get along with different people from different places. We should be encouraging exercises like those at Edgerton High School, not calling for the teachers' heads on pikes.

That people are threatening superintendent Norm Fjelstad over this is completely unacceptable. While I may firmly disagree with their opinions, it is of course their right to express them. But extending that to verbal and physical threats is inexcusably wrong. It illustrates nothing but ignorance on the part of the perpetrators.

I applaud Fjelstad for standing up against the threats and defending the decision.

“I’ve heard their frustration,” says Superintendent Fjelstad. “I understand what they’re saying. They feel it dishonors our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. My response is this: I know there are 400 Hispanic speaking soldiers that won’t disagree with them. They can’t disagree because they gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there are 110,000 Spanish-speaking Hispanics serving in the military that I believe would agree with me that speaking Spanish does not dishonor the military.”

Fjelstad also points out that George W. Bush had the National Anthem sung in Spanish at his inaugural in 2001.

Fjelstad adds a personal point. “I have a Norwegian heritage,” he says. “My father could not speak English until the third grade, and he was patriotic, and he recited the Pledge in Norwegian.”

Fjelstand also notes that “our Wisconsin Constitution was written in three languages: English, German, and Norwegian. The reason it was written in three languages is because it’s important that people understand the words.”

On top of that, Fjelstad invokes the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Government should never mandate that the Pledge or the National Anthem be said in one language,” he says.

Fjelstad’s conclusion: “I see nothing wrong with what we’ve been doing.”

But he’s not sure the school board will see it that way.

“The school board has the right to overturn my decision,” he says. “If they do, I won’t be insubordinate. I will comply. I won’t be fired. But I’ll be on record as saying I disagree with that decision, and that I believe people are suppressing what is a freedom of our country.”

I wish I'd had this guy as my superintendent back in high school. When I made the decision not to recite the Pledge every morning as classes started, I took a lot of flak. This even though I conceded to standing up during it as a sign of respect to those around me. Still, because I wouldn't actually say it, I was perceived as being unpatriotic. Nothing could be further from the truth, and my decision was not reached lightly. I chose not to recite the Pledge because of the "under God" addition, and because I'm not comfortable pledging my troth to a flag. The people, the ideals, the rights and goals of my country, however, I hold dear.

I can only hope that the school board doesn't overturn the decision. We've had too much in the way of knee-jerk, poorly thought out positions winning the day. Edgerton may just be one small town on the map, but the issues being faced there are universally important.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More people, more problems

Yesterday, I expressed by incredulity at Patrick McIlheran's bizarre claims that greens don't want cheap energy and don't think civil rights are as important as preserving the environment. Not to mention his weird support for DDT.

Well, today he's expounded on his idea, making sure to add that he believes we need to get crackin' with the baby making:

A couple of chaps said -- and I'm quoting the money lines -- "All we have to do is make fewer babies," and "I rarely hear a discussion about how we have too many people!"

Actually, in much of the world, people are making fewer babies. Most of Europe, Japan, China, so on are already lining up for population plunges as fertility rates have fallen far below the replacement rate. Even the United Nations has been predicting a declining world population after 2050. This, by the by, isn't particularly good. Hard to have human societies without humans.
So now, not only do we need to forget about saving the environment, we also need to add more bodies to it. Apparently, six billion strong and growing doesn't cut it.

You may be curious to know that the numbers predicted for the 2050 date he throws out as the falling off point of the world population are around 9 billion. That's 9,000,000,000 people. If we think we're having a hard time keeping everyone fed these days, imagine what it's going to be like if/when we reach those kinds of numbers. Yet despite this looming human catastrophe (the Earth's resources are already at or possibly beyond breaking point), McIlheran wants us to work hard at making more babies. Screw family planning! Get humpin'.

At the core of this view, though, seems to be a creeping (and probably subconscious) fear-of-brown-people dread. Because while a number of western and developed countries are, indeed, facing stagnating or declining birthrates, places like India, China, and many African countries are booming over with people.

The other argument being made here is that to curb population growth, environmentalists want to force abortion, sterilization, and even infanticide onto people. That's quite the claim, and one hell of a straw man.

No sane person is arguing that we should institute any of those things, or that we should suddenly sacrifice already living people in the name of curbing growth. What we are (or should be) arguing is that there are too many people on this Earth, and that we need to find compassionate, sustainable and effective ways of, at the very least, slowing that trend. Happily, this appears to already be the case, but it may be too little too late, meaning that we may well be headed for a massive catastrophe.

The equation is simple. There are only so many resources to go around, and they're not even particularly well distributed. We're talking the miracle of the loaves and fish times 1.2 million, something that would likely exhaust even the best efforts of the messiah himself (no offense, JC).

How someone can argue for the need of more people is beyond me. We're not anywhere near being in danger of extinction or even the downfall of society as we know it. At least, not for the reasons McIlheran and his ilk seem to think.

Planning for the end

I had an interesting conversation with a few friends yesterday while we sat around a crackling cooking fire, enjoying the fine weather. We were helping one of said friends to shave his head, using nothing but cheap plastic razors and a bottle of water (not a recommended method, by the by), when the subject of apocalypse came up.

You know, light-hearted chat.

When I say "apocalypse," I mean it in the actual definition of "a great disaster," and not necessarily the end of everything. The friend getting his head shaved asked us all to name what tool we would each try to build first upon such a disaster. My first thought was to create some sort of water purification system. After all, we can survive without lots of things, but water isn't one of 'em.

The conversation then drifted into a discussion of how we might manage to survive if society as we know it crumbled. I'd like to think I could hack it, but in truth we'd all probably be pretty screwed. Still, the whole thing got me to thinking: is this a common theme within my generation? Does it span generations? Do we all secretly (or, in the case of paranoid survivalists, not-so-secretly) ponder the possibility of a Mad Max-like existence some day in the not-so-distant future? Or is it just me and my crazy friends?

So, I'm putting the question out there: have you been secretly preparing for a meltdown? Maybe just regularly entertaining the notion of the possibility that the world may be a vastly different place when you're older? What do you suppose your reasons for this are? Let's call it an unscientific sociological poll.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

McIlheran loves people, DDT, but misses the point

I read with some interest and confusion Patrick McIlheran's recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, "Consider the humans on Earth, too" - his reaction to the Earth Day holiday. In it, he says that "Greens have long argued that energy is too cheap..." and that environmentalism has blinded some people in malaria-struck regions enough to refuse the use of DDT in fighting the disease. Among other things.

McIlheran seems to be making the argument that preserving the environment is incongruous with producing cheap energy and making sure people, especially those in developing countries, have enough to eat.

He's right to call out those people who claim to be environmentalists and make demands without consideration for how they will immediately effect communities around the world. We need to be careful about the measures taken to protect our world--there is a balance to be struck between being green and being affordable. This is a balance that is emminently doable, too, but where McIlheran goes wrong is in his assertion that "activists" think we need to cut back to "Haitian levels" of energy consumption, and that "Environmental policy is, instead, a set of trade-offs, and what is traded for cleanliness is someone's portion of economic prosperity."

I disagree, and strongly.

We all want cheap, abundant energy. It should not come at the cost of the health of our people and our planet, though. Poorly planned and executed environmental policy may indeed limit someone's portion of economic prosperity, but it needn't be that way. There are projects currently underway in all corners of the globe that aim to (and often succeed at) helping the poorest of the poor to get things like clean water, electricity, education, and agriculture, all with a greener, more sustainable bent. If done right, being more environmentally sound can lead to greater economic sustainability, too. If the source of your livelihood--the land--isn't degraded, you can live off of it indefinitely.

As for DDT, McIlheran is wrong when he claims that the pesticide is both safe and banned. While DDT has long been banned outright in most developed countries (with good reason), its use for "vector control" is still approved in many areas afflicted by malaria. When used carefully and in smaller amounts, it can be just as effective, but without the many environmental and health problems that result from widespread usage.

I'm also uncomfortable with his implication that "activists whose main concern is the environment have appropriated the moral high ground once used by those demanding racial equality." If someone were to actually do this, I'd be inclined to give 'em a good smack, but I've yet to meet someone dedicated to a greener way of life who also thought that one was more important than the other.

One should not overshadow the other. They're both extremely important, and frankly, I think they're also somewhat tied together. If we're talking about the rights of working class and poor communities, then the discussion must include the effects of pollution on their lives. Pollution often caused by large, poorly regulated corporations that feel they can get away with dumping on less wealthy, less empowered people. We can combat these situations with better regulation of industry, greener business practices, and by empowering these communities with ways to help themselves through sustainable means.

So yes, we need to care for our fellow human beings. But a major part of that is wrapped up in how we treat our environment. We should be thoughtful and careful about how we do this, but you cannot separate the two. After all, we can't survive without the Earth, but the Earth can survive without us. I'd rather it not come to that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A day (or 365) for the Earth

Happy Earth Day!

In anticipation of the holiday and in recognition of just how gorgeous it was outside yesterday, I dusted off the ol' Surly and went for a ride around the lake. Though a little out of shape from the winter, I was pleased to discover that I haven't completely lost all of the gains I made last year. But enough about me:

38 years ago, former Wisconsin governor Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day as a grassroots environmental teach-in effort. These days, its celebration has expanded to the point of qualifying as an Earth Week or even Month. That's definitely progress, but we'd also do well to apply its lessons and principles year-round.

I already posted a list of some of the Earth Day related events around town. Interestingly enough, that simple post elicited a rather impassioned response from commenter William, who apparently isn't convinced that global climate change is actually happening, or that humans are responsible for it. He, like a small but vocal group of people, believes that the media is one-sided in its coverage of the issue. I countered by arguing that, in an effort to appear objective, the media gives too much air-time to the deniers. Simply because a view point exists on an issue does not mean it should automatically be given the same credence as another take on the issue that has far more in the way of evidence to back it up (take Holocaust deniers, for example).

Climate change deniers overwhelmingly rely, perhaps unwittingly, on disproved, biased and/or highly flawed research. If a news report wants to include the voice of someone whose opinion is that it's not happening, fine, but to include false "science" on the subject is not good journalism. It's lazy at best, destructive at worst.

This, of course, resulted in me being called "close-minded" and "self-absorbed," among other things. I can take the name calling. What I have a hard time dealing with are people who, for whatever reason, still stubbornly refuse to see what's right in front of their faces. This is too important an issue to play politics or personal pride with.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point.
Emphasis mine, of course. There's a lot of good reading at that site, and I highly recommend taking a look.

The trick with a lot of this data is that it's incredibly complicated, and parts of it can appear, to the layperson (myself included), to contradict other data sets. For instance, while the trend in most parts of the world is toward warmer average temperatures, there are sections ("parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic") where the average is actually cooling. Do these seeming inconsistencies negate the entire debate? I wish.

Global climate change involves several large-scale changes, but it also manifests in many, more localized and varied forms. For example, we'll see longer, more harsh droughts in certain areas, while in other places we'll see greater flooding and more severe storms.

Point is, it's happening and humans have a pretty large hand in causing it. There is debate, however, as to the exact manifestations, consequences and time-line. Getting that right is important, and as such we should be fostering constructive debate and research on the matter. But we first need to move beyond questioning whether it's happening at all. It is.
A United Nations report ...by the world's top climate scientists said global warning was "very likely" man-made and would bring higher temperatures and a steady rise in sea levels for centuries to come regardless of how much the world slows or reduces its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of scientists from 113 countries, was created by the U.N. in 1988 and releases its assessments every five or six years.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widspread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level," said the IPCC report.

As for the assertion that "hundreds of scientists have signed petitions that state climate change isn't a problem" (made by the commenter and in several other forums), I offer the following Royal Society paper debunking that and many other misleading arguments:

There are some differences of opinion among scientists about some of the details of climate change and the contribution of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Researchers continue to collect more data about climate change and to investigate different explanations for the evidence. However, the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change agree on the main points, even if there is still some uncertainty about particular aspects, such as how the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will change in the future.

In the journal Science in 2004, Oreskes published the results of a survey of 928 papers on climate change published in peer-reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003. She found that three-quarters of the papers either explicitly or implicitly accepted the view expressed in the IPCC 2001 report that human activities have had a major impact on climate change in the last 50 years, and none rejected it. There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
We've also been observing a far greater increase in arctic sea ice melting than previously predicted. According to a new study, only 13% of the new layer of ice formed last year survived the annual melt.

Research has linked the thinning of Arctic ice to warmer average temperatures caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases from human activities. Readings from U.S. submarines indicate a widespread reduction in sea ice thickness of 40 per cent since 1960.

The melting is also increased because the darker surface of open water absorbs the sun's rays as heat rather than reflecting them back into space like ice and snow.

Those people who live close to and rely on arctic ice already know this is happening. Inuit hunters are facing increasingly dangerous routes across thinning ice. Homes and other structures face instability as permafrost disappears. People in far northern climes are on the front lines and there's no doubt that something is drastically changing.

And the data, stories and research goes on and on.

Point is, we can't afford to debate if change is happening. It's far too late for that. What we must do is talk about and implement ways to counteract these negative changes--ways that don't themselves have negative consequences (take the current skyrocketing prices of corn and rice, for example).

Thankfully, not all is doom and gloom. While it is essential that we take this problem as being deadly serious, we can also take heart in the fact that many people have been working on creative and productive solutions for years now. The scale and scope is breathtaking. Everything from simple in-home green solutions to massive renewable resource projects have been and continue to be tackled. There are several great resources for keeping up on these developments, too:
  • TreeHugger - a blog with frequent entries about various green technologies, toys, businesses and communities, etc.
  • InHabitat - a blog that covers green building, technology and architectural developments.
  • Haute Nature - ecologically based creative ideas, art and green products for your children, home and lifestyle.
  • Ideal Bite - daily and easy-to-implement tips and tricks for making your life more environmentally friendly.
  • Grist - environmental news that's "fiercely independent" and not boring.
  • WorldChanging - "a solutions-based online magazine that works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us."
And the list goes on.

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. This is something that, in one way or another, impacts all 6 billion of us. Changing our ways to better the planet we live on doesn't have to mean crazy high prices, poor economies or massively restricted civil liberties. In fact, I'd argue that intelligently implementing positive changes to help save the world, as it were, would help us avoid all of those things. Green technology is, more and more, the money-saving choice. Improving conditions means fewer droughts and floods so that food sources aren't wiped out. It means less chance of massive epidemics. It means, if we keep at it, cheaper/renewable sources of energy. The crunch at gas pumps isn't going to get any better.

So go out and celebrate Earth Day, but be sure to take it and run with it. After all, the phrase may be a cliche, but it's still absolutely spot-on: make every day Earth Day.

UPDATE TO ADD: A great, comprehensive site on "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" - covers things far more comprehensively than I can.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Packin' heat on campus

A somber anniversary has just passed, and it has everyone talking about gun control. I have no personal interest in using a national tragedy as a platform for my own political views. What I can't help but respond to, however, is the recent news about a local Madison chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus working to make concealed carry legal on UW campuses. Prior to this, I hadn't even realized that there was a movement to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campuses. Schools have always been a place I associate with being "gun-free/drug-free" areas.

UW graduate student Bret Bostwick founded the University of Wisconsin chapter three weeks ago. The group has received significant media attention in the wake of the death of UW junior Brittany Zimmermann and the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings.

The organization aims to “educate and advocate for concealed carry legislation” in Wisconsin supporting the right of individuals over the age of 21 who have completed training and obtained licenses to carry concealed weapons on campus, Bostwick said.

School-related shootings and murders tend to rile up the debate every time. The argument from the pro-concealed carry side tends to be "If the victim or someone near to the victim had been able to carry a gun, they could have stopped this from happening." The argument from the anti-concealed carry side tends to be "More guns just mean more accidents and deaths." Both sides often have good points, but a lot of that gets lost in the passions raised in between.

Too, it's difficult to come up with unbiased statistical analysis of how concealed carry does or does not impact crime in a particular area. There are also so many factors that play into violent crime rates that it must be extremely difficult to peg any lower or higher rates solely on gun ownership laws.

I'll admit, I'm not terribly comfortable with concealed carry laws in general. I don't particularly enjoy the idea that someone I pass on the street could be packing heat at any given time. I do believe that people should have the right to own certain kinds of guns and keep them in their homes or use them for hunting--contingent, of course, on the proper enforcement and following of background check, training and safety laws.

But for now, let's set aside the issue of general concealed carry laws and talk specifically about the idea of students and faculty being allowed to carry on campus. Traditionally, all school campuses have been "gun-free zones" - that is, no matter what a state's concealed carry laws are, they don't apply to campuses. This has been and continues to be the case in most states, with the exception of Utah, Virginia and Colorado. In late 2006, Utah's state Supreme Court struck down a ban on concealed weapons imposed by the University of Utah (based in Salt Lake City). That institution, backed by all other universities in the state, is currently working to get the decision reversed.

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a national organization with 25,000 members, has branches on campuses in 45 states, including this new group at the UW-Madison (other Wisconsin schools with SCCC branches are MATC and Lawrence).

What's interesting about all of these efforts is that the main allies of groups like SCCC are state legislators, while school administrators and police organizations widely oppose such moves. I'm inclined to go with what police officers want in this case. They know better than most what it takes to responsibly handle a firearm, and they know, often first-hand, what kind of shit can go down in desperate situations where guns are drawn.

What it comes down to, at least for me, is the fact that police are trained to know how to handle themselves in sudden and tense situations where shots may be threatened and/or fire. Regular citizens, even many of those who go through all of the legal requirements for gun ownership, don't have that same level of training. In a situation where someone is being threatened, say, in a room full of fellow classmates, who's to say that the addition of one more gun isn't going to take even more lives than if it had just been the original perpetrator firing? Add to that situations where a person gets out of control, either through excessive drinking (something not all-together uncommon on campus), fights, or a bout of rash action.

But if we take guns away from law-abiding citizens, only criminals will have guns, right? This seems like a rational argument at first, but think about it this way: people break laws all the time, but that doesn't mean we should get rid of those laws all-together. They're there so that we have some clear guidelines on how to act, some sense of basic security, and appropriate punishments (implemented by people who've been educated and trained for it specifically) for those people who see fit to break the rules. Saying that we should all have the right to do something because criminals are already doing it anyway comes off sounding pretty ridiculous in this light.

I wouldn't feel safer on campus and in the classroom knowing that any one of my fellow students might be carrying a gun with them. There will always be some doubt, some insecurity in the world. Adding more fire to the fire? Wouldn't that, y'know, make the fire worse? How about actually enforcing existing gun laws, and creating faster, more effective ways of communicating danger to students on campus when incidents happen? Providing self-defense classes I'm all for, making sure people get appropriate mental health care when they need it I'm all for, but isn't the whole reason we're debating this in the first place because of guns on campus? Why allow for even more of them to be present, thus upping the likelihood of an accident or incident? That seems pretty illogical to me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Madison area Earth Day events

Actually, it would be more accurate to call this Earth Week, as many of the events span the days leading up to the official holiday.

There's a lot to get involved with in our area (and, I'm sure, around the country/world - but for simplicity's sake I'm sticking to my home turf), and I'm hoping that the following list and guide will help some of you find something to check out. Heck, if I had things my way, Earth Day would be the major secular holiday of the year. But then, I'm just a damn dirty hippie.

Madison area Earth Day events:
And lest you forget, the Dane County Farmers' Market opens for the season THIS SATURDAY. I know where I'll be first thing this weekend. I've been jonesing pretty hard all winter for some Summer Kitchen jam and free cheese samples from Brunkow.

The trick to all of this hoopla is to find ways to implement greener ways of living every day of your life. If you make it routine, it gets a lot easier. You don't have to move into a yurt and go completely off-grid to make a difference. No positive decision, act or change is too small. Everything counts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

War Criminals R Us

Our President, and many of his top advisers and officials, should be tried for war crimes. Period.

I can't believe I didn't hear about this story until yesterday, especially since it originally broke on Friday. But instead of reporting on this massively important revelation, the news media seem content to go nuts with the "Obama said some stuff about small town America!" line that Clinton and McCain are currently trumpeting.

George W. Bush, President of these United States, admitted to being fully aware of and supporting top level meetings held to discuss torture policy and techniques. If the Watergate break-in and cover-up was enough to start impeachment proceedings against Nixon, how is this not enough to do, at the very least, the same thing to Bush? Beyond impeachment, these admitted torture techniques are illegal under international law. They're called war crimes.

From the ABC article:

President Bush says he knew his top national security advisers discussed and approved specific details about how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to an exclusive interview with ABC News Friday.

"Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people." Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."
The reason the administration is so cocky about all of this is that they lined up several crony lawyers to justify the policies. John Yoo would be case-and-point. Yoo is the charming fellow who apparently failed to pay attention while in law school, as he went on to author several memos, on behalf of the Justice Department, that made extremely shaky, fallacious arguments in favor of the torture techniques so desperately desired by the CIA and the Bush administration.

It should be noted that these memos were later rescinded by the Justice Department (after Yoo departed), but not before countless detainees were subjected to the harsh methods approved by them. Several of these detainees died as a direct result.

But Bush will happily defend things like waterboarding, even though it was for this same offense that Japanese and German officers were tried and convicted after World War II, and even though the United States has long been a signatory to the Third Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids the torture of POWs.

In the interview with ABC News Friday, Bush defended the waterboarding technique used against KSM.

"We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it," Bush said. "And no, I didn't have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew."

The president said, "I think it's very important for the American people to understand who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. He was the person who ordered the suicide attack -- I mean, the 9/11 attacks."

Those "legal opinions that enabled" them to do those things were memos like the one authored by Yoo, memos so egregious in scope that they were later rescinded and roundly criticized by legal scholars the world over.
Jack Goldsmith, who took over the Office of Legal Counsel after Yoo departed, writes that the two memos "stood out" for "the unusual lack of care and sobriety in their legal analysis."
Apparently, though, the president desired and got unlimited powers in "time of war" - something that has always been and should remain completely unconstitutional.

The counter argument usually goes something like this: "What if there's a bomb about to go off in the middle of a crowded city in about an hour, and we have the person responsible for it in custody? We need to know where it is so we can disarm it, but the suspect won't talk unless we use some of these techniques."

Outside of the television show "24", though, when does this ever actually happen? Pretty much never. Beyond that, the validity of confessions obtained through torture has been questioned and debunked time and time again. When someone's subjecting you to unimaginably horrible mental and physical pain, you're extremely prone to telling them what you think they want to hear in order to have that pain end.

These forced and often false confessions sometimes lead to the unfounded imprisonment, torture and even death of innocent people.

In the end, my main question is this: when did the climate in this country change to such a degree that we're even debating something like this? Torture is torture is torture. We, as a country, are supposed to be well above such methods. There should be no excuse, no loophole, no explaining away of the terrible shit we've been pulling in the name of "national security." Smarter, more experienced and well-trained people than I will tell you, and have been telling us for quite some time, that there are better, more humane and more effective means of gathering valuable intelligence and protecting our citizens.

Yet these voices go relatively unheard and ignored by an administration that has clearly demonstrated, time and time again, that it has no regard for national or international law, human rights, or even basic human decency.

War criminals.

These people and their disgusting ideas are a blight on our nation. How we can be more focused on some perceived Obama gaffe instead of the admission by Bush that he knew about and approved of these torture strategy meetings, I simply don't understand. I am offended as an American citizen and as a human being.

It's time to buy some plane tickets to the Hague.

(h/t Letter from Here)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wolves in Wisconsin

Not to be confused with any Conservative Congress that might exist somewhere, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is tonight hosting a Spring Hearing and the Conservation Congress at the Alliant Energy Center (Exhibition Hall) in Madison.

If you have an interest in natural resources, conservation, hunting, fishing, trapping or outdoor recreation in Wisconsin then the Spring Hearings are for you.

On Monday, April 14, there will be 72 public hearings, one in each county starting at 7:00 p.m. where individuals interested in natural resources management have an opportunity to provide their input by non-binding vote and testimony to the Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Board and the Conservation Congress on proposed hunting and fishing rule changes and advisory questions.

County residents have the option to run for election to the Conservation Congress and to elect delegates from their county to represent their county views regarding natural resources on the Conservation Congress. Also, individuals have the opportunity to bring forth new conservation issues of a statewide nature to the attention of the Conservation Congress through the citizen resolution process.

It's great that we have this kind of opportunity for public participation in the state, and I hope a good many people come out for these events (locations for all other counties are here).

Perhaps the most controversial issues on the docket for this evening concern the gray wolf population of the state. In recent years, the species has made a rather impressive come-back. Estimates of the original wolf population in the state range between 3-5,000 animals, but those numbers were nearly eliminated as the state bounties for wolf kills increased during the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Wolves were and are blamed for livestock deaths and for dwindling deer populations, but, "Ironically, studies have shown that wolves have minimal negative impact on deer populations, since they feed primarily on weak, sick, or disabled individuals."

Farmers are concerned about wolves preying on their livestock. In northern Wisconsin, about 17 cases of wolf depredation occur per year, about half are on livestock and half on dogs. As the population continues to increase, slight increases in depredation are likely to occur. In Minnesota, with over 2600 wolves, there are usually 60 to 100 cases per year.

A few hunters continue to kill wolves, believing that such actions will help the deer herd. It is important to place in perspective the impact of wolves feeding on deer. Each wolf kills about 18 deer per year. Multiply this by the number of wolves found in Wisconsin in recent years (330), and approximately 5940 deer may be consumed by wolves annually. This appears as a fairly low when compared to over 40,000 deer hit by cars each year, and about 450,000 deer shot annually by hunters.

Up for vote at tonight's congress are two wolf-related laws: one that would lift a current ban on shooting wolves that are attacking a domestic animal if that attack were happening on public land, and one that would legalize the hunting of gray wolves and establish guidelines for those hunts.

The current wolf population in Wisconsin is estimated to be at just under 600. Considering that their numbers used to be in the thousands, I don't see how the current population would qualify for "control methods." It seems like allowing for hunting of a very recently endangered and still low numbered species is, pardon the wording, jumping the gun.

As for allowing them to be shot on public land if they're attacking a domestic animal? Frankly, it sounds weird to me, but I also don't have much perspective on that particular issue. Is it common for a farmer/rancher to graze their livestock on public land? And if so, how much of a threat is the occasional gray wolf? I honestly don't know.

Still, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of moving so quickly to cull the herd, so to speak, so soon after they're removed from the Federal Endangered Species List. We should be encouraging the continued strengthening of species we nearly hunted to extinction, not falling back on old habits.

EDIT TO ADD: You can participate and vote in the Conservation Congress so long as you show up with some proof of county residency.

(photo credit: Wisconsin DNR)

Friday, April 11, 2008

There's no artistry in that!

For the past couple of months, I've been rehearsing for my (small-ish) part(s) in a play with Mercury Players Theatre. This week was tech and final dress, and we're opening the show tonight--so needless to say, I'm exhausted. I've been at the theatre until anywhere between 11:30 and 1:00AM every night since Monday. Despite my general malaise and sleepiness, though, it has definitely been worth it. This is one of the finest casts I've yet to work with, and the play itself is mighty entertaining.

That's why I'm about to shill for it. Seriously, you should come see this show.

"Compleat Female Stage Beauty," written by Jeffrey Hatcher, tells the true story of Edward Kynaston, a Shakespearean actor who specialized in playing female roles, and how his world is turned upside down when King Charles II, in his fit of Restoration, allowed women onto the stage. The show is hilarious and a bit bawdy, but also deeply felt and nuanced. It involves everything from love, scandal, obscenity and cross-dressing to brief nudity and serious personal reflection.

Plus, you'll get to see me playing both a man and a woman. And wearing a positively ridiculous wig. What's not to love?

If you're still not convinced, perhaps these bits of PR will help:
There. Now reserve yourself some tickets and come see us.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Women in arms

It's interesting that this issue should crop up so soon after my post about Civil War reenacting and the women who actually dressed as men so they could fight that war. Over at dad29's blog, he's posted a piece that's raised a lot of hackles and interesting issues. Specifically, it would seem that the post appears to link the high rate of sexual assault of women serving in the military with the idea that they shouldn't be there in the first place.

Talk about a can of worms.

Reading the ensuing comments has been fascinating. There are many opinions on the matter, of course. It's a complicated issue, and one that we as a country have been dealing with for, well, since we first became a country.

First, here are some statistics:

  • According to a report by the Department of Defense, there were 2,688 sexual assaults reported in (fiscal year) 2007 that involved Military Service Members. (links to previous years' reports)
  • The Military Services completed a total of 1,955 criminal investigations on reports made during and prior to FY07. There were 759 (28%) pending investigations that will be reported on in FY08. The following is a breakdown of the total investigations that were referred to the commander for action in FY07 and the status:
    • 1,172 subjects were referred for commander action.
    • Commanders took action on 600 (51%) subjects, which included 181 (30%) courts-martial.
    • There were 572 (49%) subjects pending disposition as of September 30, 2007.
  • According to the 2006 Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, 6.8% of women and 1.8% of men report unwanted sexual contact.
  • In the general population of the United States, 1 out of every 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).
It's fair to say, too, that a great many cases of sexual assault/rape go unreported, especially so in the military where it may be more difficult to confront the command structure, and fears of repercussions may be greater. And from the looks of it, seeking punishment for the perpetrators can be difficult, at best.

According to a recent article in the Las Angeles Times:

At the heart of this crisis is an apparent inability or unwillingness to prosecute rapists in the ranks. According to DOD statistics, only 181 out of 2,212 subjects investigated for sexual assault in 2007, including 1,259 reports of rape, were referred to courts-martial, the equivalent of a criminal prosecution in the military. Another 218 were handled via nonpunitive administrative action or discharge, and 201 subjects were disciplined through "nonjudicial punishment," which means they may have been confined to quarters, assigned extra duty or received a similar slap on the wrist. In nearly half of the cases investigated, the chain of command took no action; more than a third of the time, that was because of "insufficient evidence."

This is in stark contrast to the civilian trend of prosecuting sexual assault. In California, for example, 44% of reported rapes result in arrests, and 64% of those who are arrested are prosecuted, according to the California Department of Justice.

Sexual assault and rape, whoever it targets, should never be acceptable. Neither should the attitude of blaming the victim, as seems to be the insinuation when people start suggesting that a woman's mere presence in the military will lead to assault, and we shouldn't be surprised by that. It does a disservice to both women and men to assume that people, men especially, can't be expected to contain themselves.

The military holds its members to high standards of discipline and skill, and doles out fairly severe punishments in the case of various derelictions of duty. I see no reason why this shouldn't be the case for sexual assault.

No woman (or man) serving in the armed forces should have to fear their own comrades more than the enemy they may be sent to fight. But this doesn't seem to be the case: women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.

That is, simply put, unacceptable. Period. Proper, thorough training should be required for all service members, both in preventing and punishing cases of sexual assault and rape.

The DoD has taken some laudable steps to fight this problem: "The Defense Department has made some efforts to manage this epidemic -- most notably in 2005, after the media received anonymous e-mail messages about sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. The media scrutiny and congressional attention that followed led the DOD to create the Sexual Assault and Response Office. Since its inception, the office has initiated education and training programs, which have improved the reporting of cases of rapes and other sexual assaults."

But there remains a great deal more work to do.

Part of the problem may be the continued resistance by some members of the public and the military to women being allowed to serve outside of clerical and administrative duties (or at all). First of all, I don't believe the issue of sexual assault has much of anything to do with where and how women serve. It's wrong and should be treated as such wherever and for whatever reason it occurs. The debate about women's place in the military should be separate from this, even though some people insist on conflating them.

That said, I feel compelled (I know, you're shocked) to say that I believe women absolutely should be allowed to serve in all parts of the military, dependent on two factors: they want to, and they qualify, fair and square, to do so.

I understand that in certain branches/jobs of the military, there are physical requirements that are necessary for the safe and effective execution of said job. Women wishing to enter these positions should be made to pass the same tests as men, but they shouldn't be barred outright from even trying.

Women have proved themselves over and over again--in various times and places. Not all women are cut out to serve in the military, but neither are all men. It doesn't matter if the percentage of women to men serving is different. What matters is allowing qualified people to do the jobs they want to do.

If women can lead the life of a soldier and all the hardships that entails, all while either maintaining a convincing facade of being a man, fighting against rampant harassment and discrimination, and/or against any number of other harsh odds--and they can--I don't think a person arguing against women's military service has a leg to stand on.

(h/t folkbum)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dumbing down the discourse

The UW-Madison and its College Republicans played host to Fox News pundit and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin this past Friday. Naturally, there was a lot of hubbub leading up to the event. Some folks thought it was insane to even bring her here to speak, expressing shock that anyone of a more liberal persuasion would attend. The talk itself then involved several shouted obscenities from certain members of the crowd (a fact little commented on in the press, as far as I can tell), both during her talk and throughout the Q&A that followed.

This should be unacceptable for all parts of the political spectrum.

I understand, very well, the frustration of those with more left-leaning feelings. It certainly seems like factions of the far-right have hijacked the discourse and the law in this country, and many of them certainly don't shy away from ad hominem attacks and mudslinging. This makes it especially infuriating when they then, when faced with similar tactics, see fit to cry foul as though they themselves are without sin.

In the end, though, someone has to take the high road. Simply because your opponent stoops to a certain level doesn't mean that you should, too. This goes for the left, right and center. Interrupting someone, whether it be during an organized event or regular conversation, is rude and petty. It will do little to advance your point, and plenty to turn others off from hearing you out when it's your turn to speak.

I disagree with most of the positions Malkin takes, and as much as said positions tend to offend my sensibilities and occasionally fill me with rage--apply this to most conservative pundits, really--I would be extremely disappointed with myself if I ever let that anger bubble over into trying to silence their voices. Doubly so if that involved shouting "fuck you!" and "racist!" at someone during a rally or speech (with the except of a Neo-Nazi group or something).

I think it's safe to say that the majority of people--right, left and everything in between--want a better life for themselves and their children/families. We want to feel relatively safe, and to be free to pursue our own goals. We want to be heard. If there is to be any real progress, we need to elevate the level of discourse: do our best to restrain ourselves when we feel the (natural, but not good) urge to sling mud in order to discredit our opponents. Try to see where the other guy might be coming from. This doesn't mean you have to agree with them--Lord knows a little partisanship can be a good thing from time to time. But it should mean that we never stoop so far as to try to restrict someone's free speech, or to crassly interrupt them when they are speaking.

You know the old saying: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Relic of my past

Forage capGather 'round children, it's time for me to ramble a story at you.

I've been playing with my new camera lens a lot, exploring its features and trying to become more proficient with the camera itself. The other night, I dug deep into my closet and found my old Civil War reenacting uniform, deciding to use the hat as the subject of a photograph. In the process, I managed to dig up quite a few memories, too.

For some reason I've never been able to fully explain, I've been fascinated by the American Civil War era since I was very young. I've always been a history buff. I love studying humanity: our triumphs, failures, inventions, misdeeds, everything. The personal stories of regular people tend to interest me the most. Still, my specific focus on mid-nineteenth century America came out of left field. I suppose the impetus of my obsession can be traced back to the older brother of my childhood best friend. He was a reenactor, and I often saw him coming or going from various events, dressed in his blue uniform and looking, I thought, super cool.

It was during this time, too, that the movie "Glory" first came out. I still contend (with little dissent) that it's a great movie, and I remember watching it several times when it first came to video.

Several years would pass, I moved to a new state, and eventually became friends with a boy whose family was interested in Civil War reenacting. It was through them that I eventually had my chance to participate. And between my love of history and my love of acting, it quickly became my number one hobby.

Happily, my parents were pretty supportive of me. I suppose having a kid who likes to learn about history, play dress-up and go camping every weekend is a lot better than some alternatives. Still, it's not exactly cheap. I spent a lot of time saving my allowance to afford the various pieces of my uniform before I could officially start reenacting. It was (is) very important to appear "authentic" - or as authentic as any 20th century person can be, anyway.

Keep in mind, too, that I had no desire whatsoever to portray a member of my actual sex. Hoop skirts and bonnets had absolutely zero appeal to me, so I would, quite naturally, act in the role of a young girl who dressed as a boy and went off to soldier. And contrary to what several older gents tried again and again to convince me of, my portrayal was quite authentic. While not super common, there are hundreds of documented cases where women passed as men so they could go off to fight in the war. They did it for every reason under the sun: to follow husbands and sweethearts, to get away from home, to fight for their country, to find adventure. They fought on both sides, north and south, and a handful even managed to become officers. Some served as spies, others as musicians, many as regular enlisted soldiers. They fought, they were wounded, killed, captured--some discovered for what they were, plenty who made it through undetected.

There was at least one documented case of a woman bringing a baby to term, only to be discovered when one of "the boys" gave birth in the middle of camp one day. A fellow soldier, remarking on the occasion in his diary, said that the Union would certainly win if they could keep up their numbers simply by having other soldiers give birth to new ones.

Point is, I realized very quickly that I was more "authentic" than the many late-middle-aged, overweight guys who were out there with me. I had just as much of a "right" to be there, and did my best to maintain my subterfuge. There were plenty of people who never suspected that I was actually a girl, and plenty of people who did know and had no problems with it. Sadly, however, there are still reenactors who don't believe women should be allowed to portray men, and it can be hard to find a unit to join up with. Luckily, my unit was comprised of friends, and it wasn't an issue.

Being that I was too young to drive, most of the reenactments I attended were near my home in Illinois. But in '92, I convinced my folks to take us on a "vacation" to Gettysburg, PA, where my unit would participate in the annual recreation of the famous three-day battle there. I still look back on that trip as one of the best things I've ever done. My unit, the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Co. E., took part in the first days' reenactment which, for the first time in several decades, the park was allowing us to do on the actual battlefield. Even a torrential downpour couldn't dampen my excitement. The accompanying lightning, however, brought an early end to our day.

We spent the following few days touring the park, wandering through the various encampments, and generally exploring. It was a blast, and I promised myself that I'd come back some day (which I did).

And though I stopped reenacting by the time I hit high school (it had become much harder to pass as a boy right around then), my fascination with the time period never ended. I still get this unexplainable thrill every time I read a book or watch a movie or stumble onto a reenactment of the era. And I've kept my uniform. The pants don't fit anymore, but (miraculously) some of the other pieces do. I won't lie: some day, I'm going to find a way to hit the field again, hardtack in one hand and a beeswax-lined canteen in the other. For whatever reason, I'm always drawn back to it--to take a photo, wander a battlefield, read a book, or just to reminisce on my stupid blog.

Further reading about women in the Civil War:

Friday, April 4, 2008

Smoking hot Mexico City

Add Mexico City to the list of locales banning smoking in all public places.
MEXICO CITY, April 3 (Reuters) - Mexico City on Thursday banned cigarette smoking in all public places, from bars to office buildings, to reduce the amount of carcinogens inhaled by residents of the smog-filled capital.

The city, home to some 18 million people in the metropolitan area, is the latest large city around the world to pass a smoking ban to improve public health and protect nonsmokers from secondary smoke.
From small towns like Marshfield to major metropolitan areas like New York City, people are catching on to the notion that secondhand smoke is a danger to public health and should be regulated accordingly. This is good news.

On the other hand, you have poorly sourced research that alleges a link between smoking bans and an increase in the number of drunk driving incidents. An article in today's Capital Times sports this headline: "Study links smoking bans to OWIs."

I don't know about you, but something smells fishy when the authors of a study reach a conclusion based on nothing but a comparison between numbers of incidents before and after smoking bans. There's no control group. There's no way to know just where these drunk drivers were headed to or coming from. There's no way to know if their being out and about had anything to do with smoking, or even if they were smokers themselves.

It's not unlikely that smokers who live in a smaller area with a ban might be inclined to travel to a nearby town without a ban to do their drinking and/or socializing. It's a mighty leap, though, to publish a study that purports to show a significant rise in OWIs with the blame placed squarely on bans (not to mention the idea that smokers are more inclined to drive drunk). Even though this conclusion might make a good argument in favor of a more comprehensive, say statewide ban, I wouldn't be comfortable using it. Does it stand up to any kind of decent peer review? I doubt it.

(h/t Kyle)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stranger at the gate

What's so terrifying about homosexuality?

Is it something in certain peoples' deep, primal psyches that takes issue with their inherent inability to procreate together? Bigotry and fear instilled by a religious system that decided to stigmatize homosexuality because its original oppressors (see: Romans) practiced it so freely? Ignorance? All of the above?

It can't be because it's "unnatural." Homosexuality exists in several species of animal--bonobos, dolphins, various birds, elephants, even lizards and fruit flies--and has been a recorded part of human history since we started keeping track.

It can't be because it's "harmful." Harmful to whom? I can't find a shred of unbiased research that shows any significantly higher risk of medical problems for homosexuals. Contrary to common stereotypes, gays and lesbians are no more or less promiscuous, prone to mental illness or likely to molest children than people who identify as straight. If anything, the only extra harm involved in being gay is that which comes from discrimination and hatred by other people.

So why is it, then, that homophobia is still so rampant?

Today, I read about Tammy Baldwin's partner being initially denied permission to fly with her on a military flight for a congressional trip to Europe. It took the intervention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to secure an exception. Now, whether or not you agree that members of Congress should be allowed to bring spouses along on these trips, the fact remains that Baldwin's spouse was specifically disallowed because the Pentagon/military doesn't recognize same-sex partnerships.

This is ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as our military continuing to use the "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" rule.

Then, I read about further investigations into the US Attorney firings at the Justice Department, and how in at least one case, it looks very much like a highly qualified attorney was fired specifically because of rumors that she was gay. This part is especially telling:

The Justice Department's inspector general is looking into whether Hagen was dismissed after a rumor reached Goodling that Hagen is a lesbian.

As one Republican source put it, "To some people, that's even worse than being a Democrat."

Worse than being a Democrat. Is that how we want to run our country? By firing highly skilled professionals based on personal prejudices and then replacing them with less qualified partisan sycophants? I wouldn't want that to happen regardless of the political party that was doing it, period.

Gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in all levels and branches of the government and military, no exceptions. They're already there (and have always been), doing what they believe is their duty to their country, regardless of what the rules say. They should be judged for the positions applied for in the same manner as anyone: by their actual skills, records of service, etc--you know, qualifications for the job. Anything less is not only mean-spirited, it's short-sighted and detrimental to the improvement and safety of our country.

This sort of institutionalized discrimination should never be tolerated, especially so in a country founded on the idea that everyone should get a fair shake in life.

The finger pointing aftermath

Everybody seems to have something to say about the recent Gableman victory/Butler loss. Those of us who are more liberal leaning are justifiably unhappy about the situation, while some more conservative voices (though not all) are pretty pleased with the outcome. Fair enough--that's all pretty par for the course.

Things get interesting, though, mostly in the comments sections of various blogs. Hyperbole is running rampant, and lots of finger pointing is being done. Both sides of the debate are guilty of it, but what has especially caught my eye is the frequent refrain by certain conservative voices that "Butler lied about Gableman!" This is usually in reply to someone pointing out the many documented cases of the Gableman campaign and/or its supporters spreading falsehoods about Butler.

I don't fool myself into thinking that Butler's campaign came out squeaky clean in this mess of an election. Still, when I ask these voices to provide some evidence of these alleged lies about Gableman, I have so far been met with resounding silence.

The only thing I've been able to dig up on my own are stories about the Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC) airing an advertisement that critics say misrepresent his record and reversal rate. As far as I know, this is what all the commentators are referring to, so this is what I'll address.

From a press release issued by the Gableman campaign:

The new GWC television ad states, “And Gableman’s decisions are ruled incorrect and overturned by higher courts about 1/3 of the time.”

Judge Gableman’s actual record and reversal rate is as follows:

23,545 cases presided over.
44 cases have been appealed.
Of the 44 appealed cases:
23 cases affirmed.
13 cases dismissed.
6 cases reversed.
2 cases affirmed in part/reversed in part.

Judge Gableman has been reversed 6 times in 23,544 cases (.02%). Even of the 44 appealed cases, 77% of them have been affirmed and only 13% have been reversed – not 33% as the GWC falsely claims.
So is that the lie everyone's crowing about? Because if so, the issue isn't as cut and dry as all that. The 23,545 figure cited as the total number of cases presided over includes 8,800 uncontested traffic tickets. If you were to remove those cases from the total (which seems like a reasonable thing to do, especially since they were trying to frame the debate in terms of "criminal convictions"), that 33% figure seems somewhat less, well, untrue.

Maybe I'm missing something, though. What lies did Butler tell about Gableman? I'm open to being proven wrong. Again, I think both sides in the election comported themselves rather disgracefully (though I'm certain you can tell which side I think was worse). Still, the evidence seems to weight rather heavily against Gableman and his supporters, and I don't think trying to compare Butler's tactics to his is doing a whole lot to bolster the pro-Gableman cause.

In the end, if we're to continue electing our Supreme Court Justices, it would be extremely preferable to do so based solely on the merits and qualifications of the candidates. If we were to remove all of the attack ads, traffic tickets, moneyed business interests and partisan bickering from the equation, I think the outcome would be quite different.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I take voting seriously. I've voted in every election since I turned 18, from major presidential contests right on down to local races. I do this because I was raised to believe that voting is a right (not a privilege, as some would have you believe) afforded to me by the great struggles of the men and women who came before me. It's important. I don't get to whine about the state of things if I don't, at the very least, vote.

That said, it has been a very difficult near decade of voting for me. I realize I haven't been around the block quite so many times as some, and I have no intention to stop being involved in the political process, but damn it can be disappointing.

Take the first election I ever voted in: 2000. That pretty much sums up my voting experience up to the present day. Twice I've voted for presidential candidates that didn't win (granted, neither were particularly compelling, but I firmly believe either would have been a thousand times better than what we ended up with). I voted against the state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. Disappointment with how that turned out would be an understatement. There have been several other disappointing votes, too. And yesterday, I added one more when I voted for Louis Butler.

I am disappointed in the people who voted for Gableman, an ill-qualified candidate whose campaign preyed on people's fears and misunderstandings about what the title of Supreme Court Justice actually entails. But I'm angry, physically angry, at the Gableman campaign, and those shady special interests that ran dirty, wildly inaccurate and downright fallacious advertisements.

And now Gableman has the audacity to claim he ran a "positive campaign"? You've got to be fucking kidding me. Not only is this guy unqualified for the job he just bought, but he's apparently also completely delusional.

At this point, I'm not even sure what should happen next. We seem to be slowly but surely giving away our system of checks and balances in this state, allowing businesses to shape the laws in their favor, and limiting the ability of wronged parties to seek justice and redress. We've acted against our own self-interests, and when the time comes (and it will) that we need to seek legal recourse to right the wrongs committed against us, we'll hit a wall of our own making.

This isn't just because of this one vote, or any one vote. I won't give Gableman that much credit. It is, however, symptomatic of a much larger trend and problem--one we've been fighting since the beginning of time: money makes the rules. And if you don't got money, you're screwed.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Immigrant Punk

An interesting and somewhat troubling immigration case has recently bubbled to the surface here in Madison. Tope Awe, a Nigerian-born graduate student at the School of Pharmacy at the UW-Madison, was unexpectedly taken into custody by the Milwaukee office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week, and is now being held in the Dodge County Jail awaiting deportation.

According to the Capital Times:

Friends said she had gone to discuss her immigration status. Awe reportedly came to the United States with her family at age 3, and friends said she knows no one in Nigeria.

ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said Monday that Awe was an immigration fugitive with an outstanding removal order against her. Immigration fugitives typically do not have the right to a hearing before deportation, Montenegro said.

The 22-year-old student's father, Samuel Awe, lost an appeal for political asylum in 2003. That decision in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Samuel Awe's removal from his 1993-1995 stint as Nigeria's agriculture secretary, reportedly for not paying bribes to supervisors, and accusations that the frequent resident of the United States had ties to the CIA did not rise to the level of persecution.

Samuel Awe, his wife and three children were originally notified in 1998 that they had overstayed their visas, according to court documents. In denying Awe's appeal, the court granted the family voluntary departure to Nigeria.

Tope Awe was in custody Monday at the Dodge County Jail, which contracts with ICE. Also in custody was her brother, Oluwagbenga Awe, also seized on Thursday. He is a recent graduate of UW-Stevens Point and, according to family and friends, is married with a young child.

Samuel Awe and his wife, Julianah, live in the Milwaukee area where he is receiving medical treatment, according to published reports.
It's difficult to get a firm handle on the situation, as the details of the Awe's visa status are still murky. The family claims that the father's B-1/B-2 visa, for business and medical purposes, allows them to stay here until his treatment is finished. It is unclear, however, if 1) the visa applies to just Sam or to the whole family and 2) the visa is good until the completion of treatment. Sam Awe has kidney disease and has been undergoing treatment for it in Milwaukee for a number of years. I can't imagine he'd be able to get the same level of care if sent back to Nigeria.

Perhaps more confusing is Tope's student status. Having lived in Wisconsin for several years prior to enrolling both as an undergraduate at UW-Milwaukee and as a graduate student at UW-Madison, state residency was apparently not a problem to prove. But if the Awe's were notified in '98 that they were supposed to leave the country, how did they manage to stay on (and, for the children, attend state schools) for another 10 years? How did this never come up during enrollment?

Personally, I believe that anyone who has proven a commitment to being a contributing and law-abiding member of society should be granted permanent resident status. The Awe's seem to have done just that, but were instead rewarded with a denial of either an extension to their stay or a path to citizenship. Tope appears to have been an exemplary student, highly involved in campus life and advocacy while pursuing her studies. That she was asked to come in for a meeting to "regularize her residency status," voluntarily complied, and then simply arrested seems sketchy at best.

Still, all of the facts remain to be seen, and for better or for worse, the law is the law. So the trouble may be less that the law was enforced, and more that the law is broken.

This family clearly wanted to stay in the United States, and were, from what I've read, doing everything they could to do so legally. They paid taxes, registered cars, contributed to their communities, and plead their case all the way up to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals--only to meet with a door slammed in their faces. I can't blame them for fighting tooth and nail to stay here. Unfortunately, with the way the laws work now, they may have little to no recourse in this situation.

It is heartening to know that a significant number of Tope's fellow students and teachers are going to bat for her, pushing for her to be allowed to stay in the country at least until she graduates in 2009. An online petition has already garnered hundreds of responses, a number of UW officials are advocating for her, and state representatives have at least been contacted about the case.

This all just serves as yet another reminder of how complicated and dysfunctional our current immigration laws are. We really do need to find a way to get past all of the jingoism and knee-jerk reactions to the subject, and find a way to meaningfully debate and rework our policies. Policies that should have nothing to do with xenophobia and "dey took er jerbs!" style fear. We are, after all, a nation founded by immigrants (I'm talking about the nation founded long after the first inhabitants arrived here--which is a whole other story, of course). Ignoring that heritage, willfully or not, is hypocritical at best, dangerous at worst.
The Lost Albatross