Environmental Vigilantes

I just wrapped up an excellent New Yorker article about the environmental vigilante organization Sea Shepard and its leader Paul Watson. Watson is a charismatic and volatile character, with a rabid and, in some cases, famous group of followers. His methods are extremely questionable and it is difficult to tell whether or not his results are productive or counter-productive. However, his cause, it seems to me, is unquestioned. The plight of sea creatures due to over-fishing is very distressing and its hard to fathom just how much damage has been done.

Still, the lack of an international will which Watson rails against poses a difficult problem. What do you do when there is a tragedy occurring and no one is doing anything to stop it? As Watson states, its the "curse of the commons." Where there is no rule of law, no ownership, it's a free for all. It also highlights the utter inability of internationalism to address difficult problems and to stop those willing to defy international sentiment or treaties (as in Darfur).

Is vigilantism the right response? Is Watson justified in ramming whaling ships because no one else is willing to stop them?

There is a love affair with these types, a romanticism about guys like Watson (which is aided by the fact that he sounds like he walked right out of a Melville novel). However, as fascinating as the guy is, as true as his cause is, the wrong guy is leading the charge.

International management of the seas has failed miserably. It does not mean it is time for vigilantes. It means it is time for a new way. What is that way? Private ownership of the seas? The extension of national waters? I'm not sure. The lesson of Paul Watson is not that vigilantism is justified when the rule of law fails, it is that the current rule of law has failed and new rules need to be established.

The Golden Compass: Filmed and Dangerous

I was looking for early reviews of the film adaption of The Golden Compass, but have not found anything yet. Instead, I found this article decrying the film and the "insidious" possibility that the movie might lead children to read Philip Pullman's book, which promotes atheism and is resolutely anti-Christian.

I came upon The Golden Compass based on a recommendation by Christopher Hitchens (he recommends Pullman in this mixed review of Deathly Hallows (a book I enjoyed)). I picked up the book immediately and fell in love with the His Dark Materials series, which mixes fantasy, physics, and religion in a provocative and sprawling manner.

Since I first heard of the film adaption, I have been anticipating a backlash. I don't mind Christians taking issue with Pullman, or warning people that Pullman portrays Christianity as evil. However, I am disturbed by the idea that the film is dangerous because it could lead children to read the books.

One of the primary tenets of the series is an insistence on intellectual freedom and the book attack the Church for limiting that freedom. If you are afraid of people investigating the atheist ideas promoted in book, aren't you playing right into Pullman's criticism?

I guess you could say that Pullman could "tempt" and "mislead" people away from the "Truth" and from holiness and, as a result, warn people off the book. But, it also betrays a fear that ideas underpinning faith in a Christian God are so thin that exposure of these ideas to forceful attack might undermine people's faith. Of course, that is how the Church is portrayed in His Dark Materials, afraid of ideas and of where exposure of these ideas to the world might lead.

I have always believed that if your ideas can't survive thorough criticism and examination, then you may want to consider new ideas. Christians should be encouraging people to read The Golden Compass. If you are strong in your faith, you should easily be able to dismiss Pullman's arguments and provide counter-arguments.

In addition, I have problems with books and movies being attacked for promoting atheism. The Chronicles of Narnia promotes readership of the Bible, watching Schindler's List may promote interest in Judaism, watching Kundun may promote interest in Buddhism, and watching Malcolm X might promote interest in Islam. I never heard attacks on these films for these reasons. Why is atheism so different?

Support for Increased Legal Immigration

USA Today focuses on the problem of an aging population in North Dakota, citing immigration as a solution to the lack of workers there. The article also notes the considerable antagonistic sentiment toward immigrants amongst the locals. This sentiment has prevented factories from locating there for fear that they might attract illegals.

In America, immigration has long served as a way of providing an influx of new workers and creativity. There has been a persistent fear of immigrants over-running the culture and a history of waves of anti-immigration blowback. Today is just another example. The key is finding the best solution. Sound enforcement is part of it (eariler post here), but so is improving the legal immigration system.

In this case, North Dakota is a microsm of Philip Longman's depopulation problem. The best solution we have now to this problem is immigration. But why does it have to be a choice between illegal immigrants or a lack of workers? We should be bringing these factories in and filling these jobs, with legal immigrants. We should be making it easier for legal immigrants to get jobs here, bring their families here, and to become citizens here. In some places, our economy may depend on it.

Science Snark

Cosmic Variance links to a slam of a Gregg Easterbrook criticism of the CERN supercollider. The blogger, Chad Orzel, who takes on Easterbrook also mentions that he would prefer to see less funding go into less esoteric physics than deep particle physics. This comment in response to Orzel's post aptly summarizes my feelings about funding big esoteric science projects: they pay off in the long-run. However, the commenter does disparage the concept of a manned mission to Mars. Again, we need to spend money on supercolliders and on missions to Mars (our survival depends on it).

Ban the Bowls!

As the College Football season comes to a close, I again find myself extremely frustrated with its method of selecting champions. The BCS is a half-solution, its has ruined the tradition of the bowls without providing the satisfaction of a playoff. It's hard to understand how a playoff system has not been implemented. I would say a majority of fans are for it. It would bring far more cash and attention. Plus, it would be a heck of a lot fun. Until there is movement toward a playoff, I'm not going to watch the bowls. So, I encourage everyone to ban the bowls.

Winter Makes a Brief Return

A lake effect snow shower from Friday afternoon. All that snow is already gone.

Immigration: Just Because You're Paranoid...

Back in August, Mickey Kaus proclaimed that he was paranoid because he feared that the Bush Administration would crackdown on illegal immigrants in a manner that would generate animosity toward an enforcement-first policy:

Day In/Day Out wonders too. ... If it's option 2, of course, then Homeland Security might intentionally choose to enforce the law in as clumsy, heartless, and lawsuit-inspiring a fashion as possible, in order to create the maximum number of negative headlines. ... Certainly the case for the paranoid option (2) was enhanced by the LAT 's report on the crackdown, featuring bitter you-asked-for-it-now-you're-going-to-get-it quotes from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff:
Chertoff acknowledged. "There will be some unhappy consequences for the economy out of doing this," he said in an interview with The Times.Chertoff said he had little sympathy for businesses that hire illegal workers, saying they should have seen the crackdown coming after the Senate failed to pass immigration reform. "We have been crystal clear about what the consequences would be," he said. ...[snip]
Chertoff suggested that once the provisions had been in force for a while, Congress would see immigration reform in a different light."Everybody who criticized comprehensive immigration reform for being too complex, maybe now they're going to realize it's complex because there are a lot of interconnected pieces to this and when you try to deal with only one corner of it, you wind up with a huge impact on something else," he said. [E.A.] Link

This All Things Considered report from last night provides evidence that the Bush Administration is conducting itself in just the "clumsy, heartless, and lawsuit-inspiring" manner which had concerned Kaus.

I support the "Enforcement First" policy and would also like to barriers knocked down to legal immigration, but I think the type of enforcement being described by NPR is not what opponents of "comprehensive immigration" had in mind. I think this policy will posion our reputation in Latino countries and further disillusion those who already are unhappy with our government. But, I don't think it will be enough to push support for comprehensive reform over the top. I guess its Mutally Assured Destruction, except that nobody will come to their senses at the last second and take their finger off the button.


I've never been opposed to prayer in school, as long as there is equal time. Well, someone has taken that idea further than I ever thought possible. Here is a link to a new kind of church. More on the church from Wired here and here.

Related Post here.

Suggested Onion Headline

Al-Qaeda Scrambles to Fill Anti-War Propaganda Void Left by Writers Strike

Kaus's Rotting Fields

Morning Edition started a series on the economy this week, highlighting the impact of the slowdown on regular people. Yesterday, the story focused on a developer. This morning, the story focused on a tree grower in California. Sales of fruit trees are slowing, which in the story is attributed to the crackdown on illegal immigration, which is resulting in shortage of workers to harvest the fruit. Apparently, NRP is on-board with the crops-rotting meme Mickey Kaus had predicted would catch on. The meme is referenced in a couple of posts on this link.

The Morning Edition series quickly took a turn from the subprime mortgage fiasco to story stealthily bashing the immigration crackdown. The subprime problem is trouble for the macro-economy, but is a fall in sales of fruit trees a sign of an impending marco-economic funk? I'm not so sure.


U of M Vacancy

As a Grand Valley State grad, I am heartened by the rumors that former GVSU coach Brian Kelly may be in consideration for the Michigan job. After MSU passed over Kelly and he went to Cinncinnatti, I didn't think he would be connected to a Big Ten position for awhile. His quick success this year may just put him in the Big House. I'm crossing my fingers.


Newsweek's has a cover story about the new Amazon Kindle. While the article raises the profile of moving to e-books higher than I ever remember seeing before, it doesn't appear to me that the Kindle will be catch on like the iPod and make e-books mainstream (yet). Kevin Kelly confirms my initial impression of the Kindle (from the photos on the Amazon) in this post. He said it lacks the "charisma of a Steve Jobs creation."

As I alluded to in my previous post, I think we're heading for an age of constant learning through technology and e-books will be a key part of it. I used to have nostalgia for my cd collection. Since I have been using my iPod, I've grown frustrated with my library of books. I am ready for the portable "universal" library, but I think I'd rather buy an iPod Touch to use for reading instead of a Kindle.

Of course, I was skeptical of the iPod until I finally bought one.

UPDATE: Slashdot links to a Forbes article discussing the possibility that Amazon may have already been outflanked by the iPhone.

MORE UPDATES: Cory Doctorow covers the regressive side of the Kindle here.

The Information Sponge

In Charles Stross's Accelerando, the main character Manfred Macx is constantly interfacing with the Internet and consuming a constant stream of information. In fact, this is the crux of the first part of the book, how Macx is both interacting both inside and outside of the Internet simultaneously.
I think we are very close to living in world populated by Macxes. In fact, I am one of them, an information sponge. The thing that has brought me over the edge is my iPod, and the iPod's method of accomplishing this is the podcast. With podcasts, I have been able to take those empty spaces in my day, the non-prodcutive ones, and make them extremely productive. If I'm cleaning the dishes, moving things upstairs, working-out, walking from my car to the grocery store, I try to listen to something, to consume new information.
It has been a revelation. I did not realize just how empty and frustrating those empty spaces were until I started filling them. Now, I want to fill them all, to make them productive, to constantly be learning.
The iPod is powerful not just because it synthesizes so many dissaparte forms of information in one simple technology, but because it is so portable. Once I get out of the car, I have to leave the radio there. But, as long as the iPod is charged, it is available and it can fill those mindless moments when I am by myself.
I can not express how much I value my iPod. It started by freeing my music collection from it static place on the wall and it has evolved into so much more.
The strange thing is that it is just the beginning.

A Modest Proposal: Stimulating Colonization of Space through Tax Shelters

As a liberal, I identify with the instinct of examining humanity's past behavior and fretting over our capacity for brutality. In fact, I once sent a letter to Grand Valley State's newspaper outlining how America was founded in a double original sin, slavery and the systematic killing of Native Americans and destruction of their culture. This letter was sent in response to the persistent writings of another student who decried the moral direction of our culture and longed for a return to America's more gloried past.

But, even for a liberal, there has to be a point where you come in from the cold and choose to recognize that despite these flaws, the mission of America is a liberal one and humanity, at bottom, has qualities worth valuing. Otherwise, there is only nihilism and self-loathing.
Many (in fact, possibly a growing number) seem to value nihilism and self-loathing. Over the past year, I have encountered a strange sentiment, "the world would be better off without us." Until I googled "human extinction," I did not realize there was a movement called "VHEMT" seriously (at least according to their claim) advocating this. There was also Alan Weisman's recent book outlining the aftermath of human extinction.

Unlike the "VHEMT" movement, I am deeply disturbed by this prospect, as is Stephen Hawking. And like Stephen Hawking, I think space colonization is essential for our future survival. The one scenario that disturbs me most is not global warming, or an asteroid, but the concept that as technology has progressed it takes fewer and fewer people to cause massive destruction. Someday, we will reach the point where one person will be able to bring about the end of us all. The only way to avoid this is make sure we are not all here, on one planet vulnerable to the whims of a single idiot. But, we are not moving fast enough to avoid this "single idiot" scenario.

I know that the private space industry is just getting revved up, but I feel like we need further incentive. One thing I think should be considered is the promise of free property on the Moon and Mars and also the guarantee of long-term extra-terrestial tax shelters, possibly on the order of multiple centuries. Due to the risk involved, I believe we must increase the rewards. If you locate your company on the moon, it will not be taxed for 300-years. If you conduct business on the Moon, you will not be taxed. If you own land on the Moon, you will not be taxed.
The promise of property and freedom from taxes, this drove people to America. It has also attracted many with entrepreneurial spirit. Why not carry on the American idea into space? Why not foster that spirit there?

Turtle Fence

Left: Underneath the US 31 Drawbridge in Grand Haven.

The recent imbroglio over the "Turtle Fence" on U.S. 31 here in Muskegon, MI has brought to light an issue I evolved a lot on over the years: infrastructure. Rep. Pete Hoekstra recently railed against the $318,000 Turtle Fence designed to protect turtles which migrate across the highway as it passes through the Muskegon River lowlands. Really, this type of thing does not upset me. In fact, I think it will be a growing trend, and a fence is cheaper than other solutions being proposed to protect wildlife.

Living in Grand Haven, the limits of our current infrastructure are an on-going concern. In Ottawa County, there are only three bridges crossing a major river (The Grand). Grand Haven has one bridge, the US 31 drawbridge, and on some days, it can be a nightmare. There is a proposal to build a bypass, but its has been in the works for nearly two decades. I have been marginally involved in seeing its planning, as a reporter and as an employee of Ottawa County.

Despite those who would rather see the Turtle Fence than the US 31 Bypass (here), I would have liked to have seen a new bridge completed years ago. At some point, the lack of a second bridge could become a major detriment to the local economy here. While the growth has slowed due to the housing crash, things will bounce back. A return to increased growth will bring back the traffic. Someday, the drawbridge will become a severe disincentive to visiting or living in the area.

I doubt the delay in the US 31 bypass is a unique situation. In fact, I think the lack of investment in repairing old infrastructure and creating new infrastructure is endemic. The Mississippi River bridge collapse was a wake-up call. As Nicole Gelinas points out (here), we are wasting our inheritance.

There are many culprits in this lack of attention to our infrastructure, funding is one. The focus on earmarks has led to infrastructure investment, but many of these are poorly-justified pork projects. I've seen the earmark process at work. During the last transportation bill, every house district was promised funding for "high priority projects." Hoekstra was taking applications for these projects from local and county governments. While Hoekstra did secure some funding for the bypass (as an earmark), I find the whole system to be a farce. Why is each congressman deciding which specific projects get funding? This mentality led to the "Porkbuster" revolt. I believe sensible allocation of funding is needed to truly begin addressing infrastructure problems.

Even if the funding issue is solved, more reform is needed before we begin building new roads in a timely fashion. The NEPA/404 law is a major obstacle in the road planning and building process. It has tipped the balance too much toward the environment and does not take economic needs into account enough. It requires too much public input and too much study, drawing out the process and making it more expensive. We do not need to stop building roads, we need better ways of integrating roads with their surroundings (such as turtle fences). But, the NEPA/404 process bogs down everything and limits options for placing road in a locations that make sense. Locally, I know the Village of Spring Lake has called for a bypass and bridge closer to current drawbridge, but MDOT says it is impossible due to the wetlands. If we allocated some money toward investigating better technology for building roads and better ways or mitigating wetland and wildlife impacts, I think we would be much better off than what we have been given by the NEPA/404 law. I've watched it in action, it is a convoluted and frustrating process.

It's a gloomy situation. I've sat through County Road Commission and seen them wring their hands over the many needs they can only marginally adress with strained funding. I've also seen how road investment can improve safety and the look of a whole town (M-45 in Allendale is a wonderful example). But that type of improvement is not frequent enough.

Fix the roads. Build new roads. As Glenn Reynolds would say, faster please.

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Failing the Turing Test (Nov. 16th, 2007): Democratic Congress

Harry Reid and the Democratic Congress fail the Turing Test this week by maintaining their robotic effort to place a withdrawl timetable in the latest war spending bill, just as the tide really seems to be turning.

Depopulation: Immentient Diaster?

The conventional wisdom for a long time has been that population is going to explode and we are going to drown in people. However, for awhile now, there has been increasing belief that population will reach a peak at around 9 billion and then start to decline, (this chart shows and projects the slow down in growth). Despite these trends and projections, I still hear many people talking about overpopulation, or about population control or reduction.

However, while many people are still concerned about overpopulation, they are experts warning of the disaster that could result from depopulation. Philip Longman is a prominent example. He has spoken at Seminars About Long-Term Thinking (SALT)(sponsored by The Long Now) and has been discussed over at The Weekly Standard (which covered the topic again recently here). In his SALT talk, Longman paints a distressing picture of the consequences of falling birth rates, bulging aged populations, overspent governments, economies strained to the breaking points, and the rise of anti-secular groups which promote fertility.

The statistics hold up in my mind. A low fertility is the hallmark of industrialized nations and its a statistic I've touted in arguments for free trade. Low fertility is also a hallmark of increased freedom for women.

But, could these rights be our doom?

At a gut level, I can't buy-in. The long-term benefits of having one-half of the population now fully participating in society in the economy, I think, are essential. If we restrict ourselves to half our potential creative output, I think we lose in the long-run. But, besides a gut-feeling, what is the counter-trend to overwhelming pull of demographic deflation?

I recently listened to a Singularity Summit Podcast of Ray Kurzweil discussing seeing Al Gore's global warming charts and being frustrated that Gore had not factored in technological advances. I think Longman is missing out on the same principle. Some researcher have shown that job loss is due more to productivity than to outsourcing. Technological advances are slashing the workforce needed to carry the economy. This trend will continue and may accelerate.

In addition, as Rodney Brooks stated at The Singularity Summit 2007 (another podcast), market pressures will fuel innovative (and automated) solutions to growing problem of caring for an aging population. In addition, with advances in health care may extend life and make people a viable part of the workforce for a longer period.

So, if all goes well, at 55 I will be worrying about the next twenty years of my working life rather than retirement (and I will barely remember depopulation concerns).

Why are Americans Unhappy with Doctors and Pharmaceutical Companies?

Dissatisfaction with health care seems to be taken as a given these days, with Sicko (which I have not seen yet) as a seminal example. Glenn Reynolds has presented strong arguments in favor of not taking how good we actually have it for granted, both from personal experience and as a commentator. In addition, he has done good work presenting views opposing nationalized health care and pointing out the hypocrisy of those who support it.

I am now deeply concerned about the potential for nationalized health care. In my family, we have lived with conditions that are persistent, but are not easy to treat or diagnose. As a result, we have been through a lot of expensive tests, nights at the hospital, and a lot of prescriptions. Through all this, we have had little trouble with our insurance. In fact, I'm sure we've exceeded our paycheck co-pay almost every year. Under a nationalized health system, I'm not sure things would have a gone as a smoothly (at least as far as getting timely access to tests and getting covered by insurance for these tests).

But, I think this experience has also highlighted some of the troubles with the health care system. We have had some great, caring doctors, but we have also had some arrogant, demeaning doctors. In fact, one doctor refused to recognize symptoms we had brought to him regarding one of our conditions. In the end, we later discovered that there was significant literature out there on these symptoms. The doctor either was unaware of this literature or refused to inform us that it was out there. Either way, I am still deeply frustrated about that situation.

As far as pharmaceuticals, I think doctors share some of the blame for the discontent with "Big Pharma." Just as anti-biotics may have been over-prescribed, I think drugs are sometimes prescribed or continue to be prescribed when they are obviously not effective. In our case, we have moved from one drug to another and been told that it is unlikely statistically that any will work, yet the doctors insist that that they still be part of the treatment. I wonder sometimes if doctors are protecting themselves (from potential future litigation) or are afraid to abandon the consensus treatment. I imagine that our case is not unique. While drug companies are not to blame for this situation, its hard to not be skeptical the next time you receive a prescription.

One helpful equalizer in all this, I think, is the Internet. In some cases, when we have received sketchy information from our doctors, the Web has made up for the holes. It is not easy to find good information, but it's getting easier. Podcasting has been extremely helpful. If you can select good institutions to get information from and make sure you're reading peer reviewed science-based health information. In the future, with health care demand increasing, its unlikely that doctors will have more time to spend with patients. I think that this will require patients to be partners in their care and it is their responsibility to learn what they can about their health.

Another point: Where doctors often run into trouble is treating the conditions they do not have a strong understanding of. The drugs and the treatments are a shot in the dark. I think as time goes on, they will be less and less that is unknown and that the drugs will be more effective and more targeted. So, time may take care of some of the dissatisfaction with health care.

One of My Favorite Films: The one that everybody apparently hates

Well, here I go into the undiscovered country, with my first post.

They are a few things that I fell in love with instantly when I first encountered them. My wife, my children. Infinite Jest, Twin Peaks, The Diamond Age, Steve Reich's music. One of those things was definitely Rushmore. I connected with Wes Anderson's sensibility instantly. The most enjoyable art for me, without fail, conjures a world that I would love to live in.

As much as I loved Rushmore, I loved The Life Aquatic even more so. The David Bowie music in Porteguese, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, the boat, and the sea creatures. It is the perfect movie, sublime. Apparently, I was one of the few who thought this.

Suddenly, it seems as if Wes Anderson's career started to parallel the life of his character's: the talented savant who has run out of gas. At least according to MSM articles I encountered. Slate.com has numerous examples, from David Edelstein's mixed review to the Jonah Weiner's takedown of the Anderson oeuvre (BTW, I think there is space to connect the sensibility of Wes Anderson to the sensibility of indie rockers. In that fashion, the Jonah Weiner piece is reminiscent of Sasha Frere-Jones's piece in the New Yorker slagging the Arcade Fire for being too white. I don't agree for one, Haiti comes to mind as one counter-example. I don't care whether or not you like the Arcade Fire or indie rock, but is it really necessary to dream up a race-based meta-narrative that indie rock bugs you because it doesn't lift rifts from Muddy Waters? I can envision the day where Neighborhood or Intervention is sampled for a rap song. Then maybe indie rock will be released, I guess. Hey, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk are about as "white" as you can get, but they were beloved by the Hip-Hop community. The common thread with these critiques is that I am left wondering what the artists should do instead. Yes, I do agree that one could read a classic kind of racist undertone to Darjeeling Limited, but I'm not sure how the Wes Anderson movie is written that does not include upper-class white people with everyone else as a back-drop. I'm not sure what the Wes Anderson's Crash would look-like (I do know how Arcade Fire's Crash would sound, its called Rattle and Hum(in fact, U2 first three albums sound whiter than anything by Arcade Fire. U2 tried so earnestly to incorporate that American roots sound that it nearly destroyed and they become viewed as ultra-pompous. Ironically, they were revived by rediscovering themselves in Germany and the Middle East)).

Wes Anderson is too cute, too white, too self-conscious, or too un-self conscious. The consensus has been forming for awhile. It kind of hard to see someone who has such a distinct, forceful, and inventive take such a beating. Especially when I share that view and that sense of humor. But, I am cheered by some searching I did this evening, there is an idiosyncratic Life Aquatic fan-site and a great Wes Anderson fan-site with spectacular Halloween costumes. Despite the hating, I have a feeling that Wes Anderson's movies will emerge in twenty years as seminal films.

P.S. This article on Slate puzzles over Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson doing a mock Charlie Rose interview. It fails to mention that the same type of parody occurs on the Royal Tenenbaums DVD. Did Charlie Rose rub Wes Anderson the wrong way or something?