Monday, July 30, 2007

Picking on Nigeria

I guess it's better than picking on China again...last week on Morning Edition, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton (yet another fabulous NPR name) covered the environmental disaster caused by burning natural gas in Nigeria's oil fields. I was surprised to hear that Nigerian natural gas is burned on site in the oil fields rather than being used for energy because the oil coming up is worth so much money that it's not worthwhile to separate and transport it. The fires created are actually visible by Satellite (they actually specified that you can see the fires in Google Earth and there's a picture on the NPR website, but of course you could use any company's satellite viewing technology). Why is this a problem?
  1. It causes more carbon emissions than any single source in the rest of Africa.
  2. Natural gas flares worldwide account for more emissions than all the Kyoto treaty projects will prevent combined.
  3. Nigerian villages nearby are poverty stricken and have no electricity, even though their natural resources are being used. Nigeria in general suffers from energy shortage.
  4. The nearby villagers are getting sick from the polluted air, and the heat is killing their crops.
  5. All that energy is being wasted - the World Bank (through wikipedia) says it's enough to supply the entire world with their natural gas needs for 20 days.
So why is this picking on Nigeria rather than just alerting us to a serious environmental issue? Well, there are two reasons:
  1. In the piece, Ms. Quist-Arcton devoted one quick sentence to the fact that Russia actually burns more natural gas than Nigeria does. So why aren't we picking on Russia? Surely they have more infrastructure and natural gas pipelines already in place, and getting them to change their habits will have more impact overall
  2. Secondly, Nigeria is one of the few places in the world where they're lowering the amount of gas flaring (they promised to eliminate it by 2008, and although they won't make that target, they're making progress towards it). Again, why not pick on countries that aren't doing their bit?
So there you go, picking on Nigeria. I guess it wouldn't be news if it wasn't picking on someone.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Things you don't often hear on NPR

TMBG being interviewed on Studio 360 about mermaids and discussing the fact that they're not erotic because they're lacking certain "parts", and then Kurt Andersen, who's interviewing them, saying, "but you can get to second base!"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Contagious Fat

According to Allison Aubrey on Morning Edition, fat is contagious*. It's not in the standard sense of sneezing on someone and causing them to suddenly gain seven pounds (although wouldn't that put a whole new spin to the phrase, "i spit on you") but in the sense of ideas and social norms. Using information collected from a 30-year heart study in one town along with records of social networks among the participants, a study found that those who had friends who gained weight were more likely to gain weight themselves. Neighbors apparently didn't count.

I thought this was a bit overstated, but a few of the points really made me think:
  1. The amount that I eat is definitely influenced (not controlled, but influenced) by how much the other people I'm with are eating. If no one else is ordering dessert, I won't either, and conversely if everyone is ordering dessert, I'm much more likely to indulge. On Tuesdays when I go to C's house, I generally eat less than I would at home, simply because she and her husband do (my hips thank you, C!). I'm not any less full, but if I were cooking at home I'd probably serve myself more without thinking about it. So in that sense, my friends' fat (or lack thereof) is contagious.

  2. The vast majority of my friends and co-workers are quite fit and relatively conscious of eating healthy food. In fact, over the past couple of years, many of them have lost quite a bit of weight. This trend seemed to start as some people started taking advantage of a weight management program offered by work, but I noticed at the time that it also affected others (like me) who weren't on the program. I wonder how much of that was inspirational, how much was people not bringing unhealthy snacks to share, and how much was happenstance.

  3. I definitely feel social pressure that it is somewhat uncool to diet or exercise to lose weight. Acceptable reasons would include the nebulous "be healthier" and the more specific "train for a race" or "control blood sugar". I've even found myself using this logic with J, saying things like, "you should go running today because you want to be healthier" rather than, "you should go running today because I'd love it if you had washboard abs". Depending on the specific folks I'm with, this stricture can be more or less severe, but I do remember a friend telling me disdainfully that a mutual friend had taken up exercising "only to get thin!". I wonder what effect this pressure has on fat contagion.

And because this report was on as I drove to work, NPR has not only informed me, but I'm probably less likely to sneak into our group admin's office and steal a cookie today.

*Technically it's according to New England Journal of Medicine, but Ms. Aubrey is the one who brought it to my attention.

Monday, July 23, 2007


On days like today (and most other days too, of course!) I feel lucky to have a friend like E, who is a Cypriot and can fill me in on Turkish politics. In the morning as I was driving to work, Morning Edition had a piece on Turkey re-electing their Prime Minister, whose opposition fears that he is "too Islamist". If E hadn't explained it to me a while back, I wouldn't have understood the way many Turks feel about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern republic of Turkey as a secular state, and I would have been confused at a Muslim country being worried about a leader being "too Islamist".* Atatürk seems to have been a great proponent of education and women's equality, but also of not passing laws that forced people to change their ways or their religious beliefs, but simply encouraged them towards tolerance and secularism (for instance, his wife wore a headscarf, but he married her in a civil, not religious ceremony). It's hard to argue with a man who said, "A nation which does not practice science has no place in the high road of civilization. But our nation, with its true qualities, deserves to become - and will become - civilized and progressive."

Then this afternoon on my way home, I heard Robert Seigel interviewing the director of The Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, Soner Cagaptay, on All Things Considered. It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Cagaptay's main point was that the political discussion in Turkey had changed from "Islamist v. Secular," where secular was apparently an easy choice, to "Muslim v. Secular". The latter was causing secular party to lose support as, understandably, many Muslims, when forced to choose, were choosing "Muslim" over "Secular". This reminds me of the debates here where the conservatives have managed to re-frame the discussion over the past years from "Republican vs. Democrat" to "moral vs. liberal". Under those new names, you can see why people who would align themselves with the Democrats would instead give allegiance to the "moral" party (well, I wouldn't, but I guess I would call it "traditional vs. progressive" and hence choose the latter). Anyway, in Turkey the debate has been re-framed, and it's split the country approximately 50/50.

Up till now, the military has always stepped in if they felt that the Republic and values of Atatürk were at stake, and apparently the Turkish elite, appreciating the progress under the Republic, have approved of that. (Isn't it surprising to see the intellectual elite and military on the same side?) And now we'll have to see what happens, and whether Turkey can preserve itself as a country where one can be both a Muslim and a secularist, and whether it can do it without a violent military coup. I hope, as an example to the whole world (including us, who could really use a reminder of what a secular government looks like!) that it can.

* I also wouldn't have known that you can't search for Turkish swear words on Google without getting back a whole lot of porn.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Picking on China...Some More

Is it just me, or is everyone picking on China? Here are just a few of the stories about China on NPR in the past couple of days:
  • A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy
  • Consumers Sue over Tainted Pet Food from China
  • Starbucks Closes Coffeehouse in Forbidden City
  • Congress to Grapple With Chinese Food Safety
Plus tons of news stories about the things I've blogged about over the past little while. I think if there was a tag cloud of news stories recently, China would easily be in 72 point font.

That's why I was not surprised to hear two stories about China in a row on All Things Considered as I was driving home today, but I was surprised that both took a somewhat new slant.

The first story started out sounding like all the other coverage - Chinese and international news agencies aired an undercover report investigating the use of cardboard as a filling in dumplings. What was fascinating was that apparently after this report came out to much horror, it turned out that it was a hoax (and the reporter was arrested, which I thought was an interesting reaction). Beijing news apologized for not following up on this more carefully...except, there's also rumor that Chinese sensors actually forced them to issue a fake retraction because the story wasn't a hoax at all.

The second story was about finding Chinese stars for the NFL. Since Yao Ming joined the NBA, Chinese interest in basketball has risen dramatically, but the Chinese are apparently not so into football because they consider it a pretty barbaric, violent sport (one of those cultural differences that make life so interesting, since we think nothing of it here but even theoretical cardboard-filled dumplings would have necessitated a federal commission). Because of this, the NFL is having trouble getting any players from China, and those few are all training as kickers because it's a position that requires the least amount of violence and a lot of precision. Despite the fact that four Chinese players had been training all year, none of them were actually allowed to play. What I found most fascinating was the interview with one of these players, who said that he guessed the NFL didn't want him to play even when his team's kicker was injured, because they were protecting him. I just can't imagine an American saying that, can you?

And that's it for me regarding China, at least for the next week.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Update on Presidential Candidates

John McCain is coming to town in early August. Stay tuned for Presidential Candidate, the Third!

And More on China

According to Morning Edition yesterday, knock-offs in China aren't all bad. Apparently there's a huge market in Harry Potter rip-offs, or versions of Harry Potter that take place in China, for instance, an example from 2003 (according to Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon, in which Harry encounters sweet and sour rain, becomes a hairy troll, and joins Gandalf to re-enact scenes from The Hobbit. Somehow it makes me smile to think that even if they have to deal with messed-up, potentially deadly drugs (see yesterday's post), at least they don't have to worry that Harry Potter #7 will be the last time they get to hang out with Harry and friends.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

China's Take on Food Safety

On Morning Edition yesterday, Renee Montagne reported on the execution of China's head of food and drug safety, which was ordered because the guy embezzled money, took bribes, and approved medications that ended up killing at least 10 people. According to Chinese standards, his punishment was very severe, because the reality is that bribes and corruption seem to be a norm in doing business in China, even though every once in a while the government turns around and condemns people for actions that they've been silently condoning or even encouraging up till then.

What's strange to me is how much of a big deal corruption and general safety issues with Chinese products has become. A friend of mine recently moved to China for six months and found this link, which goes through the long list of recalled products from China just in 2007. So the question is, with China being the manufacturer to the world for years now, is this a recent phenomenon or is this something that's been happening all along but just hasn't made headlines? And does this recent execution, which seems quite extreme to my Western ears, mean that Chinese people will be able to rely more on the safety of their food and drugs, or is it just a publicity stunt to show the world that the Chinese government takes this issue seriously?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


KUOW, our local NPR station, runs their own local news as most stations do. Unfortunately, yesterday that meant that they did yet another whole piece pandering to Rachel Corrie's parents (see my previous post on this topic). In this case, they reported on Corrie's parents, who are suing Caterpillar, the manufacturer of the bulldozer that was involved in the accident that killed her. Their case was thrown out originally but they're trying to get it re-heard by the appeals court. KUOW went ahead and interviewed the Corrie's attorney, letting her talk about how the Israelis were committing war crimes by knocking down Palestinian houses. This would have been a perfect opportunity to throw in a comment that every credible investigation has showed that Corrie was killed by accident after she'd been warned to stay out of the area, but apparently KUOW didn't want to do that to a local "heroine". What a shame to hear them continue their completely biased coverage of everything Corrie.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Plankton Credits

On Marketplace last night, Alex Schmidt reported on the business of selling carbon offsets, and specifically a new facet of it: plankton. In all the time I've been ranting about individual carbon offset buyers and the fact that they're busy buying indulgences for their hummers* I haven't really put a lot of thought into the people selling credits. I do feel like there's something kind of sketchy about being paid to plant trees, which for some reason seems like it should be an altruistic act, not an act of capitalism. But on the other hand, it's nice when people doing good for the planet get paid for their effort. Now, with the US poised to possibly (finally) sign the Kyoto Accords, there's the chance that we would set up a real system where companies would have to cut their carbon emissions or pay for offsets (it's already like that in Europe) so of course there are lots of companies investigating interesting ways to cut carbon in the air.

Schmidt's story was about one company in particular that's trying to artificially induce plankton to grow in the ocean by dumping iron into it. The idea is that the plankton will act like a tree planted on land and reduce CO2 in the air. What Schmidt failed to do was ask any questions:
  1. What happens to the iron when you dump a bunch of it in the ocean? I can't imagine that that's good for the sea or the fish long-term.
  2. How long does the plankton keep sequestering the carbon? As far as I know, when a plant dies it gives carbon back off as it decays; does plankton do the same?
  3. What will be the long-term effect of lots of additional plankton in the ocean? Will there be disproportionate growth in the populations of fish that eat it? Will it prevent the ocean from the current carbon sequestration it already does? Will the plankton give off some other chemical we don't want?
  4. According to wikipedia, there are potentially a lot of positives about adding iron to oceans that need it, making them more productive and healthier, but who's to say that the companies trying to sell offsets will stick to oceans that need iron?

I love Marketplace and the economic perspective they take on stories, but it seems like for this one, Kai Ryssdal needs to take over and try again.

*There was a great tongue-in-cheek article about this in a recent issue of Time Magazine, actually, where the author suggested that we allow parents to buy credits when they want to hit their children. They'll purchase a credit which would pay off a parent who regularly hits their kid in exchange for them taking the day off. The child abuser is happy, the kid who would have gotten hit is happy, and the parent who bought the credit is happy. The credit-buying parent's kid, not so much.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Mind your PMQs

For those of my readers who didn't know, I've been travelling the last few weeks and therefore not listening to NPR. However, I did have the opportunity to be in the UK for Tony Blair's last day in office, and I watched his final Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) with the British branch of my family giving me context. I'd never watched a PMQ before, and for those of you who haven't, it's a pretty amazing thing. PMQs is a political convention in which once a week the current Prime Minister spends half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament at the House of Commons. Apparently this usually gets quite heated, and so there are lots of rules, along with a Speaker of the House of Commons who decides the order in which people's questions will get heard (in the case of the current speaker, a doddering old guy unfortunately), and no one answers the questions directly, they all reply to the Speaker. So for example, there's a lot of "I would reply to the right honorable gentleman that...". It all seems very British to me, although C. tells me that Canada does basically the same thing.

Anyhow, I don't really have an opinion about Blair, other than that he seems to be a hell of a lot smarter than the leader of our fair country, but that's actually being held against him by many Brits who say, "Bush is too dumb to have known the truth about Iraq, but Blair did know the truth and lied about it." I don't know; I think I'd rather have an intelligent (and intelligible) president who lies than a delusional one who doesn't know any better, but I suppose the grass is always greener etc. Regardless, I must say I was impressed with Blair's wit and charm during his last PMQs. You should really watch it here to get a flavor of it, and to hear Blair's verbal intonations which make everything even funnier, but below are a couple of my favorite parts for your enjoyment. As you read them, imagine as I did how impossible it would be for our sad President to think so quickly on his feet.

context: apparently P45 is an unemployment form
Burden (Labour MP): I thank my right hon. Friend for the huge contribution that he has made, not only to the success of our party, but to the transformation of our country...
Blair: ...I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words in relation to the closure of Longbridge in his constituency. He is absolutely right. I think that 85 per cent. of the work force have now found a job, and I congratulate him on that. I feel a certain solidarity with them since I received the following communication by urgent letter yesterday:
"Details of employee leaving work: Surname Blair. First name T"—
it actually says "Mr., Mrs., Miss or other"—
"This form is important to you. Take good care of it. P45."

context: Tony Blair is going to convert to Catholicism as soon as he can. He couldn't do it as Prime Minister because part of his job is recommending bishops (for the Church of England of course) to the Queen, something that struck me and J. as completely strange in our world of theoretical separation of church and state
Younger-Ross (Liberal Democrat MP): What advice would the Prime Minister give his successor on the relationship between faith and state, in particular with regard to his successor's reported views on the disestablishment of the Church of England?
Blair: I am really not bothered about that one.

context: there's been some kind of scandal about an EU treaty that Blair says he didn't sign but did, or something like that. I didn't catch the details.
Winterton (Conservative MP): I wish the Prime Minister and his family well for the future, but is he aware that a majority of the people of the United Kingdom feel betrayed by the fact that they are being drawn down further into the suffocating quicksand and expensive bureaucracy of the European Union?...
Blair: ...I am afraid that we cannot agree on the treaty, but as for his good wishes to me, may I say to him au revoir, auf Wiedersehen and arrivederci?

context: there's been massive flooding in the Sheffield area, it was a pain in the ass for us when it caused trains to stop running, but it also really sucked for the several people who drowned
Smith (Minister of State): My right hon. Friend has visited the city of Sheffield on a number of occasions over the past 10 years to see for himself the work done by that city in rebuilding itself after the economic devastation of the 1980s. Now, of course, we have to start all over again. On his final day as Prime Minister, can I ask my right hon. Friend what message he has for the people of Sheffield?
Blair: Vote Labour...

And finally, how could you not approve of someone who uses the phrase "low skulduggery"? Almost makes me want to move to England.