Real Reasons

I’ve been having trouble writing about the shutdown and impending economic apocalypse because its just so stupid. And insane. One thing is clear, this is entirely the fault of the Tea Party for being a pack of selfish xenophobic assholes, and the rest of the GOP, John Boehner in particular, for being cowards.

The other thing that’s clear is that the Tea Party and the GOP leadership are lying about their motivations. If they really cared about the deficit, they wouldn’t be cheering a shutdown that’s costing hundreds of millions of dollars every day and harming countless small businesses. They wouldn’t be threatening to violate their oaths of office by destroying the United States’ financial standing. Its becoming increasingly clear that this is just the same song its always been. Paul Krugman said it best today:

It’s about anxiety over a changing America — the multiracial, multicultural society we’re becoming — and anger that Democrats are taking Their Money and giving it to Those People.

You can’t see it right now, but I’m totally making my shocked face.


Mission Accomplished?

Obama announced the end of the Iraq war. Other than the obvious Bush joke, I only have two thoughts about this.

1) I’ll believe when I see it.


2) What about Afghanistan?



politics science

Leland Yee Supports Shark Extinction

I’ve never mentioned it here, but I’ve always had a thing for sharks. There’s just a certain something about them that I’ve always been attracted to. Their basic shape is so perfectly suited to their environment that its remained fairly constant for tens of millions of years. Their senses, behaviors, their massive variety, hell, even the fact that some of the few fish that have live births (as opposed to laying eggs) are sharks is just cool!

As you might gather, I find the practice of finning sharks for shark fin soup to be absolutely reprehensible. For those who don’t know or can’t be bothered to click the link, finning is the practice of “fishing” where sharks are caught and, while still alive, have their fins cut off and are then thrown overboard where the shark then suffocates and dies. This is only because shark meat isn’t nearly as valuable as the fins, so according to supply and demand, the limited space on board the fishing vessel is saved for the most valuable product.

While many countries regulate shark finning and have banned the practice of throwing the sharks overboard, these regulations are rarely, if ever, enforced. Most fishing vessels arrive in port with a far higher fin to carcass ratio than the laws allow, but no one cares. This may not seem that important, but last year, over 70 million sharks were killed for their fins.

Today (14 Feb., 2011), two California legislators have proposed a statewide ban on the sale of shark fins. Finning is already illegal in the US, as are imports of fins without the rest of the carcass. Despite that, shark fin soup is still readily available and there is a lucrative black market for fins. Banning the final product ends that and should have a major impact on the overall market.

However, CA state Senator Leland Yee has decided that this proposed law is an attack on Chinese culture and cuisine.

“I am very concerned with the plight of many shark species and the illegal shark fining trade.  That is why I support the federal law that bans the practice of killing sharks only for their fins and I would support state legislation to strengthen it.  I would also support legislation to create greater penalties for and enforcement of illegally killing sharks or selling any product from an endangered species.  

However, the proposed state law to ban all shark fins from consumption – regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested – is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.   Some sharks are well-populated and many can and should be sustainably fished. 

Unfortunately, this proposal is just the latest assault on Asian cultural cuisine.  Last week, we had to fight a proposal at the California Fish and Game Commission that would have banned frog and turtle consumption.  I had to pass legislation last year just to allow for the production of Asian rice noodles, and similar bills were needed to allow for Korean rice cakes.  There have also been previous efforts to end live food markets, roasted duck, and several other cultural staples.

Rather than launch just another attack on Asian American culture, the proponents of the ban on shark fin soup should work with us to strengthen conservation efforts.”

Statement from Yee’s office

To which I call bullshit. No one is calling on a ban of Chinese culture. No one is calling for the state to come in and close Chinese restaurants. The fact is that current conservation efforts have failed. 20 species of shark are on the Endangered Species list, tens of millions of top-level predators with a low reproductive rate are being removed from the ecosystem every year and the sale of fin soup is booming.

This isn’t about anything other than preventing the extinction of amazing animals that have been on this plant since before the dinosaurs. No species can withstand the immense pressure that overfishing places on it. We are causing this, so its up to us to stop before its too late. The fact that Leland Yee would immediately turn this straightforward conservation law into a racist attack by the government on a vulnerable minority says a lot about him.

* It should be noted that the bill was proposed by Assemblymen Paul Fong, who is of Chinese decent, and Jared Huffman, a native of Macau.

Yee’s opposition to a shark fin soup ban has nothing to with Chinese culture, nor with defending people against racism. It has everything to do with the businesses who give him money worried that they’re going to lose a profitable item. That is the kind of politician that Leland Yee is. He doesn’t give a shit about the environment, he’s in the pocket of monied special interests and is willing to disguise that by using ugly race politics.

** It should also be noted that Yee was behind California’s unconstitutional video game ban that was similar to bans that other states had enacted and which were all later struck down by the courts. Yee’s bill, when it was struck down, cost the state $324,000 in legal fees to the ESRB, in addition to its own costs.

personal politics stoopid


The problem with analyses like this one is that they’re missing a fundamental point:

Their answer was pretty emphatic: 78% of respondents said they thought Republicans should compromise, while 15% thought they should stick to their positions. That 78% is up from 74% two weeks earlier. When the same question is asked about Democrats, 76% say they should compromise with 17% saying they should stick to their guns.

This is where Rachel misses the boat. When 78% of poll respondents answer that Republicans should compromise and Republicans respond with “Hell, no!”, there’s a clear advantage for Democrats to say they’re open to compromise.

This seems like Politics 101 to me, and I’m a little surprised Rachel took aim at Democrats for smart messaging. Usually they’re dumb about it, but they got this one right.

When polls say that people want the parties to compromise with each other, that’s exactly what they want. The problem is both Democrats and Republicans don’t use the regular definition of “compromise.”

Both parties define “compromise” as we define “capitulate.”

The Republicans refuse to capitulate to the Democrats, while the Democrats are all too willing to capitulate to the Republicans. Just look at health care, where the Democrats started with a weak position and then gave up point after point and ended up with a corporate giveaway. Then consider the wars, offshore oil drilling, Social Security, the economy and pretty much every other issue that Democratic voters care about, and its little wonder why the Democrats are going to lose on Tuesday.

The only problem is that the only other option are the Republicans, and American voters are too stupid to understand what a teabagger-controlled Congress will mean.


personal politics

Once Again

What’s good for Wall Street and huge corporations isn’t good enough for us plebes. From the HuffPo:

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson once said: “And let me emphasize, any homeowner who can afford his mortgage payment but chooses to walk away from an underwater property is simply a speculator – and one who is not honoring his obligations.”

The head of the Mortgage Bankers Association, John Courson, played up the moral argument against walking away, telling the Wall Street Journal last month: “What about the message they will send to their family and their kids and their friends?

But corporations and businesses don’t play by those rules. Like CalPERS’s McKinley said, “You come to a point where you write it off or stay in the game. If you want to stay in you got to put in more capital. We reached our limit on that. It was not a prudent thing to put more money into it.

“You get to a point where you can’t keep throwing good money after bad,” he said. “These are illiquid investments. You gotta fish or cut bait.”

As for homeowners walking away en masse — perhaps lenders’ biggest housing-related fear — McKinley added: “We’re hopeful that won’t happen.”

I just love how that works.

In any case, Wednesday is going to be interesting. What’s sad is that at this point, I’m so jaded that I’m pretty sure that whatever comes out of Steve Jobs’ mouth is going to be far more important and world-changing than what comes out of Obama’s mouth.

personal politics science stoopid

Invading Ideas

When I was going through my Twitter feed this morning, i happened across this: Extinction & invasive species are PART of nature. Things change. Why r we obsessed with freezing current ecology? and this: “Survival of the Fittest” means that, unfortunately, that some of our favorites will be pushed out. It’s not “Survival of the Cutest.” and this: Every species u see now pushed another species out. And those pushed out the ones before them. No such thing as “original” or “native.”

I responded with some rather insultingly rude comments @scottsigler Natural invasions occur at a fraction of the rate of human caused invasions. Its not freezing ecology, its protecting diversity and @scottsigler You seriously need to bone up on your populations genetics. The shit you said was stupid. As is laughably incorrect. Its rather hypocritical of me to call someone else out for saying talking shit without backing up my own. Invasive species occur all over the planet, in all manner of ecosystems. My experience, as well as the article in question, is mainly marine, so most of my examples will be as well.

The problem is not so much with the assertion that natural invasions don’t happen, or that extinction isn’t a part of life. Its with the complete disregard for the very real damage that invasions do to local and regional ecologies and the disregard for the differences in the rate between natural invasions and those caused by human activity. I’m going to consider the kelp species mentioned in the article. Assuming that no one reading this has ever seen a giant kelp species in the flesh or know anything about their life cycle, it goes something like this. Kelp, as an algae, reproduces via sporulation. Unlike plants, which have tissues analogous to animals, all kelp cells are effectively the same and all produce spores. I have personally forced kelp to sporulate in the lab and collected from seven blades, enough spores to change the consistency of 1L of seawater into something more like syrup. That’s a concentration high enough that it needs to go through several dilutions in order to be at a low enough concentration to be useful for the experiment we were conducting, about 1E12 spores/mL. If I can generate that many spores from seven blades in 20 minutes, imagine how many spores an entire kelp forest releases during a season.


Kelp spores


Sand dollar larvae. Most broadcast spawners have larvae about this size.

Now consider how tiny kelp spores are, at the micrometer scale. In order for a Japanese kelp to invade California, especially to the point where it can out-compete native species, these spores must cross the Pacific Ocean by riding natural currents, which run through the Arctic Circle and then down the California coast with the cold California current. Any such invasion would likely start north and work its way south, with the currents. Now consider, instead of some space spores managing to survive that trip, a container ship sitting in a Japanese port. Well, it doesn’t just sit there. As containers are being loaded, the ship is loading its ballast tanks with a few hundred tons of coastal seawater, which is filled with not only kelp spores, but a host of other algae species, fish, crab, mollusk and echinoderm larvae. This ship will then cross the Pacific in the best time possible. These ships are required by US maritime law to stop mid-ocean and cycle their ballast tanks, but rarely do, as the fines for failure to comply with the law are less than the cost of stopping. Thus, when the ship reaches port its ballast tanks will be full of all sorts of foreign beasties who are ready and often at the perfect stage in their life cycle to colonize.

This can be problematic for local ecosystems, especially when low level members of the food chain get out-competed by invaders. Not only can food stocks radically change, but things like seagrass height can prevent birds from nesting, an invading clam that reaches the adult stage a week before native species and consumes resources, a marauding crab that rampages through the tidal zone, and on and on. I can also safely assume that no one reading this has ever inspected a cargo ship’s ballast tanks, or even boarded or been close to one. You really have to personally experience it to internalize the scale.

Besides the havoc that such invaders can wreak on native ecosystems, but they can cause massive economic devastation as well. Fisheries can be wiped out, mussels can clog outflow pipes of power plants, clams can bore into mudflats and massively increase erosion, threatening all sorts of human communities and commercial facilities.

As for the Survival of the Fittest comment, that’s social Darwinist bullshit. That’s not a scientific concept or something that’s ever brought up in scientific literature. Natural selection is cruel and impartial, but works on populations in entire ecosystems. It also works at a particular rate, usually called evolutionary time (like how geological processes function at geological time). That’s kind of why they’re called ecosystems, since they are functional systems. If you start introducing massive disruptions into any system, it will collapse. That’s not natural selection, any more than climate change is a natural process. The fact is that there was no massive invasive species problem before the advent of fast trans-oceanic shipping. The only major cause of species invasion before that was deliberate human introductions. Unless anyone thinks that rabbits just happened to pop up out of nowhere in the Australian outback. Or that most of the lust Hawaiian vegetation that we all like is invasive, and happened to show up after European colonists showed up (which was after Polynesian colonists showed up). I could go on, but the fact is that natural invasions are so rare and mild that they can be absorbed by the ecosystem with minimal disruption.

Next, there’s this comment: Every species u see now pushed another species out. And those pushed out the ones before them. No such thing as “original” or “native.”Wrong. There are plenty of examples of empty niches being filled in by opportunistic species. Classic example: early mammals didn’t exactly wipe out the dinosaurs by themselves, now did they? I don’t know what Scott meant by original, since that’s not a word we use in the context that he was using. There is, however, such a thing as a native species. What constitutes a native species is even defined scientifically. All one has to do is look it up.

@pcharing there is no “permanently disasterous” in nature. One species’ apocolypse is another’s gateway to dominance of the open niche.I think the dinosaurs and trilobites would disagree with you. An apocalypse tends to effect more than one species at a time, and extinction, at least in nature, doesn’t just happen. Again, we’re dealing with systems with lots and lots of interdependencies. For example, it would really suck for us if phytoplankton stopped fixing nitrogen and the atmosphere turned into poison.

@niltiac afraid that isn’t true, as proven by the FIVE mass extinctions in Earth’s history. 5, yet life flourishes, including all u see now.Life that tended to be quite dissimilar to that which preceded it. Sure, it all has DNA, but the first life forms in this planet (who dominated far longer than any eukaryote) thrived in what was an alien planet with a toxic atmosphere. Its lucky for us that they fouled their nest by filling the atmosphere with a toxic, caustic gas that eventually drove them off the face of the Earth. Sounds familiar, yes? Except oxygen gas, at atmospheric pressure, isn’t toxic to life forms like us. What makes you think that we could survive the next mass extinction? Maybe we should be less blasé about it.

@j0ni “balance” is a myth. Extinction is the rule. There was no balance before us, there us none now. Equilibriums are temporary in nature.Yes, there is no such thing as a perfect equilibrium in nature, and yes, its a model. Yes, given enough time, everything is temporary, even the universe. But, statistically, its an accurate model that predicts how ecosystems function. If you’re going to dismiss an accepted biological model with decades of support, please offer some evidence to back up your claims. Creationism is a myth, equilibrium is science. The difference? One is supported by observation, correct predictions, and cold, hard math, the other, not so much.

@CJWellman Most “native” Galapaos species are “invasive” from long B4 man arrived. Native state is barren. When did “native state” start?Its hardly invasive to colonize a barren rock with lots of empty niches. If you don’t think there’s a difference, go ask an indigenous person, anywhere in the world, what he thinks of being colonized, then go ask a Martian what he thinks of us sending all those probes and planning to colonize Mars. Oh, wait, there’s no life on Mars. There’s no indigenous life to get pushed out. When did the native state start? When life started growing there are formed an ecosystem. Barren is the state of there being no life, no ecosystem. Native state requires life.

@j0ni “Fatalism?” Please. Life goes on. Just not this snapshot of life. Good luck stopping time, nature and evolution.Look at Mars. The conditions for life existed there once, but no longer. Think that can’t happen here? Besides, there’s no such thing as a snapshot of life. Life is always in motion, always evolving, us included.

@DomonicMongello so if species arrives on Galapagos from wind or ocean currents, that’s okay, but on ship (from man), that’s not?Again, its a matter of scale and time. You can’t honestly compare wind-borne seeds landing on islands to the Dutch bringing coffee to Java. If you really don’t understand the difference between the mechanisms, then there’s not much I can say to convince you otherwise.

@j0ni show me one example of equilibrium, “balance,” that did not replace a previous state of “balance.” Ergo, balance is temporary at best.
@j0ni no straw man. U say “balance” is observable phenomenon. I ask for permanent example in nature of your statement. Do u have one?
There’s no such thing as a permanent ecosystem. Anyone who would suggest such a thing is ignorant of how they work. However, that doesn’t mean that equilibrium doesn’t exist, or that ecosystems can’t persist for periods of time longer than the existence of human civilization.

All ecosystems function in a state of equilibrium, or else they collapse, extinctions occur, opportunists move in, and a new equilibrium is formed. Equilibrium in environmental biology is not some biblical harmony. All it means is that conditions are stable enough for biological niches to be filled, allowing the native organisms to go through their life cycles. Every single organism depends on a stable and functional ecosystem in equilibrium to thrive. That includes us. We require far more equilibrium and stability than most species. Our food supply is dangerously homogenous, depending on only a few species for our staples. Imagine a virus that attacks grain spreading around the planet, wiping out wheat, rice and corn. Think about just how tenuous our food supply really is, especially when you also consider the havoc that we’re wreaking on the atmosphere, the water supply, the soil. Look at the food you have in your house, think about where it came from, and then tell me, with a straight face, that equilibrium isn’t real or that its doesn’t matter.

Scott challenged me to point out what was laughably incorrect. At the very least, the vast difference between natural aquatic invasions and ballast tank discharge fits the bill. I could stand to be more polite in the future, but I can’t make any promises.

politics stoopid

Claim Chowder Bobby Jindal Style

Remember back when Bobby Jindal gave his ever so stupid and out of touch response to Barack Obama’s state of the economy speech? Remember how flabbergasted everyone was when he singled out volcano monitoring as a waste of government funding, especially considering how his state still hadn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina yet? Well, it should go without saying that volcanos tend to violently erupt and wipe out all life for miles around, but in case any morons still think its a waste, this just came through my RSS:

Alert level raised for Alaska volcano

I think Palin and Jindal should go discuss whose natural disasters are more worthy of attention. Fucking Republicans.

personal politics

Why the Fuck Do I Pay Taxes?

Its the question that I ask every time tax season comes around. Well, actually, its what I ask every time I look at my paycheck and figure out just how badly I’ve been raped this time. I don’t like dwelling on it, because, as I’m sure everyone else who’s the not filthy rich CEO of a bank or other parasitic institution, the thought of how much I pay, and how little I get back, just gets my rage on.

While the apparent amount of taxes I pay doesn’t seem as much as some people, it is quite a bit. I’m not going to get into the details, but there’s quite a bit of money that gets flushed down the toilet of government. In theory, taxes are a vital part of a society. Tax money keeps government running. Taxes fund social goods like public schools, public roads, public transportation, infrastructure and the like. It even puts food on my table, since my paycheck comes from a taxpayer-funded NIH grant, so I can add public health to my list. So, given my own list of all the good things that my taxes help pay for, how could I possibly be pissed about having to pay?

The answer’s quite simple: most of my tax money doesn’t go to the public good. In fact, the public good the always the first thing to get cut when government funding gets lean. No, the reason why I’m pissed is because most of my taxes are wasted on bullshit. Even before the financial collapse, your know, the one brought about by Wall Street’s immense and insatiable greed, most of our tax money didn’t go towards the public good. The vast majority of the federal budget goes towards the military. No, that’s not right. Most of that money goes towards the military-industrial complex, which is basically Lockheed, Newport News Shipyard and the like. I wouldn’t even really be that upset, if not for the fact that these corporations charge insane amounts of money, but can barely deliver. Navy and Coast Guard ships are late and so below standards that ships are being rejected. Soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been chronically short of all sorts of supplies since the start of both wars. There are no sci-fi weapons for fuck’s sake!

The point is, for all the money that gets flushed down the Pentagon toilet every year for the past few decades, there is very little to show for it. Aging equipment, shortages, massively over-budget (and aften underperforming) new projects all beg the question: why is there no oversight? Now combine the chronic irresponsibility of the military budget and combine it with two horribly managed wars, in which $9 billion (with a B) in cash simply drove out of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, flew to Iraq and disappeared.

What. The. Fuck.

Now combine that with the financial meltdown, the state of American healthcare and the state of American infrastructure. The fact of the matter is that Congress allowed the financial services market to become too large, while allowing specific institutions to become to large. Congress keeps dumping more and more money on these thieves, who caused all their own problems by hurting us and who, instead of using that money to help us, are predictably, helping themselves. This is of course at the expense of virtually everything else. Hell, the government could give every single person in the US a billion dollars (with a B) and it would be cheaper than what’s going on now.

So, what do we do about it?

Unfortunately, not much. Congress is in charge of tax law, and they’ve proved themselves to be quite resistant to any reforms that help we the people over we the super rich bankers who pay for your fucking campaigns. We could do like Larry Lessig and try to change Congress, but that’s much easier said than done. You could always refuse to pay your taxes, but that tends to not end well. There’s another option, but I’ll not speak of it, since only right wing shitbags get to talk about violent insurrection against the government without getting in trouble, so I’ll avoid it.

So in the end, I pay taxes because I have to. I don’t know what to about this problem, but I don’t care to have the FBI come and blow up my house and kill my family, nor do I want to go underground. Both of those seem worse than my current situation, but the question remains how to make real reform and make the government work for we the people. Congress and Obama have shown that they’re not going to go anything for us unless they have to. I’m going to make more noise, but that’s not going to be enough.

personal politics

On the Stimulus

I’ve been thinking about the economic stimulus and its ugly cousin, the Wall Street bailout for a long time now, and what it means for us, both as participants living in an economy that we have little control over and as citizens of a democracy that we, at least in theory, have ultimate control over. Rather than get into the stimulus bill itself, which I find inscrutable and insanely long, I’m more interested in the people and thought that brought it about.

The idea behind Congress is that most people either don’t have the time or the expertise to run the government. Back in the late Eighteenth Century, most people, the commoners, plebeians or the mob, simply didn’t have anywhere near the education or experience required to participate in fundamental functions of government. From a more practical perspective, a complex society simply couldn’t function if everyone had to be involved in every decision of the government. Direct democracy, which today takes the form of popular voting, town hall meetings and caucuses, is a very time-consuming process. It takes a lot of work to be an active participant in direct democracy, if only to make informed choices when going to vote twice a year. Imagine the amount of research done for learning the ballot measures for the average major election year, and multiply that by every day.

Congress (and state legislatures, and local boards and the like) has to deal with extremely complex issues as a matter of course. Society would simply grind to a halt if everyone had to deal with all those issues. Infrastructure would break down, science would stop, the power would go out, and so on. Thus, we hire people to go to Washington to deal with that. They’re supposed to go to Washington to represent the people who live near them and to fight for their interests.

Of course, the reality is quite different from my overly simplistic summary. Yes, we live in a representative democracy, but we are far from represented in Washington. People always complain about the obvious disconnect between what the country wants and what comes out of Congress. The bailout and the stimulus are the most recent and egregious examples. The American public was overwhelmingly opposed to bailing out Wall Street and put an incredible amount of pressure of Congress not to pass the bill. It makes perfect sense that the public would feel this way since we’ve been spoon fed the idea that in a free market capitalist system those who can’t keep their competitive edge, fail. Yet somehow that idea is being pushed aside in favor of a system that keeps failing and uncompetitive financial institutions from being revealed as the broken and unsustainable institutions they truly are. However, despite this fact Congress passed the bailout overwhelmingly, with virtually no restrictions on how the money was to be spent. The stimulus is a similar situation, but the public is in favor of a package that creates and protects jobs, public health and forces banks, especially ones that received bailout money, to resume lending. What we got was a gift to corporations, but very little protection or economic help to workers or homeowners.

We assume that government is corrupt, and with good reason. The question is why? We have the power to remove people who we don’t like. If a congressman sucks, we kick them out and stick in someone better, right? Well, no. The majority of congressional seats are considered safe. Those people are so secure in their seats that they’re highly unlikely to be unseated by an opponent, even one from the same party. The power of incumbency is one of the strongest forces in American politics. One of the reasons for this tends to be the lack of credible opponents. Take my representative, who happens to be the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. By all accounts, people in San Francisco think that she’s been doing a rather shitty job of leading House Democrats to fulfill the promises that swept them back into power. She (and Harry Reid) caved to the Bush Administration time and time again, even when the public was clearly against Bush. Even after Obama’s massive victory, Congress still bent to Bush’s will all through the lame duck session. Does Congress do these things because the members are hideously corrupt, or because they are so weak-willed that they simply lack the ability to stand up to the worst president in US history, who has already been repudiated by the public? Sadly, no. The true answer is as simple as it is depressing. Congress acts the way it does because we the people are not their constituents. Congress does not represent we the people, it represents those who pay them. Of course there are members who truly try to do their jobs for the betterment of we the people, but as a body, we the people are just the chumps who pull levers every two years.

Despite the public anger towards Congress, the same people tend to keep getting elected. Why? Despite the massive corruption in the political system, no reforms are demanded by we the people to force our representatives to represent our interests over those who prey on us. Congress falls over itself to grant a wonderful socialist paradise to Wall Street, but balks at keeping middle class families in their homes, even though to rescue the economy, bailing out the middle and working class while leashing Wall Street is the guaranteed path to success.


Bush’s Bunny Ears

You should read the Crooks and Liars summary before getting to the actual piece, if only for the great picture!