Ethanol is Not the Answer!

I listen to a lot of NPR, so, needless to say, I’ve been deluged lately with debates about energy prices, energy crises, and possible solutions to both. I also keep hearing a lot about ethanol, and that drives me crazy.

A lot of people are worried because the corn being consumed to produce ethanol is putting a strain on the supply, and driving up the price of corn-based foods (which, in America, seems to be nearly everything). As a result, there are scientists and politicians talking about alternative sources of ethanol.

To me, this is like talking about finding alternate sources of crude oil: it’s a stupid and short-sighted thought. What we need is to phase out fossil fuels altogether, not dig up Alaska or Russia or China or wherever to find more of them; and, in the same vein, what we need is to stop thinking about ethanol altogether, not try to find better ways to produce it!

I’ve got two major problems with ethanol. First, since it’s based on corn, it is inevitably a carbon-based fuel. And since it’s carbon based, basic chemistry will tell you that any products of its combustion will contain carbon dioxide. Seeing as the human race may have already signed its own death warrant, even if we stop pumpin greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, I think it’s missing the point somewhat to talk about another carbon-based combustion fuel.

Secondly, with the world and the world economy in the state that they’re in, is it really wise to put any more strain on the food supply? With the economy in the toilet and food prices already in the stratosphere, it seems idiotic to me to make it any harder for the poor — in this country and abroad — to afford food.

I also have a third problem with ethanol, and this is the one that irritates me the most: it’s a pretend solution. People who buy ethanol, and politicians who support ethanol, do so primarily to feel like they’re doing something about global warming. But they’re not really doing anything to make the energy economy more carbon-indepenent. To me, ethanol is a solution (a crappy one at best, and at worst, not a solution at all) chosen by rich white people who aren’t willing to take the drastic mesaures needed to keep Homo sapiens sapiens off the endangered species list.

Those are my thoughts.

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Yahoo and Google: Uh-Oh…

I’m sure there aren’t many nerds out there who haven’t heard about Microsoft’s many attempts to buy Google in a bid to break into the search-engine market. Fortunately, up until now, Yahoo has refused, but this time, they’ve only gone as far as saying the business equivalent of “no comment.”

I’ve lamented these kinds of unholy unions before (for example, when Google bought Youtube), and in my (somewhat limited) experience, they never turn out well. When one company buys another, it usually has something very sinister in mind, and I’ve learned that that goes doubly so for Microsoft.

Not that I give a damn about Yahoo. I’ve been a member of the “cult of Google” for some years now. But, still, if Microsoft and Yahoo get together, who knows what kind of market-gobbling, grotesquely-deformed progeny might result? What next, will Microsoft be working busily to make Yahoo Search harder and harder to use, all the while being secretive and difficult and overcharging for everything? Will they try to get their hands on Google, too?

I’m aware that this is rather paranoid, but I assure you, that I am not (literally or metaphorically) wearing a foil helmet as I type this. I believe that there is a legitimate concern to be had in the monopolization of such a large horizontal slice of the information-technology market by one juggernaut corporation. If they get their fingers in too many pies (that’s a very odd expression, if you think about it), it seems that Microsoft wouldn’t have too much trouble subduing or at least delaying the open-source revolution so many of us tech-nerds have been dreaming of for so long. And what’s more, in a monopolized market, there is the obvious fact that the monopolist can charge exorbitant prices for crappy products.

Those are my thoughts. Take from them what you will. (That was my melodrama; do with it what you like).

Environmental “Protection” Agency

Since I was young, I’ve always been something of an environmentalist. I haven’t been a passionate environmentalist for years, and here’s why: I gave up. I eventually realized that a government will enact environmental legislation only when it serves them to do so, and that they’ll ignore it when whatever crisis they were protecting themselves against has passed.

It’s a lucky thing I’m not passionate anymore, because if I were, then I would be up in arms right now, yelling in the streets. And nobody wants that.

Here’s what’s gotten under my skin lately: very recently, California attempted to pass environmental regulations much tougher than those mandated nationwide. As California is one of the most polluted states and, paradoxically, one of the most environmentally-conscious — they were the ones, after all, who mandated a quota of zero-emissions (electric) vehicles, before the industry shut them down — this would seem rather logical. And, of course, logic and government don’t mix well, so something went wrong.

I suppose I should learn to expect such things, in this age of do-nothing, get-out-before-the-ship-sinks government, but what happened surprised even cynical old me: the EPA overruled California. Yes, that’s right, I said the EPA. Those letters used to stand for “Environmental Protection Agency.” Given their recent actions, I would recommend we change their meaning to something more appropriate, preferably with a couple of expletives in there. My suggestion is “Excessively Petty Assholes.”

Many will no doubt think this judgment too harsh, but my sordid tale is not finished. California’s regulations were put in place because Californians complain that global warming threatens their water supplies, their agricultures, and — given the increased incidence of forest fires that warming brings — their population. The EPA’s response? “Not on your life!” The EPA actually attempted to claim that there was not a credible threat to justify such harsh local environmental regulations. What!?!? California, as a coastal state, will probably be one of the first states to face a credible threat from global warming. Hell, they’ve already faced a credible threat from global warming! Didn’t they have a terrible fire a few weeks ago?!

It gets worse. The EPA also said that global warming regulations should be nationwide, not local. Right. Because those nationwide regulations were getting passed in a real damned hurry. To me, this looks suspiciously like the current do-nothing administration just buying time until they can inflate their golden parachutes. I just hope that when the forests star to slowly burn away, the coastlines flood and erode as the icecaps melt, the North Atlantic current breaks down, freezing Britain under an ice-age glacier, and the water-shortage wars in Africa and the Middle East spread worldwide, that the fifty years of environmentally-ignorant politicians we’ve suffered through are mostly still alive, so that with whatever breath the toxic atmosphere will allow us, we can all point and laugh at them.

Hm…that was a bit cynical even for me. Note to self: don’t write any more posts early in the morning.

Beware of The Ministries

It’s a common theme in dystopian fiction, from Orwell’s 1984 (and probably before that) to the present day (for example, the Half-Life series): in a terrible future (or present), society is controlled by an interlocking network of “Ministries,” and in some instances, a single omniscient Ministry. This Ministry (or Ministries) are responsible for the provision of all food, entertainment, news, et cetera. The citizens are so utterly dependent on these Ministries, and so blindly trusting of them, that they are completely and utterly unable to operate without them, which is why it inevitably requires a grizzled action hero to rouse them from their mental slumber.

By this point, readers are probably wondering what the point of all this is. Well, here it is. You think all these Ministry-based plots are fiction? Think again.

You see, we’re currently facing a dreadful trifecta of Ministries that is soon to fulfill all of our basic needs, leaving us so brain-dead and utterly dependent that we’re incapable of independent action or thought. They are:

  • The Ministry of Truth (yes, I’m quoting Orwell again. Deal with it): Google and Wikipedia seem to have pretty much cornered the market on knowledge, as far as your average Internet consumer is concerned. My Science and Society professor just yesterday referenced Wikipedia (a notoriously un-neutral and inaccurate source for something calling itself an “encyclopedia”) in a lecture about the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem! A spiritual topic that is just about as hotly- and angrily-debated as whether evolution should be taught in public schools. And he trusted Wikipedia, of all sources, to be his unbiased provider of information. The encyclopedia that anyone, including (especially) angry zealots (on both sides of the issue) can edit! Now, I must admit that I myself am not innocent in this regard: Google is essentially a sort of personal Deity. I’m not even certain that I know how to find information any other way any more, and when Google the Omniscient fails to provide the answers I’m looking for, I’m about as helpless as an overturned tortoise with Krazy Glue on its back.
  • The Ministry of Plenty: When was the last time you were in a grocery store that didn’t sell every product imaginable? Last week, I went to Target to buy a sweater, and later complained to someone that I’d forgotten to buy some vital food item or other at the grocer’s. This person then gleefully informed me that they do in fact carry that item at Target. I went back later, and, sure enough, Target has a grocery section! Okay. So, in addition to not knowing how to find reasonably unbiased information any more, now I have no idea where to get food, clothing, and novelty erotic items if they’re not all housed in the same store. Terrific.
  • The Ministry of Love: I struggled to find an Orwellian correlate to the ministry in 1984 responsible for torture, but I’m such a committed 1984 freak that I actually found a way. Now, I was going to lump the rapidly-condensing news media into the aforementioned Ministry of Truth, but given the fact that I’ve actually seen contemporary television, I’m convinced that it’s no longer intended for entertainment, but for the torture of people who enjoy independent films and occasional treks off the couch. After all, how many reality shows have cropped up (or spawned like the deformed, demonic, parasitic insects that they are) in the last year or so? I can’t count them, mainly because that would require keeping up with them, which would almost certainly sap my rapidly-waning will to live. And network news? Well, actually, its proper title is “network news crappy hackneyed sob-stories pregnant with thinly-disguised political agendas.” And when I say pregnant, I mean pregnant. Okay, well, maybe services like the BBC, CNN, and NPR are only “a little bit pregnant,” but an outlet like, say, Fox news, is about as pregnant as that enormous and disgusting insect queen, distended with writhing larvae, that the sci-fi hero has to defeat with a grenade, producing suitably disgusting splattery results. I know that’s a long simile, but I take every opportunity to make peculiar and often repulsive cultural references. Anyway, Fox is pregnant with agendas. It’s annoying. Annoying rapidly becomes torture when the reporters actually pretend to be sincere about what they’re saying. I mean, come on! I’m not that bright — the Internet and television have seen to that — but I’m not that stupid (at least not yet; not until I start watching American Idol).

So, we basically have all the non-life-affirming Ministries of 1984, and there is no doubt a Big Brother figure soon to emerge as the “beneficient”, omniscient ruler of them all. But that remains to be seen. In the meantime, we are rapidly becoming (if we’re not already) the dependent Ministry-junkies that are featured in every aforementioned dystopian tale. And I know that I brought quite a lot of sardonic humor to the above descriptions, but I stand by them as serious warnings, too. Think about it. Don’t get dependent. The only thing that will save you is independent thought. Use a real (paper) encyclopedia occasionally (if you can find one). Search with another search engine. And for Google’s sake, don’t find that other search engine by Googling “search engine”!!! Or, even worse, go to a library. You remember libraries, right? Well, you will if you were born before 1988.

More food for thought, as always.

“Look at That!” Part 1

This begins a multipart series about facts and images that really grab my attention (thus the title). These happen to be scattered far and wide across the vast jungle of the Internet, so I thought I’d collect some of them into one place. Here goes!

I love this picture (and no, not because my mind is in the gutter). It so grabs the attention that it’s practically impossible to simply pass it by. And once it’s grabbed your attention, you have no choice but to consider its message: the fundamental entanglement of liberty and justice. (Credit: http://www.mindpollen.com)

Mother nature takes revenge.

I’m willing to have a drink with whoever did this.

I generally hate advertising, but I have to admit, this is really creative.

I’ll post Part 2 as soon as I can collect enough images. Any uncredited images were found through http://thefunniest.info.

AT&T: The Evil Empire

Since earlier this year, the telecommunications company AT&T has been expanding at an alarming rate. First, they absorbed Bell South. Next, they assimilated Cingular. Now, they hold the exclusive rights to the iPhone’s network. And yet, even though I listen to enough liberal radio to kill a horse, I haven’t heard a single outcry about this. Somebody has to say something. I guess that’s me, now.

Now, I don’t know just how far AT&T is planning to take this, and perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but it certainly seems that “The Evil Empire” — as I call it — is heading very quickly for monopoly territory. This makes me quite nervous.

First of all, in a monopoly, there is no competition, so there is no reason to set prices at a competitive rate. After all. in a monopoly situation, there is no competition. And since the only viable telecom network is the one that covers a majority of the service area, even if AT&T doesn’t take over every other provider, they’ll still have an effective monopoly, being the only ones that can provide broad-ranging coverage.

Secondly, if AT&T goes monopolistic, then there will be no reason for them to maintain any standard of quality. After all, with no real competition, they have no reason to spare the expense. Who else could their customers go to?

But perhaps the most frightening — and admittedly most paranoid — of the possibilities, should AT&T consume the whole market, is the potential for the abuse of democracy. The Internet is one of the most democratic media of exchange on Earth, and has been since its inception. However, who’s to say how this might change if one company has control over all the Internet access routes? I myself access the Web through a DSL modem now run by AT&T (it wasn’t my idea; when I signed up it was still Bell South). Suppose they didn’t like what I was writing about them. “Oops, Mr. Asymptote, it looks like your phone line has suffered some sort of inexplicable catastrophic failure.”

Think about it.

The Beginning of the End of Free Speech

I made the mistake of listening to the news again…well, at least I got a blog post out of it.

 This week, the Supreme Court (which now has a conservative majority, with John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito on the bench) handed down two decisions that further undermined the American democracy.

In the first decision, the court decided to overturn a precedent set some years back. This precedent held that corporate and union funding of particular political candidates was not a form of free speech, and therefore was not protected by the First Amendment. Well, it was nice while it lasted. Now, corporations, unions, and interest groups can run as many advertisements as they want for a candidate, the only constraint being that they must not use the phrase “Vote for this candidate.” Somehow, I don’t think being unable to come out and say it explicitly is going to stop the corrupt corporate money from influencing the outcome of elections.

With this piece of legislation, some of my greatest fears have been realized. The automotive lobby will now have a much easier time trying to weed out potentially environmentally-conscious candidaes. The insurance lobby will be able to eliminate candidates who support universal healthcare. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now we’re going to be swamped by even more political advertisements than before. By the end of election season, I’m pretty sure I will have gouged my own eyes out.

The second decision to which I referred was, in my mind at least, a greater blow to American political freedoms. The supreme court upheld a decision by a lower court limiting the free-speech rights of students in cases where those rights contradict the policies of the student’s school. This followed on the heels of a court battle that erupted when a student displayed a banner reading “Bong hits 4 Jesus.”

To many people, this may seem completely insignificant. But to someone who was a public-school student not so long ago, this is a terrible blow. For the latter half of my school career, I became more and more annoyed at the serious suppression of the constitutional rights of young people. We were treated like second-class citizens, if we were considered citizens at all. We were continually subjected to meaningless and unfair rules. Every day, we were reminded that we didn’t have any right to free speech, or any right to peacably assemble. It was intolerable.

Now, admittedly, many students would, given these freedoms, simply make trouble. But it’s still not fair to suppress all the students, many of whom are politically conscious and actively want these rights. Now, though, the suppression has gotten even worse. Students are going to feel more and more like their school is a totalitarian prison, which I’m sure many of them already do. How is this conducive to education.

What’s worse, though, is the possibility of government-sanctioned silencing of what is often the most politically-active sector of a society: the young. The young are our only hope for change, for progress, but that isn’t going to happen. Not if we condition them to get used to a system in which they have no rights.

This may seem a bit extreme, and probably quite paranoid, but as usual, it’s just food for thought…