New pictures at VB Adventures

Posted in Travel at 8:39 by RjZ

Check out all the new pictures at VB Adventures. Françoise, my travel partner, has decided to post pictures of all the places we’ve been (at least all the ones we can find pictures for.) It’s a satisfyingly long list, but then there’s so much more to see!

Travel is one the things I write about here, so if you see something interesting, don’t hesitate to let me know; maybe I’ve got a story about it.

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Vermin Brewing – Mascots

Posted in at 8:36 by RjZ

Don’t miss new rat mascot pictures at Vermin Brewing – Mascots. Oh, and the black and tan label is posted too….

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Trade one addiction for another

Posted in Reviews at 20:02 by RjZ

James Frey was 23 and he had already been an alcoholic for 10 years and a crack addict for three. His memoir of six weeks in recovery, A Million Little Pieces, tells an unexpected story. In an unusual, clipped and scattered style, without traditional punctuation or chapters, it seems like he’s written down a sentence at a time on tiny slips of paper and assembled them later. The reader gets to pick of the scraps of Frey’s life very quickly and build a picture with increasing clarity as Frey gains that clarity himself. I’m not sure it’s great writing and I often wonder about the details of the story, but that’s not what interests me about the book (even if it is what seems to captured reviewers imaginations.) Frey doesn’t repeat the usual success story of following the 12 steps to recovery because following the 12 steps [also read Wikipedia's entry], for Frey, is about trading one addiction for another.

Instead Frey completely owns his failures and his success. When psychologists at the clinic tell him the chances against him are a million to one if he doesn’t follow the 12 step program which would require him to give up control of his life to a higher power. Frey responds that he’ll take that chance since it’s the only one he has; he cannot believe in a higher power. What will you do if you’re faced with a choice to drink or not drink? I will choose not to, he responds.

I often tell a story about how, when I was younger I was depressed. Not just sad, but what would probably be considered clinically depressed. It’s not a very interesting story so I won’t bore you hear, but I stopped being depressed by suddenly realizing that it was my choice alone and saying “I don’t want to be depressed anymore.” Often when I describe that story it’s not very satisfying to me or the listener. There’s nothing more to it than a statement. Reading Frey’s tale which is many orders of magnitude more overwhelming than my insignificant late teenage depression we still hear the same solution. “I’ll choose not to.” Not very satisfying, perhaps, but if you get it, amazing.

Frey describes with deadpan strength how he has finally decided to live. I try to live this way too, but I am not faced with the choices he is. He is told by the medical examiners that, thanks to the abuse his body has already endured, if he drinks or smokes crack ever again he will likely die. And still he chooses to ignore the advice of those caring for him and face his addictions head on without hiding behind blame, genetics or God.

Skepticality should interview James Frey. The Infidel Guy should interview James Frey. He is living proof that a rational philosophy can succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges. Is it right for everyone? Frey never says so, but with him around I’ve got a lot more justification for my world-view and at least one compelling argument that faith in a higher power is not the only path to salvation.

Apparently, while Frey seems to have come to his solution to addiction on his own, it’s not a new idea. Check out Rational Recovery for more info.

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Birth of the Cool

Posted in Reviews at 17:00 by RjZ

Lewis MacAdams’ claim to coolness is that he’s a well known poet who followed beat poet Gregory Corso around and writes for Rolling Stone and others. In any event, he’s a fine journalist and in Birth of the Cool we get a sweeping history of cool. MacAdams covers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; runs through Kerouac and Burroughs; visits Pollack and ends at Andy Warhol. The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.

Actually, though it was kind of cool and one does get a sense that what cool is, is the detachment from what seems important to everyone else mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway. The book is a history of the not so distant past. Putting all the names of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers in their temporal place is a great way to understand and appreciate what’s cool. It’s worth knowing who’s who and when so we can appreciate them a bit better even if looking at their actions right now we might not think they’re so cool anymore.

I particularly enjoy the story of the first performance of John Cage’s 4′33″. That’s the piece where the peformer sits at a grand piano for four and a half minutes without hitting a key. We can only imagine how confused, amused, angry, interested the audience must have been for this piece the first time it was played. I’ve always enjoyed the idea, but in context of what Cage was thinking about, who he was hanging out with and from whom he was learning, the piece and works from other artists of the time take on a new dimension. It’s less of a wonder why these people are mostly still considered cool.

I was also impressed by how studies of Zen got woven into cool especially in context of the new atomic age and the ensuing cold war. (Cage came up with many pieces and even the length 4′33″ by flipping an I Ching coin.) Zen is cool again these days, maybe because of its unwillingness to be anything easily tracked down so perfectly imitates MacAdams description of cool’s “quicksilver nature.”

In the end, the personalities in the book really do seem pretty cool. Except for Miles Davis, man. Man, he was selling motor-scooters in the eighties. Not cool.

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Not the title of an Onion article

Posted in at 9:55 by RjZ

Bush’s Asia Trip Meets Low Expectations

Don’t bother to read the article I’ve linked to; there’s nothing exciting. I just couldn’t resist pointing out the headline which clearly sounds like it would be more at home on the pages of The Onion than the Washington Post.

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In security

Posted in Travel at 22:31 by RjZ

My flight leaves at 4 am. I don’t have a car and I can’t really ask my hosts to drop me off at the airport at 2 in the morning, so there is no way around it; I’ll have to sleep at the airport. The problem is that I don’t want to miss the plane, so I am too afraid to actually sleep. What I do when I arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv, Israel is learn how to identify the plain clothes officers checking the trash cans and potted plants for bombs.

It’s 1996, which is after the end of the first Intifada and maybe just before the beginning of the second. It’s hardly peace in Israel but there aren’t daily suicide bombings either. Meanwhile, Ben Gurion international airport hasn’t had a terrorist attack since the Japanese Red Army attached in 1972. They are highly professional and extremely diligent. This is the second time I’ve been to Israel, so I am at least familiar with the procedure.

Check-in begins three hours before departure and it’s wise not to be late because it does take a while. I won’t be late of course. I am busy staying awake decoding the behavior of the wired security officers, who walk casually around the airport about every ten minutes. One is wearing a casual white suit with just a dark t-shirt underneath his jacket. He looks very Miami Vice. In spite of his fashion choice there really is little to tip off the casual observer that he or his colleagues are security officers. I only notice him because he keeps poking around in the philodendron next to me until I finally check it to see what he was looking for in there. He also carefully lifts discarded newspapers and magazines before continuing on his rounds.

At 1:00 am I wander towards the gate and wait in line. My bag is run through an x-ray machine and I collect it again when the interview begins. Dozens and dozens of questions are asked. Why am I visiting Israel? Business. Who have I met here? Several companies and a business colleague. Their names? I offer business cards. How long was I here? Week and a half. Where did I stay while I was here? Hotel Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv. What do I have in my bag? My clothes, but also my computer. Can I turn it on for them? Sure. Why did I bring my computer? To record contact reports and business information. Show us. I open the file. The agent reads a bit of it to be sure I am not making this up. It’s a boring contact report.

I like Israel. It’s an amazing historical place, it has a huge range of environments: beaches, mountains, fertile valleys and dry deserts. It’s also home to some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. The agent interviewing me is a young and typical woman from Tel Aviv: she’s beautiful. She’s petite, and she wears what could be an FBI-issue black suit. Her dark, thick, curly hair pours down in a huge mane around her neck sets off her bright green eyes.

It’s late and she’s very attractive so I don’t think I can be blamed for chatting her up a bit. This is bad form, I am sure, but I try to be very nice about it (I hope.) I am mildly amusing in my answers to where I have been and what I have been doing and how absolutely boring my contact report would be even if she does want to read it. She’s young and I am a lot more interesting than the rest of the balding travelers in the line this morning so she laughs and bats her eyes a bit. She even got flustered going through her script a few times. We exchange the charmed glances of people who know they’re never going to see each other again anyway and who recognize how nice it is to get a compliment from a stranger and she sends me to the next stop where I wait.

I see her conferring with another agent. He’s more serious and they discuss my interview for a time until he comes over and asks me all the questions all over again. He changes the wording sometimes and they’re not in the same order. There’s no banter with him, because he’s clearly not interested in any humor at this time of the morning, so things go a bit quicker and much more business like. Finally he’s finished and he returns to discuss my new answers with the female agent. After a time I am allowed to repack my bag, and check it in.

There are no questions about whether I know who packed my bag to which I can automatically say yes. Whether I received any packages from someone unknown to me to which I can automatically say yes. My shoes are not removed. Everyone is asked the same questions. There is no profiling except that some people who don’t try to flirt with the security agents get through the line a bit quicker. I don’t feel demeaned or even for that matter as if my privacy is violated simply because the questions, while voluminous are always asked professionally and one gets the idea that one could refuse to answer, although the punishment would clearly be dozens more questions.

This all works because the process, while exhaustive, is highly professional and because their system is thought through to actually catch people with holes in their stories or frayed nerves. Far fewer people travel through Ben Gurion Airport than Denver International so it’s quite possible that this system would not be feasible here, but it’s equally clear that our current system is simply ineffective. Or take this example:

In June 2002 news leaked out that TSA airport screeners missed 24 percent of the weapons and imitation bombs planted in the government’s undercover security tests. At some major airports, screeners failed to detect potentially dangerous objects in half the tests. The results were worse than they first appeared, because the testers were ordered not to “artfully conceal” the deadly contraband and instead pack their luggage “consistent with how a typical passenger in air transportation might pack a bag.” Although the tests seemed designed to see if screeners could catch terrorists with single-digit IQs, they still failed to find the weapons much of the time.

The Transportation Security Administration is a $5.3 billion organization but I don’t feel one bit safer with them on the job intimidating me to take my shoes off. (Have a look at the signs around the security gate at the airport. They request that you remove your shoes but can’t require you to do so. In fact, however, each person who refuses to do so is selected for wanding and more complete search.)

I might more comfortably submit to reasonable, non-invasive search if I felt that it actually contributed to my safety but demanding people leave nail clippers in their carry on luggage while allowing them to carry fountain pens on board is ludicrous. We don’t have a right to fly and the airlines can reasonably demand a variety of search requirements be fulfilled in order to fly on their private planes. The TSA, on the other hand, is a government organization which seems committed to bullying passengers into submission more than contributing to our safety. All the while the bulk of that $5.3 billion will be spent on keeping our airways safe when there are dozens or hundreds of channels for terrorists to explore some of which are still completely ignored by the TSA or even Homeland Security. Just look at Israel. The airport is well protected so busses get bombed. Teach the bus drivers to spot terrorists better and the McDavid’s get bombed (McDavid’s is a kosher fast food restaurant.) Israel is finally getting the idea that security is good, but peace is better.

The problem with profiling and bag searching is how it simply doesn’t work. We can’t reasonably check every single person so no matter of profiling will be 100% and we can’t check every item so no amount of bag searching will be 100%. We are allowing ourselves to have our privacy invaded for the feeling of safety, since, after all, the actually safety we receive is minimal. Searches on subways are even more absurd, but I’ll save that for another entry.

Later in the airport I catch a glimpse of the cute security agent from earlier. She smiles at me and then grimaces so I approach her to say hello. She tells me that I got her in trouble with her supervisor for not handling the security check professionally enough. We both laugh at this, enjoy smiling at each other for a moment and she moves off before I make my way to the gate to catch my flight. I can’t prove that I was more secure in Israel, but it sure was a more pleasant experience than taking off my shoes and walking through a metal detector.

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Keep the lights on

Posted in Energy, Society at 20:20 by RjZ

“They’d have over 300 engineers where here you only see maybe 30,” said the forty plus year veteran of the power industry comparing a nuclear power plant to the coal-fired plant I was visiting. I asked him why there are so many. Isn’t the plant automated much like this one I wanted to know? “To fill out all the forms,” he answered. He felt that all the regulations were a big part of why we don’t have more nuclear power. I can’t speak to how many bureaucratic forms engineers were filling out but I can see why many of them might be necessary.

Nuclear power isn’t without risk to be sure, but neither is coal, oil, or as environmentalists recently complained [more here], wind power. Somehow public misinformation about the dangers of nuclear power, perhaps combined with overwhelming legislation has doomed this relatively clean energy source in the U.S.

Here are some things most of us don’t think about when we consider our choices for power. Oil is used to generate electricity. Well, it was used to generate electricity when it was less than $30 a barrel. Burning oil to turn generators produces relatively little pollution (surprisingly!) but it does release plenty of green house gases. Environmental regulations in the U.S. drove many utilities to build new power plants that could burn oil and, in a pinch, coal and the majority of these are either idle or burning coal exclusively right now because oil is just too expensive. The story for natural gas is about the same.

The U.S. has been described as the Saudi Arabia of coal. It’s true. We have tons of the stuff, more than any other nation and while it’s frequently high in sulfur (which produces smog causing pollutants such as SOx) equipment exists to minimize this problem. The U.S. consumed over a billion short tons of coal in 2003. A single, average sized, coal fired power plant consumes about one train load of coal per day. We’ve all waited for a typical 105 car coal train to cross in front of us on the road. One whole train goes into a power plant full and leaves empty every single day! All that coal is burnt up each day and turned into two things: ash and CO2. Ash is frequently used in cement production or, as often as not, simply dumped near the coal plant. CO2 meanwhile is released into the atmosphere. Coal is responsible for 53% of the U.S. 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. and for about 4.4 billion pounds of CO2 will be released into the air for 2005. (More, you say, than we even consumed in coal? different years. See this link for loads of info.)

Hydro-electric can hardly be considered environmentally friendly these days when we consider the damage to the landscape, destroyed fisheries and rivers that many dams of caused. Fact is, there aren’t really many more places for us to dam up these days and while Lake Powell is a load of fun for many people it was also an environmental disaster for the area.

Renewables? I mentioned wind-power above but there’s also geo-thermal, wave power and solar power. Currently renewable make up less than 1% of the U.S. power consumption. Probably the biggest reason for this is that it’s expensive! According to a Stirling Energy Systems “Photovoltaic technology is generally not abundant enough or cost-effective enough to meet any large scale demands.” Other solar energy is in the 10¢ per KW range. Coal meanwhile is in the 2 – 5¢ range. Of course we’re not paying for the environmental impact of coal–yet!

I used to drive by San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California quite frequently. The power plant has been in operation for 38 years but they do not have an agreement to transport nuclear waste off site. Where do they put it? Essentially in the basement. It’s a special basement, surrounded by 2 inches of stainless steel and several feet of reinforced concrete, but it’s still the basement. 38 years and they have all of their waste on site. How is this possible? Because nuclear power plants produce about 1 cubic foot of waste per year. Oh, it’s nasty stuff, no doubt about it, but there just isn’t very much of it. The plant itself is hardened so that a 747 could fly right into it without damaging it. (You can question that if you want, but it was designed with this in mind at least.)

A long list of accidents at nuclear power plants would be dwarfed by the same listing at coal-plants but virtually none of these released nuclear material into the broader environment. The worst nuclear accident in the U.S. was three-mile island. This human-error was contained but that part of the plant was destroyed. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants release literally billions of tons of CO2 into the environment (and a sizable amount of nuclear isotopes as well just because they’re naturally occurring in the coal) ever year.

The U.S. is 18th in nuclear power generation. With all this power being generated world-wide by nuclear power (16% of the world’s power) you’d think we’d be hearing about accidents every day.

Nuclear power has risks and I don’t need to write a treatise on this subject here. But other power sources are simply too expensive (today) or obviously risky to our environment and yet we continue to use them.

Our choice is clear. We must continue to invest in alternative energy sources and carefully consider their advantages and disadvantages before assuming we have the end-all solution. In the mean time we should reconsider nuclear power in the U.S. and start investing new plants now. Well, that’s not true, we do have another choice–turn off the lights and move back into caves.

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CNN.com – Bush attends church in China – Nov 19, 2005

Posted in at 19:01 by RjZ

CNN.com – Bush attends church in China – Nov 19, 2005

In the guest book Bush wrote “May God bless the Christians of China.” Apparently everyone else can go to hell.

[Note: I am fully aware that this is, in fact, the view of Evangelical Christians, but while I may realize this, how will the rest of the Chinese and other nations see this inscription?]

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Democrats shoot own feet

Posted in at 18:40 by RjZ

I think that senate and house democrats coming out and saying ‘withdraw the troops’ is a bad idea. Republicans tried and perhaps failed to diffuse this strategy by sponsoring resolution to do just that , likely in a effort split the democrats in half. The democrats shoot their own feet and republicans flaunt arrogance which makes them look petty.

I don’t think the republicans will get very far with this constant repetition of ‘cut and run’ but it doesn’t hurt them much either. It’s not a strategy though and that is exactly what the republicans and more importantly for the party out of power, democrats are lacking. U. S. Americans don’t want to hear that the administration was wrong about the war. Well, the did need to hear that and while of course one might be able to justify the war in Iraq with statements about how nasty Saddam was and how we’re better off without him in power, it still looks like the administration lied to justify the war. Still, the problem isn’t why we went to war, but rather what we’re going to do about it.

Democrats are saying ‘Bush lied to us (that’s why we accidently voted for the war) and so he needs to tell us what he’s going to do.’ What democrats need to do if anybody is going to listen, or more importantly, vote for them is lead. What would [insert your democratic presidential favorite here] do differently? Withdraw the troops? How? When? Under what conditions? Crying that it’s wrong for them to be there because Bush is a liar isn’t much of an answer. The troops, Americans, and the world don’t want whining, they need a solution.

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The God Gene

Posted in Reviews at 18:20 by RjZ

I feel bad for Dr. Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene. He knew he couldn’t win. His academic advisors suggested he wait till he retires to write a book that posits that spirituality might be genetically linked. Early on in the book after explaining what he is not trying to do in his book: “I know from experience that some readers will ignore this caution, so I’ll repeat it for good measure. This book is about whether God genes exist, not about whether there is a God.” But no luck. Clerics and scientists were both up in arms about the book which either supports or detracts from both sides.

So I’ll repeat it for Dr. Hamer too. The God Gene is not about whether there is a God. Just the same I would say that Dr. Hamer is certainly sympathetic to the idea that there is a God although certainly not a an evangelical reading of the Bible. After an exhaustive and frequently rambling discussion of both genetics, memetics and dozens and dozens of stories of religious and spiritual twins Hamer states that “the fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that it evolved for a purpose.” I am not a geneticist (but I am sure a reader or two of mine can shed some light on this) but Dr. Hamer himself is responsible for a theory that demonstrates that homosexuality is genetic even though clearly homosexuality doesn’t do much to reproduce. Homosexuality is likely linked to another gene that is selected for. You get one characteristic (which is strongly selected for) and sometimes you get the other characteristic. The fact that a characteristic has a genetic component does not imply that it evolved for a purpose. It may just be riding on the back of some other gene. After all, why would men still have nipples anyway?

The book uses many twin studies to compare and contrast spirituality and how it is expressed regardless of the environment the twins find themselves in. Even in my own life I have examples of this to share. Two men I know from Holland are brothers who both joined a catholic order when they were young. Both eventually left the order and while one is a catholic school teacher and the other is an artist today, it’s clear that while they may not be religious (that includes the school teacher) they are both very spiritual. Meanwhile, neither my brother nor I is particularly spiritual even if he does claim to be religious.

I appreciated Dr. Hamer’s abiding desire to keep treatise in the realm of science. He specifically defines each of his terms. For example he discusses spirituality instead of religion because there is a popular and quantifiable test for spirituality but not for religiosity. He discusses his research along with others and mentions both sides of nearly every claim. Unfortunately all this balance leads to an occasionally confusing book which comes out on the side that there is a gene that is correlated with spirituality and then investigates the ramifications of this gene from so many sides as to leave the reader bewildered. It’s a frustrating book for religious individuals who will surely see a threat in the idea that spirituality might be a result of brain chemicals and it is a frustrating book for scientists who read an extremely interesting idea that doesn’t really seem completely backed up, tested for, explained or, well clear what it means anyway.

Actually, I am just complaining because the book was unsatisfying to me! Here was my chance to finally understand just why I am simply devoid of spirituality. It’s not that I don’t believe in organized religion or ghosts or an afterlife, it’s that I can’t even conceive of why one should. I don’t feel like there is anything missing or what possible benefit these thoughts would give me and I’d hoped that eventually the book would discuss the contra case to what happens when we have a strongly expressed God gene. What happens when we seem to be lacking the gene altogether. No such luck.

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