Friday, March 30, 2007

As it was meant to be

In my previous rant about carbon offsets and semi-rant about the Green Restaurant Certification, I argued that true conservation is about reducing consumption to saving both the environment and dollars (rather than spending more money to make yourself feel good). Today on Morning Edition there was a great example of this - a story about how a prison tried to get more environmentally friendly and ended up saving $1.3 million dollars. This WA state prison made a few changes for environmental reasons - they moved to low-flow shower heads and toilets, and they started composting food waste, using it to start an organic vegetable garden*. But after doing this, they got an engineering report on their planned new sewage treatment facility and found out that by taking food waste out of the system, they actually didn't need to build the new facility at all, thereby saving $1.3 million dollars. Now that's conservation.

*I don't know how I feel about prisoners getting fresh organic food when many working poor are unable to afford it but that's a different issue - either way, it's better for the environment and saves taxpayers money.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Housing slump/woes/gains/speculation

Marketplace yesterday featured yet another story about the supposed housing market slump. This time the take was - yes, the housing market is in trouble, but actually prices haven't fallen enough and really should fall further.

We all know the reasons for the slump - because they keep repeating them in the news - the wide availability of subprime mortgages allowed more people to buy more houses that were more expensive than they could afford. This made lots of people raise the prices on their houses and made lots of builders continue to build one McMansion after another. Now mortgage companies are realizing that subprime loans aren't so great and are not giving them out as much, plus people are defaulting on the ones they already have, with the result of too many houses on the market. Blah blah blah...

Okay, fair enough. But why is this such a hot topic of discussion on so many different news shows? The only people who will really be affected on a large scale are investors who own stock in housing-related companies, builders and/or mortgage people, and crazy people who have bought into the trend and decided to flip houses for a living. (About I week ago I heard a typical profile of an older woman who took advantage of adjustable-rate mortgages to buy several homes that she re-did but now can't sell, and in the meantime she had to refinance her mortgage on her main home to pay for the other homes and now it's shot up and she may lose her house.) For the rest of us, though, it's interesting because we own a house, but surely it shouldn't impact whether we buy or sell our house today!

I think instead what these stories do is just contribute to the craziness. They encourage people to go through "seller's delusion" and think their house is worth much more than it actually is. They encourage them to make poor decisions like trying to become a flipper. Instead of educating us, they just try to up the hype and hysteria. I guess in that way they're not much different from all other news items.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pledge Drive

I don't really mind the pledge drive going on right now on NPR - or at least not as much as everyone around me seems to. In fact, sometimes I find their commentary amusing, and if it's really irritating I just change the channel or put on some music instead. But today, I caught part of the pledge drive during Day to Day and the reporter speaking (I didn't catch her name) was one of the least persuasive people I've ever heard. First of all, she was yelling, "where are you? where are you?" in a fairly accusatory way. Then she said, "come on, you know that NPR is where you turn when you get tired of listening to the other radio stations, or when the TV is boring and you want to do something you should pledge". If I had been on the verge of pledging, I would have stopped just so that she wouldn't think that her bizarre NPR put-down had worked on me. In fact, I think that they might have been better off without her speaking at all - silence would be a good example of all you might hear on 94.9 if KUOW wasn't around.

Friday, March 23, 2007

When NPR Disappoints

My friend C and I have come to the frightening conclusion that we fit very well into the liberal mold and mindset except in the one area that each of us feels most knowledgeable about (for her - GMO crops, for me - Israel). This is frightening because we harbor the fear that the more we learn about everything else, the more conservative we'll become. It's not all that likely to happen when it comes to issues like the environment, social services, education, etc, but it's still a scary prospect. :-)

That said, normally NPR, which leans slightly to the left, is a great source of news and information. However, when they cover issues relating to Israel they tend to fall in line with the bizarre liberal idea that Israel, and the 7 million or so Israelis who live there, are the big bullies in the neighborhood and the 200 plus million Arabs who surround it, many of whose governments (not the majority of the individuals, I think, but their political and religious leaders) want to wipe Israel off the face of the planet, are the bullied who need to resort to suicide bombings to have any chance of making their voices heard. I can't begin to express the frustration I feel about this bias, and the fact that it so often goes hand in hand with views that I agree with ("support mom and pop businesses!" "reduce tax loopholes for the wealthy!"). I believe very deeply that

  1. there have been mistakes made on all sides
  2. the vast majority of people on both sides of the conflict want to just live their lives in peace and see their children grow up to be educated and prosperous,
  3. the small minority of people in power in both the Palestinian government and the other countries in the middle east want to keep their citizens from noticing that they're not able or willing to help build roads and schools and improve the economy so they play "Wizard of Oz" and exhort their people not to look at the man behind the curtain, but instead focus on the evil country of Jews as the root of all problems.
  4. ultimately, the government of Israel wants peace and is doing everything it can to maintain security in the most humane way possible while working towards a goal of living side by side with its neighbors in harmony.

However, for some reason I just can't understand, there is an ingrained assumption in much of the media and with most liberals that Israel has some deep-seated need to conquer that motivates its actions, rather than just the basic desire for peace and safety. I don't know what causes this, or what causes most Western European countries to say that Israel is the country that's the biggest danger to the world - above North Korea! - or any of the myriad other examples, and most of all I don't know how I, or anyone, can change it. But, that's not what this post was supposed to be about, exactly...Instead, I wanted to comment on an example of this bias that makes me question the truthfulness and accuracy of all other stories I hear - especially the ones that are about topics I'm not so familiar with.

On Monday I was listening to the local news on NPR and they did a review of a play currently showing at the Seattle Rep - My Name Is Rachel Corrie. For those who haven't heard of her, Rachel Corrie was a young woman who grew up in Olympia and was recruited by the International Solidarity Movement (a Pro-Palestinian group that is supportive of terrorist organizations like Hamas). She went to Gaza to be a "human shield" for Palestinians whose homes were being torn down or bombed by Israeli soldiers who were trying to stop the rockets and suicide bombers coming into Israel from Gaza. While there, Rachel was accidentally killed by a bulldozer in what several independent investigations have confirmed was an accident and tragedy. Unfortunately, many people, including Yasser Arafat, have hailed her as a martyr to the cause and used her death as a tool to "prove" the supposed cruelty of the Israeli military. The media, rather than seeing it for the obvious manipulation and horror that it was at the time(from what I can tell, she was sent to Gaza, as were the other "human shields", with the intent that they would be hurt or killed and make put the Israeli army into the spotlight in a negative way) went with the idea that she was a martyr as well, and her diary and life story have been made into a play. This play gives an extremely biased and simplistic view of the conflict, and due to the emotional nature of it, goes beyond being a piece of art that gets people thinking to instead be something that can profoundly move people to the same position that Rachel had - that the Palestinians in Gaza were exhibiting Gandhi-like resistance tactics that were being met with overwhelming and unnecessary force from the big, bad, Israelis.

Given such a complex and politically charged play, you'd imagine that during the review on NPR the reporter would mention some of the concerns and try to get some diverse perspectives on the play. Instead, the reporter interviewed four people - Rachel Corrie's mother, father, the play's artistic director, and the actress playing Rachel - all of whom share Rachel's limited understanding of the conflict. They also share the opinion that some large Jewish consipracy is trying to prevent this play from being shown, and they made that clear in their interviews. In addition, the reporter referred to Rachel multiple times as having been run over and killed by a bulldozer while never mentioning that it was an accident. If I didn't know the history I would have assumed that it was intentional from the language used. These might not seem like big deals - only interviewing people with one perspective of a story, and using accurate but not complete language that could be misleading. But when stories about Israel and Israelis are consistently told this way, it leads to more assumptions and misleading stories, which can eventually lead to ill-conceived public policy and dangerous levels of anti-Semitism. I'm so disappointed that I can't trust my public radio station to be fair and accurate about this topic that's so close to my heart.

Some resources for more information (if you're not bored with reading my rant already):

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Food Math

One of the comments made on the Day to Day story regarding green restaurants really stuck with me.

"Okay, so the calculus of sustainability is complicated"

I couldn't agree more. I have an unhealthy addiction to non-fiction books - I just finished Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry by Dan Hurley (review to come in a future post) and am in the middle of both Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich. The problem is that, aside from feeling like a bit of a freak for reading all these random books, the more I learn, the harder it is to make good choices, and the more complex the calculus gets. Since most of the non-fiction I read is food related, let me write out just a partial list of the things I have to consider when deciding what to eat:
  1. Is it locally grown or raised?
  2. Is it organic, or fed organic food?
  3. Is it sustainably grown or raised?
  4. If it's an animal, is it free range?
  5. Was it killed humanely?
  6. Was it raised in an eco-conscious manner?
  7. Was it allowed to live and eat the way that it would naturally have done?
  8. Are the workers who picked the food or raised the animals paid a sustainable wage?
  9. Are the workers given health insurance and benefits?
  10. Are the workers who sell the food and manage the people who sell the food well-paid and not laid off for being too old or making too high of a salary?
  11. Is it packaged in an environmentally friendly way?
  12. Is it packaged in a material that might leech into the food?
  13. Is it low in fat and calories?
  14. Is it high in vitamins and minerals?
  15. If it's enriched with vitamins and minerals, does it actually contain the amount that it says it does, and if so is that too much?

I could go on, but you get the point. By the time I get to "does it actually taste good?" I'm so worn out I almost don't care. And I actually like calculus - I can't imagine what would happen to someone who didn't!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

So much to choose from

I must have been in the car more today than usual, or NPR was just having a really good day, but I heard at least five stories that I thought were worth commenting on. However, I will spare my good readers (all three of you :-) and stick to just brief comments on two of the stories:

1) During a report this morning about President Bush's trip in Latin America, the snarky NPR (and yes, this time it was NPR and not KIRO that I was listening to by mistake) reporter played every quote that included the President talking about food. Based on the quotes, it sounded like he spent his whole trip saying he was hungry for dinner or lunch, having the president of the countries he was visiting describe the menu planned for the day, or discussing the quality of blueberries in Ecuador (or wherever). I found this all particularly amusing because I've read a lot about the fact that on past trips to foreign countries Bush rarely stayed long enough to actually eat - preferring his Texas steaks on the plane I'd imagine. I suppose this time he had to actually stick around so he could continue to not answer questions about Chavez, who was wandering around Latin America at the same time (way more nutty, but probably not talking about food as much)

2) On The Beat today Greg Atkinson was interviewed about the food inventions that were created in wartime that we can find in our kitchens today. He said that basically all food processing and mass production techniques were created to get food to the battlefield and that after WWII the factories were repurposed to make pre-processed food for the civilian population - and that's how we ended up with some of the tasty but chemical-pumped food that I'm embarrassed to admit exists in my pantry today. I thought this was interesting because it brings to mind the theory that all sorts of technology that we use in daily life (Teflon, velcro, etc) was invented during the 1960's as we were trying to get man to the moon (although some dispute this). It's sad but unsuprising that technologies we discovered during war are now so prevalent as well. I guess there are many different types of "needs" to drive creativity.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More of the same

In my previous rant about carbon offsets, I blogged my annoyance about people who buy carbon offsets as a way of then feeling good about using as much energy as they wanted. There was a story on Day to Day today about something similar, and one of the commentators actually made this point, which I thought was great.

In this story, they reported on a trend of restaurants that were "going green" by trying to implement energy-saving policies in order to get a certification from the Green Restaurant Association. This sounds great on the surface, as understandably restaurants use an enormous amount of energy, produce a ton of waste, and use a lot of water. There are many things the restaurants can do such as recycle their fryer oil, compost their food waste, use recycled products etc. that make great impacts.

However, one of the restaurant owners was really honest and said that along with wanting to do good, she hoped that this would encourage more people to come into her store because her customers were really environmentally conscious. And that gets to the main point, which James Goldstein, a senior fellow at an environmental research group made really well - there are incompatibilities with a consumer society and sustainability. Ultimately restaurants are going green to try to get us to buy more - and we can only be really sustainable if we try to consume less. So overall, while I laud the effort of the Green Restaurant Association and I'm glad that restaurants are interested in saving resources (and money, since they end up spending less on energy and garbage) I'm wary that overall this will just cause people to wrench their arms out of their sockets patting themselves on the back and then go on to buy more.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


I usually find that when I tune into a segment halfway through, I can eventually follow along with no problems. This is a good thing because, as is reasonable with a medium that I mostly listen to in my car, I can't guarantee that I will only begin listening on the hour or at such time as a segment is likely to begin.
Today, however, I tuned into Weekend America in time to hear the last couple minutes of what was probably only a three or four minute piece. Apparently a man in Chicago had gotten a tattoo. It was a very special tattoo. He had worked on it for an hour or so with the tattoo artist. I believe he's a tattoo artist himself but he only has two tattoos - I'll keep my comments about that to myself. Anyhow, this weekend, he was booked solid all day Sunday tattooing the same tattoo on a whole bunch of other people who wanted to get the same tattoo to support the cause, and to be fashionable. You would think that in two minutes, and with the repetition of the phrase "this tattoo" at least five times, one of those times would have re-described or defined the tattoo, even in some tiny way, but no. So for the next few hours as I ran my errands, and as I started to write this blog posting, I remained ignorant.

(I did look it up just now before publishing this post and now I'm actually just confused. See for yourself at here.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Secret sources

There's been a lot of talk in the news recently about the Scooter Libby trial and protection for reporters and their secret sources. Today on Morning Edition, reporter Robert Zelnick argued that we should pass federal legislation to protect these reporters, claiming that "...something very precious between sources and reporters is under a more sustained attack than it has ever been before." I was thinking about it, and I can think of only a few reasons why someone would want to leak information secretly:

1. You're revealing an underhanded or illegal thing that someone else has been doing and you might get fired (or in some other kind of trouble)
2. You're doing it for personal gain - money, favors, corporate espionage, notoriety (although in the last case you'd hardly want keep your name secret)
3. You're doing it to control the press (as the White House was doing by leaking information)

I'm not really interested in protecting the folks in the last two categories, and the ones in the first category are unlikely to get prosecuted for being a secret source, since they will have the protection of having good motives and outing someone who did something much worse than the fact that they outed it.

So who is this "protection of sources" really protecting? I don't think it's the public, but the reporters who want to share information that will sell a lot of newspapers certainly have something to gain.

NPR mash note

You know in high school when the boy you like smiles at you and you feel excited and tingly all day long? This morning I was driving in from the gym and turned on the radio to hear Steve Scher interviewing Ira Glass on Weekday and I had the same reaction. They were discussing Ira's new TV show (starting on Showtime Mar 22, although I don't know how well it will translate from the radio*) and having callers tell stories that they think might be worthy of ending up on This American Life, with Ira giving them critical feedback in his unique voice. One of the women calling in was told that her story probably didn't have enough oomph and her comment was something like, "that's okay, I just wanted to have a chance to talk to Ira." I know how she feels. Tingle tingle.

*I'd never seen a photo of Ira, but I looked up the story on the KUOW website this morning and now I really don't know how his show will translate. Unfortunately the man does have a face for radio. I love him anyway.

Monday, March 5, 2007

One more reason I don't want to go to jail

Today on All Things Considered Patricia Murphy interviewed the author of Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras, Jeff Henderson, who is currently head chef at the Bellagio but got his start in cooking when he was spending nine years in prison for cooking crack. His story was inspiring - in prison he found that he really enjoyed cooking and when he got out he found an African-American chef at a restaurant in Vegas who he looked up to and basically pestered him until he agreed to let him work in his kitchen. Henderson washed dishes and cleaned the bathrooms and came in early and left late, even when he wasn't being paid overtime, just to prove to the chef that he was trustworthy and capable of learning, and eventually ended up as a head chef in his own restaurant. He actually compared the process of blanching vegetables to the process of cooking crack out of cocaine (I never realized it was such a science) and the delicacy you need in cooking foie gras to the issues you'd have if you messed up a batch of cocaine.

However, the most surprising thing to me was the fact that he said he got into food in prison because you're always hungry there - he said by Tuesday you're thinking about what you'll get for dinner on Saturday. It never occurred to me that you wouldn't get enough food while in prison - I assumed the food would be bad, but not unsubstantial. Now that I know, the thought of going to prison is even that much more horrifying. I don't think we should be serving feasts but I think we're doing everyone a disservice by not having prisoners fed healthy, reasonably substantial meals. In the long run you'd think the medical fees we'd save in and of themselves would make this worthwhile.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Last line illogic

On Morning Edition edition Tuesday two interesting stories left me befuddled by their last lines.

First there was a discussion of the "forever stamp" that the post office is going to introduce. It lets you buy a stamp that will always work even if the price of stamps goes up, and it costs the same as an existing first class stamp. They claimed that it was going to save the postal service money long term because it costs more money for them to staff the post office than they make off the price of the stamps (implying that people buy fewer stamps at a time and therefore come in more often because they don't want to be stuck with a bunch of stamps that need an additional 2 cents added). The last sentence of the piece, though, said that post office research shows that people will buy the same number of stamps even if the forever stamp is offered. Huh? Does that mean they'll buy the same number overall but make fewer trips? Or that they'll buy fewer stamps in which case wouldn't the post office lose money?

The next story talked about how nanotechnology is seen as an answer to conterfeiters - it will allow money to be made that can change textures or solidity when you move it around (pretty interesting stuff - the whole story is available here). Apparently the new paper will be affordable within the next 5-10 years for the US mint, but their goal would be that it's something that's not too affordable so that people can't buy it cheaply and then start making money at home again. All this was pretty cool, but then the last line of the story was that this will put us ahead of the conterfeiters for 100 years. Are they kidding? Who ever heard of a technology that, in 100 years, didn't become extremely outdated and cheap? I thought this was completely naive.

Carbon Offset Rant

Last night on All Things Considered they reported on Al Gore's Oscar win for An Inconvenient Truth and said that a conservative think tank* had checked with the Tennessee power company and found that "The average American uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, but Al Gore devoured 221,000 kilowatt hours." I won't go into the use of the word "devoured" which obviously shows a serious bias, but if the numbers are true it is a shame that the Gores aren't more careful about their energy consumption. According to an episode of All Things Considered from last summer the average American house is 2349 square feet, and the Gore house is 10,000 so that means that it's reasonable for them to consume four times the amount of energy (44,000 kilowatt hours) but that's still only one fifth of their actual usage. I'm sure there are reasons for this but I do think it's disappointing. However, none of this is the cause of my rant - instead it's Gore's reply to the amount of energy he allegedly uses - he says that he conserves etc. but also that he buys carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets have become really popular it seems among the types of folks who are both famous and consider themselves environmentalists - they seem to show up all the time on TV talking about this. But I think carbon offsets are really just a form of hypocrisy. I'm all for donating money to companies that plant trees or do other things to remove carbon from the environment. But people who can afford to donate to these companies shouldn't then feel good about using as much electricity as they would like! Conservation is something that we all need to work harder at (certainly myself included) - everything from using less electricity and driving less and buying less stuff in general. When done right, conservation is actually less expensive, and not just an alternative for rich people to feel good about themselves. Okay, rant over.

* Doesn't it seem like think tanks have suddenly sprouted (or would the right term be "welled up") everywhere recently? What do these people do all day, and who funds them? I tend to picture a bunch of men in suits inside a very large fish tank trying to do research on all the evil people who've made up concepts like evolution.