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Plucking Out Threads Like Penelope

Not a clever thought to be found in my head just now, 'cepting those required to wrestle with a range of procedural issues, so a random miscellany is the order of the day:

♣ Apropos of those SUV's I was complaining about below, the LosAngelocentric LAist weblog continues its series exploring the Problem of Parking in Our Fair City and the displays of arrogance and entitlement that process engenders. A useful tool for citizen action is provided, readily adaptable for use in your city. On a related note, the registrationophilic Los Angeles Times Magazine this past Sunday offered up a lengthy piece on the rise of gas-electric hybrids, including the revelation that "You Know You're A Real Hybrid Owner when. . . . You post your gas mileage online." Guilty as charged.

Culture Watch: Not always on top of those breaking stories, L.A.-based weblogs seem to have left it to Canadians to announce the long-awaited publication of the collected poetry of Paris Hilton.

Funny Because It's True Dept.: Comedian Dave Mordal on last night's opening episode of Last Comic Standing 3:

And then there's the idiots who want electric cars. They say, 'Oh, we should all drive electric cars, 'cause they don't pollute!' That's right -- because electricity comes from magic!

(Reproduced from memory; and I blame my youngest son for the fact that I was watching at all.)

"OK, You SUV's: Out of the Pool!"

As I noted last October, during his campaign to keep his position, our ousted erstwhile Governor Gray Davis proposed a law permitting gas-electric hybrid automobiles to use carpool lanes, even when they carry a single occupant. Now that proposal has been revived in legislation likely headed to the desk of Governor Schwarzenegger, who will likely approve it -- but not if the Ford Motor Company has anything to say about it.

The legislation would permit issuance of permits to hybrid vehicles to use carpool lanes, but would only apply to vehicles that "average 45 mpg or more and meet near-zero-emission standards". Ford's only hybrid vehicle, the Escape, has the misfortune of being an SUV, and manages only 35 miles to the gallon. Chairman Bill Ford is huffy:

In a letter to Schwarzenegger that Ford copied to state lawmakers who have yet to take a final vote, he calls the plan a "Buy Japanese" bill and a "special-interest measure ... intended for almost exclusive use by Toyota Prius drivers."

State Treasurer (and probable future gubernatorial candidate) Phil Angelides responds:

Angelides, who proposed the car-pool lane bill to Pavley at the urging of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said Ford is doing his own reputation a disservice.

"What Bill Ford ought to be focusing on is how Ford can make the most fuel-efficient vehicles and how Ford can beat the Japanese," Angelides said.

"We want to send a signal to the marketplace that the most fuel-efficient, cleanest vehicles are what we want for California's future."

[Today's Sacramento Bee report on the bill's passage, with further posturing by both sides, is available here.]

If you don't mind the irritating registration, you might also consider this L.A. Times opinion piece holding Ford up as a prime exponent of 'Greenwashing'. Excerpt:

Conscious of the symbolism of its innovation, Ford made the Escape Hybrid the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar environmental ad campaign titled "The Greening of the Blue Oval." Printed on glossy, pullout inserts in Time, National Geographic, Mother Jones and other publications, the ads declare, "Finally, a vehicle that can take you to the very places you're helping to preserve."

Ford certainly could use a touch of green. The company's gas-guzzling lineup — featuring the Explorer (the bestselling SUV), the Excursion (the biggest) and the F-150 ("Built Ford Tough") — has been a source of pride and profit for Ford. But it hasn't been good for the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency recently found that Ford Motor Co. had the worst fleetwide fuel economy — a truer gauge of an automaker's commitment to the environment than whether or not it produces a hybrid — of any major U.S. auto manufacturer for the fifth consecutive year. The Model T got better gas mileage than the average Ford vehicle today.

I, of course, favor this new legislation for the purely selfish reason that I am one of those Prius drivers -- happily averaging 46.6 mpg over the past 18,000 miles or so -- who will benefit by it. Self-interest will out, every time.

I continue to wonder, too, what Ford was thinking in the first place when it made the decision that its initial venture into hybrid technology would be an SUV. (Actually, I don't wonder: They were thinking that an SUV would be a good idea because people like to buy the blasted things.) An SUV with only one occupant has no place in a carpool lane, hybrid or not. Telling yourself that you're a good citizen because your SUV is a hybrid is about the same as convincing yourself that the diet soft drink with your supersized burger tray will keep the obesity beasts at bay. And don't get me started, please, on the combination of SUV's, cell phones and "compact" parking spaces; I might just combust from the strain.

Shibboleth of Fools

"Well that's it: you see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear."
-- The Rock Man, in Harry Nilsson's The Point

Via Virginia Postrel -- Texan by residence, Californian in her heart -- comes a link to this Daniel Weintraub article reporting that Democratic legislators in Sacramento commissioned, but are seemingly working to bury, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California on outsourcing. The results of the study were apparently not what they wanted or expected as they push for legislation to penalize California companies that try to contain costs by hiring overseas:

A new analysis commissioned by the Legislature suggests that sending American jobs overseas, far from being a blow to employment, can actually help preserve existing jobs and create new ones.

The paper, prepared by the Public Policy Institute of California, warns lawmakers against trying to stem the practice by prohibiting offshoring in state contracts, noting that such a ban would drive up the cost of services and take money away from other programs in the budget.

* * *

[Response to the draft report] is not likely to be warm from the Democrats who control the Legislature. Many of them have jumped on the outsourcing issue, hoping to demonstrate their affinity with working people.

The last thing they want is a study done in their name that claims shipping jobs overseas is not only good for the economy, but for workers as well.

The report cites examples from other states in which prohibitions on outsourcing government work did create in-state jobs, but in which the opportunity costs -- the amounts of state money that weren't saved by sending the work to less expensive foreign vendors -- resulted in a state investment of over $100,000 for each domestic position that wasn't "lost." Adds Weintraub:

Even if these examples are extreme, it's clear that in virtually every case, prohibiting offshoring in state contracts would add to the cost. That cost is hidden, buried in dozens of agreements signed by various state agencies and departments. The consequence, however, is that money spent this way is no longer available for other programs. And that's a trade-off that lawmakers who support the ban don't want to acknowledge.

"Part of the policy calculation should consider whether, in an era of tight budgets, workers at risk of being displaced by offshoring have a more important claim on state resources than other state residents," the report said.

The bottom line, though the researchers don't put it this bluntly, is that politicians, either from ignorance or malevolence, are trying to scare Californians into believing that offshoring is bad for the economy, and bad for them. The reality is that the opposite is true, and that the proposals seeking to freeze the economy in place will do far more harm than good.

I will take it as a given that "malevolence" is not the actual explanation, and that the legislators bottling up this report are not doing so out of an actual desire to harm their fellow Californians. Rather, there is a sort of magical thinking at work, in which results that disagree with preexisting assumptions "cannot" be true. The same reactions kick in whenever reality threatens to contradict an accepted premise, such as the central chestnut in discussions of global warming -- "the US is the major problem, and if we seriously reduce our carbon output, the problem will be mostly licked" -- which Megan McArdle recently roasted on an open fire.

While my examples here pick mostly on Democrats, there are abundant comparable cases among Republicans -- such as the apparent belief that public largesse can be spread about via lower taxes and higher entitlement payments at the same time. These patterns of thought are apparently a product of public life in general, not of any particular party affiliation.

UPDATE: On his weblog, Dan Weintraub points out that the Public Policy Institute report is now available on the Institute's website.


Checking through the referrer logs has led me to The Adventures of Prometheus & Sabrina, whence I learned that the combined forces of this weblog and its legal twin (Declarations and Exclusions) finished in a tie for tenth place in the titanic Prometheus' TypePad Vocabulary Challenge.

It would be craven and churlish of me to vacillate in my effusive praise of the sumptuous, opulent pleasures that bedeck the weblog of the perspicuous and perspicacious Prometheus, where the writing is pithy and mellifluous by turns, and never prurient.

[Perhaps by the nefarious subterfuge embedded in this post, I can ensconce myself in a higher place in future rankings? I am undaunted. Excelsior!]

Attack of the Flying Munch-ees

The Scream (detail) - click to reach Munch Museum site Gun-toting thieves made off with a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, and with his less well-known but also important Madonna, from the Munch Museum in Oslo over the weekend. Both paintings can be viewed at the Museum's site, here, though they are not currently viewable at the Museum itself. The particular "Scream" that was taken is the lesser-known, "eyeless" version; its better known artistic twin, which was itself stolen and recovered in 1994, remains in Norway's National Gallery, also in Oslo. (Oddly enough, every online version of this story that includes an illustration seems to be using the National Gallery version, not the version that is actually missing.)

The getaway car and portions of the paintings' frames have been recovered, and the International Herald Tribune reports that a number of the usual suspects have already been eliminated:

"There's no market and there's no secret Dr. No or Mr. Big or anybody like that out in the Venezuelan jungle, or Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus," said Charles Hill, a former British Scotland Yard detective who helped recover "The Scream" in 1994.

"These guys steal these things as trophies and then they don't know what to do with them," he told Norway's NRK radio.

The man behind the 1994 theft, now out of jail, denied any involvement. "Weapons are not my style. I have always used the methods of a gentleman," Paal Enger told the Verdens Gang daily.

The paintings were not insured against theft. Immediate criticism has landed on the Museum's seemingly ineffectual security measures. The IHT report, however, offers some justification from museum representatives:

Lise Mjoes, the director of Oslo art collections, defended security at the museum: "We can't see that any mistakes were made. The guilty ones here were those who carried out the robbery."

Visitors are not routinely searched by unarmed guards.

"The safety of employees and the public is top priority," Mjoes said, adding it could be a "catastrophe" if gunmen were trapped inside if the doors had shut automatically, for instance, when an alarm went off.

The deputy culture minister, Yngve Slettholm, said it was impossible to totally protect artworks "unless we lock them in a mountain bunker."

"It is food for thought that the spiral of violence has now reached the art world," he said. "This is a first for Norway, and we can only be glad that no one was hurt."

Lax security: It isn't a bug, it's a feature.

[Craving more lost or strayed art? Follow the links in this earlier post.]

Liver? Well, It's the Best Revenge

Virginia Postrel notes an article in the San Francisco Chronicle ("which seems like a much better newspaper when you read it online") describing some of the bills now on or heading to the desk of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signature or veto. Alongside hot topic legislation on subjects such as prescription drugs, business outsourcing and whether undocumented immigrants should be permitted California driver's licenses, this item catches the eye:

Here are [some of the] bills the majority Democratic Party may attempt to send to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk in the final days of the legislative session, many of which are targeted for opposition by the Republican leadership or business groups. The governor's response to them will more firmly establish his developing track record.

[Assorted bills omitted]

Foie gras (SB1520, Burton, D-San Francisco) -- Bans sale and production of foie gras, the fattened goose liver savored by some high-end diners but abhorred by animal rights activists because of the force-feeding method commonly used to produce it. Would take effect July 2012.

Before signing that bill, the Governor may want to look north to Oregon which, as Ryan Lizza of The New Republic reports, was visited just last week by one of those "high-end diners":

KERRY POOL REPORT: There are a few good tidbits in here, so this Kerry pool report from last night is worth posting in its entirety.

A few questions: If you were John Kerry, would you order foie gras on the campaign trail? If you were Teresa Heinz Kerry, would you tell the press your husband ordered foie gras? . . .

The Kerrys have dinner with the Rassmanns, and later hear from a few Bush supporters.

John Kerry, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and Andre Heinz dined with Jim Rassmann and his children, 27-year-old Jamie and 24-year-old Jeff. After a 22-minute motorcade, from the airport, the JK and THK wound up at a restaurant called Marche (with a little accent mark over the e).

We arrived about 9:23 p.m. Left about 11:41. Got to the hotel around 11:55 p.m.

The restaurant, with large glass windows and red awnings, specializes in Oregon Northwest Cuisine.

JK and THK emerged from Marche to applause from about 35 people who had gathered around the largely empty restaurant. They both spent a few meetings shaking hands and signing autographs. JK told one person he had been here before, but it was unclear whether he was referring to Eugene or Marche.

THK reported to the pool that she had lamb and tomato salad, while JK had duck foie gras and tuna.

She said the food was great: "Everything is from around here; everything was local."

Marche is located in an eating and shopping district called the 5th Avenue Public Market, which is maybe a mile from the University of Oregon. Across the street from Marche is a huge store belonging to probably the area's best known company: Nike. Mr. Rassmann politely declined to discuss details: "It was a very pleasant, quiet dinner."

At least Senator Kerry can be confident that even this won't drive PETA voters to cast a ballot for George W. Bush. Ralph Nader, however, may be looking to capitalize on this incident.

Continue reading "Liver? Well, It's the Best Revenge" »

Perced to the Roote

glassywinged_sharpshooter Here is one sharpshooter you want nowhere near your grassy knoll, your backyard or your vineyard.

To your left: the glassy-winged sharpshooter, Homalodisca coagulata, an insect fast making itself the bane of California's wine industry. Much as mosquitos spread malaria as they feed, so the sharpshooter serves as the principal transport and delivery system for Pierce's disease (Xylella fastidiosa), a bacterial infection that turns the water-bearing tissues in a plant into black sludge, ultimately starving the plant to death. While the bacterium is harmful to an array of plants, its chief victim is the grape vine.

Pierce's disease is widely blamed for the near-destruction of wine grapes as a viable crop in much of southern California. A thriving wine industry existed in this part of the state through the 19th century, but the disease destroyed tens of thousands of acres of vineyard by 1895. After an extended absence, the current resurgence of Pierce's disease made itself known in the industry's last major southern bastion, Temecula, in 1997. It has now begun to make its presence felt in northern California wine-growing counties, such as Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.

If this discussion of glassy wings hasn't yet left you glassy-eyed, more details are available at places such as the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter News and Information Service of the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the University of California, Riverside. And if you don't already have reason to dislike these creatures, consider this ahead of your next al fresco social affair:

The threat to the urban environment is real. Heavy infestations of the sharpshooter produce copious amounts of "leafhopper rain," rendering backyard barbecues and other outdoor activities downright unenjoyable. A shady spot in the backyard is a nice retreat on a hot summer day but it could be a nuisance because of the sharpshooter. Sharpshooters excrete water droplets when they feed on plants. These droplets eventually wet people, cars, backyard play equipment, pools, cars and sidewalks. Sharpshooters filter out minerals and amino acids from the liquid sucked from plants. They filter so much water to get adequate nutrition that it excretes a sizeable droplet of water about every three seconds.

What to do, what to do? Given the problematic relationship between Californians and pesticides -- featuring prominently in this Harper's Magazine article by William Hamilton (yes, the cartoonist and chronicler of wine-bibbing preppy sorts) from May, 2001 -- the state is currently letting its anti-sharpshooter hopes ride on the backs of small parasitic wasps, which lay their own eggs among sharpshooter eggs, the latter serving as a ready smorgasboard for the wasp's emerging young. In tribute to these winged warriors, a new somewhat gothic double dactyl:

Vector victorious?
Glassy-winged sharpshooters
Spread vile bacteria,
Sicken our grapes.

Fly, waspish rescuers!
Fly! Let your young drive their
Stakes through the hearts of these
Vampires sans capes!

Of course, annoying as the sharpshooters are in themselves, the problem here is not so much the insects as it is that the disease they spread remains incurable. The Pierce's pathogen might be among those for which a genetic solution could be found, but any research to develop resistant stock must overcome a different sort of force of nature: the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution writes:

There are several ways to introduce or enhance the resistance to Pierce's disease in new variants, or varieties, of grapevines. One logical approach is to transfer genes that confer resistance into California's grapes from distantly related, non-commercial grapes that possess natural immunity. But conventional grape breeding is a notoriously slow and uncertain process, and attempts to use the more sophisticated and efficient gene-splicing techniques have run afoul of EPA and local regulatory policies. So does the approach of University of Florida researchers who have patented a group of resistance genes that are a synthetic version of those found in a variety of organisms. (And so also does another gene-splicing trick that could permit new vines to bear fruit years earlier than usual.)

The EPA discriminates against gene-spliced varieties, by regulating even more stringently than chemical pesticides any plant that has been modified with gene-splicing techniques to enhance its pest- or disease-resistance. This policy, which has been attacked repeatedly by the scientific community as unscientific and irrational, has badly damaged agricultural research and development. It flouts the widespread scientific consensus that gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed and predictable than other techniques. New gene-spliced varieties can not only increase yields, make better use of existing farmland and conserve water, but -- especially for grains and nuts -- are a potential boon to public health, because the harvest will have lower levels of contamination with toxic fungi and insect parts than conventional varieties. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying crops with chemical pesticides, they are environmentally and occupationally friendly.

The link to Dr. Miller's article comes via Iain Murray writing at The Commons Blog, where he adds:

If we want to save the California wine industry, rescinding those EPA regulations would be a good start. It'd be easier than trying to change the weather.

At least the weather gives us something to talk about as we shelter indoors with our guests, fast-disappearing Chardonnay in hand, to evade the leafhopper rain.

Continue reading "Perced to the Roote" »