Monday, April 28, 2008


I'm not usually a stickler for privacy. When people freak out over people tapping phones without warrants, or covertly checking out someone's library record, I usually shrug. It's not that I don't think that these things could be taken out of context and used to build a case against someone who doesn't deserve it, but I guess I have a naive faith in the justice system and assume that if such a thing happened, it would be unpleasant but the truth would prevail. There just seem to be bigger things to worry about, and frankly, my list of library books or transcripts of my phone conversations would most likely either bore anyone paying attention.

That said, I was definitely concerned about a story on Morning Edition last Monday in which Vicki Barker reported on schools in London using surveillance camera data to figure out whether someone actually lived in the school district as they claimed. (And tracking under-age smoking, along with other minor crimes.) There are a few things about this privacy breach that put this in another class for me, and I don't know which is the one that upsets me the most:
  1. The information is not going to affect national security; is it really necessary to use subversive means to obtain it?
  2. There are other easy ways to get the information (ask for phone records, utility bills, or even ask neighbors).
  3. They asked parents for private information in order to even make use of the surveillance camera data (like car license plates) but didn't tell them what that information would be used for.
  4. The footage is video footage, which somehow seems more intrusive than text.

Either way, I'm befuddled as to how this tracking was done. I've often heard reports that even though London has an insane number of video cameras (one for every 14 people) that capture every street, it's so expensive or time consuming to retrieve a particular camera's footage that even when crimes such as car theft or muggings could be solved with it, they don't bother to get the footage out. Add that to the fact that I was unaware that video software was good enough to truly track a particular car, and the fact that I don't know how the information that your car goes from place to place is a perfect indicator that you live in a particular area, and I become really confused, and concerned.

It sounds like a few people are starting to sue and protest this behavior, although they're not getting very far. Britain's Information Commissioner warned people a few years ago that they were, "sleepwalking their way into a surveillance society". I can't help but agree - to me this type of surveillance steps way past the slippery slope and may just hit the chasm below.

No Longer (Thank Goodness) A Presidential Candidate

As you may recall, E and I saw Mitt Romney a few months ago when he was on his campaign stump and I was kind of creeped out by him. That hasn't changed. However, a week or so ago, All Things Considered reported on his speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, in which he gave a top ten list of the reasons he left the presidential race. I was shocked to hear him be amusing, but even more so because he did it partly by making fun of himself. It doesn't mean I would have wanted him to be the Republican nominee - he agrees with Bush on everything and with himself on nothing (talk about a flip-flopper!) but I was impressed to see a more appealing side of him. A couple of my favorites are below (you can hear the whole thing here).

There weren't as many Osmonds as I thought.
I was upset that no one had bothered to search my passport files.
I needed an excuse to get fat, grow a beard and win the Nobel prize.

And my favorite:
There was a miscalculation in our theory: "As Utah goes, so goes the nation."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Water, Water, Everywhere

A couple days ago on Morning Edition, I heard yet another story about how tap water is now dangerous. This time the story was about Congress starting a series of hearings on the findings that tap water in various cities was found to have minuscule amounts of multiple prescription drugs, and included a scientist who said that although tests had determined that people were not affected by such minute amounts of individual drugs, it was not clear what the results could be from ingesting the combination of all of them.

Now I'm normally concerned about pollution, and the idea that our water is laced with random medications is kind of scary. But the more I hear about it, the more I get frustrated. First of all, the proportions of chemicals they're finding are tiny - so much so that we are only able to trace them now with the latest equipment; just a few years ago we wouldn't have even known we had this problem. That doesn't make them safe, but it does mean we're in a media-induced frenzy over something that likely has been going on for a long time.

Second, water is one of the few truly recyclable resources, as many drought-ridden cities are starting to realize. Cleaning and filtering sewer water, while it definitely has the "yuck" factor, is much cheaper, takes less energy, and has fewer bad byproducts than de-salination, which somehow seems so much less gross. Desalination is extremely energy-intensive, which is why it's generally done only in oil-rich, water-pour Middle-Eastern countries. Furthermore, Ocean water isn't actually all that clean - there's a whole lot of raw sewage (thank you, Victoria and Mr. Floatie, among other places!), garbage, and salt. And after they de-salinate and remove that briny, gross stuff, what do plants generally do? Throw it back in the ocean, of course, so the problem just gets worse. Cities like San Diego are finally figuring this out and building sewage to tap plants despite public concern.

Clearly we're not going to get away from this problem. There's less "clean" (i.e. evaporated, rained down, and filtered through some rock into a stream or lake) water available and more people who want to drink it. We can do better at conserving by reusing our grey water for gardening and other non-potable needs, but ultimately we need to drink. The only alternative I can think of is for all of us to start drinking mead. Either the alcohol will kill off anything bad in the water, or if it can't, at least we'll all be happier.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I have a strange fascination with Geoducks. Perhaps it’s because they’re just so odd-looking, or because I’d never heard of them before moving up here, or because they are so much fun to say (Gooey-duck! Gooey-duck! Who doesn’t love that?) or because Mike Rowe did a segment on them in Dirty Jobs, but I just think they’re interesting. And it seems I’m not the only one – when a few of us first went to our local pub’s trivia night, we all agreed that Geoducks was a great name for our team. It was entertaining listening to the Irish announcer mispronounce the word until some irate Pacific Northwesterners in the front area corrected him.

Anyway, I was interested to hear yesterday morning on KUOW’s local news about a current conflict between local Geoduck farmers and people living in the South Sound. Apparently the South Sound neighborhood group is up in arms over the extensive Geoduck farming that’s going on, claiming that it creates silt that goes into their yards, creates trash that goes into the Sound (nets and plastic pipes) and disrupts the shoreline environment. I’m a little confused about how the land-use rights work, and whether the homeowners actually “own” pieces of the beach, and what parts are used by the farmers, but I can certainly see the concern. On the flip side, some biologists said that Geoducks and shellfish in general were good for the marine environment, although they specified that there are “not many scientific publications about Geoduck farming,” if you can imagine.

With almost no information on which to base my decision, I’m going to say I support the Geoducks. If nothing else, more scientific research must clearly be done. So support your scientists in supporting the Geoducks, and I think our world will be a better, and more-informed place.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Green Buildings

Monday on All Things Considered, Michele Norris reported on Beijing’s ambitious plan for every new building to be 50% more efficient and environmentally friendly by 2010. It’s great to see the Chinese government thinking about the environment since there are plenty of counter-examples and issues, and since China has so much construction going on it’s a reasonable thing to focus on. However, I still wish the focus wasn’t on green products but conservation.

In the Seattle Times this weekend there was an article about going green, and it started with a great question – how many green products does it take to reduce your ecological footprint? The answer? As few as possible. Green products are great, but buying more to save the planet is going about it backwards. I’m totally guilty of this – between the two of us, J and I probably have 15 heavy-duty plastic water bottles so we can avoid using disposable water bottles. Do we really need so many? Same with fancy new buildings – I get that people need places to live and work, and if we have to build them we should certainly do so in as environmentally friendly a way as possible, but wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to need less stuff in the first place?

I also read – I think in Seattle Magazine - that the various certification programs, particularly the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™, can encourage some unfortunate behavior by developers trying to tack on just enough features to reach a specific certification level while not actually thinking holistically about the best way to design a building (how to situate it on a site, where to source the materials, etc). I think LEED is a great start – it’s hard to improve something you can’t measure – but I just worry that the Chinese government will focus on this one element and then rest on their laurels regarding the rest of the environmental issues.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In Which I Feel Flattered, And A Little Worried

When I started this blog, I assumed that I’d have about 5 readers, all of whom would be my friends who I’d be babbling to about NPR anyway, and this is more or less true. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a trend where people I’ve written about find my blog posts and actually comment on them! I’m really flattered that they bother – and really excited to prompt a reaction, whether positive or negative, but it definitely makes me double-think what I post.

For instance, Steve Orfield, who I wrote about in Thinking About Silence, responded with more info on the story I mentioned. And Alex Schmidt posted a long response to my story on Plankton Credits in which he disagreed with some of my comments and reminded me that Marketplace is produced by American Public Media and therefore not truly NPR. I told this story to my friend F, who has had to sit through many dinners surrounded by people who work in public radio thanks to his cool NPR reporter girlfriend, and he says that he’s gotten lots of grief over mislabeling APM as NPR too, so I felt better. And a few months earlier than this, Michael Oshman, director of the Green Restaurant Association, had some really valuable comments on my story about the Green Restaurant Certification.

I wonder if there’s a trend, like maybe environmental posts get more activity? Or posts where I ask more questions rather than just going on about my opinion? Either way, I’m certainly flattered…but it does remind me that posting to the internet is definitely not the same as ranting in C’s kitchen. It’s a big, public world out there, and hopefully I’ll be able to occasionally write something that inspires folks to talk back!


I’ve been busy, KUOW had their pledge drive and therefore had fewer inspiring stories, and blogging just didn’t make it high enough on my to do list for the last few weeks. Sorry! I’ll try to do better.