Archive | December 2012

The Greenest Choice

In, What’s the Greenest Way to Go?, Earth Island Journal asks readers to choose the greenest auto fuel:

On one issue, at least, American environmentalists are mostly in agreement: It would be wonderful to have walkable, bikable, mass transit-oriented towns and cities in which you wouldn’t need to have a car. But such a vision remains a work in progress. For most families in the United States, a personal automobile is a necessity. So, if you have to buy a car, what’s the greenest way to go? Journalist and author Jim Motavalli says hybrid vehicles and the new generation of electric cars are the most ecological option. Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board argues that the most environmentally smart fuel is biodiesel made from recycled waste and other biomass.

I like the idea of 100% biodiesel (B100) but with minor exceptions, diesel car manufacturers only warranty the use of B2 or B5 in their engines. B5 is only 5% biodiesel, so B5 exhaust should be 95% as dirty as ordinary petrodiesel. What good is that?

Similarly I like the idea of electric vehicles, but based on these Do the Math articles, Battery Performance Deficit Disorder, and Death of a Battery, I am nervous about the lifespan of the battery packs that represent almost half the cost of an EV. Hybrids seem to be a safer choice, and I agree with Motavelli that the Volt makes a lot of sense – if one can afford it.

I agree with Don Scott that we need a diversity of solutions to replace fossil fuel cars, but what makes even more sense to me is to avoid driving as much as possible. One can rent cars, share cars, ride public transit, ride bicycles, just walk or all of the above. Sure, some of those strategies are less convenient than having a personal auto sitting in the driveway, but in the long run, not relying on a car is good for your health and easier on your bank account.

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Thieves at FINA: Does swimming need techsuits?

I never actually saw one up close, but I was relieved last year when FINA banned racing suits made with high technology fabrics, often called hi-tech suits, techsuits or just bodysuits. Brand names included Aquablades, Aquapel, Fastskins, LZR Racers and X-Glides. Based on long debates on rec.sport.swimming in the late 1990s, I had decided that techsuits were helping swimmers swim faster without streamlining technique, and felt that I would rather root for a swimmer than a suit.

Speaking to Swimming World, however, Evan Morgenstein, an agent for pro swimmers, bemoans the loss of marketing opportunities for his potential clients:

SW:… Now before we get into specifics can you give us just a general idea right now of how the market is for swimmers?

Evan: Oh it is terrible. I mean if you were a swimmer looking to make this a career. There could be a worse time to do it. You know unfortunately when the thieves at FINA made a decision that they were going to get rid of the techsuits. What they did was they almost bankrupted several of the swimwear companies and they have never recovered from that because they were so vested in that, but they actually hurt the sport and hurt the popularity of the sport. People love Olympics sports like swimming because of world records and although there were a couple of world records broken in London comparative to Beijing there was virtually no records broken and that is a shame. Technology changes in every other sport.

I watch swimming for the competition and form, not for the records but Tony Austin at SCAQblog, feels that the suits were unfairly demonized:

The techsuits were once criticized for being so cost prohibitive for poor families that they were an uworkable choice for swimmers. I wrote that this was a red herring so as to obfuscate the truth – most swim families are affluent and a simple rule to disallow techsuits at the junior level was quite acceptable on moral grounds. But some five years later a pair a jammers are actually costs more than the techsuits back in the day.

I don’t find that persuasive. Yes, many swim families are affluent, but more and more people are becoming less and less affluent. Also, like most sports, swimming had been trying to attract minority participation. It seemed to us on r.s.s that expensive suits that only last a few races would tend to discriminate against poorer athletes.

I also think the hi-tech suit issue reminded many of us of the hi-tech bike issue in triathlons. Suddenly amateur triathletes were faced with competing against opponents that could afford to significantly drop their times with so-called ‘aero’ components and helmets that cost more than our entire bikes. As I recall, the more egregious add-on aero equipment was disallowed but tribikes have incorporated many aero features and now cost more than average road bikes.

I do understand the revenue issue. I once spent quite a bit on just the right tennis racquet, shoes and apparel. I own three bicycles. Last summer I invested in Louis Garnier bike shoes, a Camelbak hydropak, various blinkies. I also regularly buy New Balance running shoes, Aeltrex orthotics, and high visibility jerseys and jackets. Professional tennis players, cyclists and runners have quite a few endorsement opportunities. I spend less on swimwear and equipment. My jammers and goggles don’t cost all that much, though I have spent a lot on swim timers and I do pay for a club membership.

So fast techsuits could represent endorsement opportunities for swimmers if they were allowed in races. And so could fins, paddles and leg floats. I train with a lot of swimmers that use short fins for their entire workout. Some use monofins and snorkels. Allowing fins in competition would certainly rewrite the record books, and would be another endorsement opportunity. Most hand paddles are unwieldy but I could imagine that some sort of glove with webbed fingers would make any swimmer catch more water. And everyone knows that leg floats immediately reduce leg drag and make you faster.

So if we were to allow bodysuits so we can set more world records, why not allow any hi-tech device that takes away the need to develop better form? I think the reason is that body suits were simply less obvious about what effect they had.

Guns and Monsters

The end of 2012 wasn’t an apocalypse for all of us, but many lives ended in firearm tragedies. Besides the spate of suicides, murders, stickups, drug wars and family disputes, there were mass shootings: Five adults were killed at a Norcross GA health spa, three students were killed and three wounded at Chardon HS in Ohio, seven adults were killed at Oikos University in Oakland CA and six adults at or near a Seattle cafe. But these mass shootings barely registered in the news cycle, and were quickly forgotten in other areas of the country. We’ve become almost as accustomed to firearm violence as we are to auto accidents, and in many US states the number of fatalities from each are about the same. Few drivers would actually be willing to give up owning cars for a little more safety overall, and shooters feel the same way about firearms. Most heard the news, thought, “Oh, that’s terrible,” shook their heads, “And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

In Aurora CO, some redheaded joker wearing a gas mask, load-bearing vest, ballistic helmet, bullet-resistant leggings, throat protector, groin protector and tactical gloves, attacked a movieplex theatre crowd of people watching the latest Batman flick. He threw tear gas, sprayed the confused audience with a 12 gauge, tactical shotgun and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic rifle until its 100-round magazine jammed. He continued shooting with a .22 caliber, semi-auto handgun. He killed twelve people, including six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, and 24 year-old Jessica Ghawi, who had escaped a Toronto mall shooting a month earlier by stepping outside for fresh air moments before. Several young men died heroically shielding others. No hero at all, the shooter injured 59 people, several of whom may never walk again, and one of whom will forever carry a bullet in her jaw.

Aurora did get a lot of media attention. The idea that one’s family could be shot while watching a movie in a prosperous suburban movieplex seemed to resonate more than four Korean-Americans being shot by a family member or a handful of adults being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Firearm advocates pushed the idea that had a number of moviegoers been armed they could have neutralized the attacker. Tactical experts clearly debunked that notion, but even so, Aurora eventually faded from the news cycle, Obama was up for reelection, and there was no lasting support for increased scrutiny of gun purchases and ownership.

Then came the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT. Although more people had been killed elsewhere, the shooting, multiple times, of 22 first-grade children, and six teachers, with a semi-automatic rifle could not be ignored or justified as the collateral damage of civil liberties. Gun control advocates once again called for increased control of weapons availability, Obama had been comfortably reelected, even conservative members of Congress were loath to speak against another assault weapons ban and the NRA, as they often do, went silent for several days. The NRA eventually formulated a call for more armed guards, and even armed teachers, in schools because:

The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next {monster} isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?

Considering the letter left by another mass shooter, the killer of first responders in Webster NY, where my daughter spent Xmas, there certainly are monsters. My belief is that our society creates these monsters by promising far more than it delivers, and that ownership of guns provide a false sense of security against such monsters.

The buzzwords and common wisdom around the issue of weapons availability cloud rather than clarify the issues, leading the unwary to think there are only a pro-gun or an anti-gun position. Gun control advocates actually call for greater control, licensing and registration of gun ‘owners’ and a ban on military weapons and accessories. Gun rights advocates actually call for unfettered rights for and a feudal sort of trust in a select group of gun owner-knights. The path to knighthood, however, requires only money, perhaps a gun safety course, perhaps, and anonymity after the purchase.

The common refrain, “guns don’t kill, people do” is a false dichotomy. It is not one or the other. People wielding guns are extremely successful at killing other people – much more effective than people wielding knives, clubs or bare hands. And using a semi-auto with a large magazine is more effective at killing large numbers of people than having to reload box magazines with only five or ten rounds each.

The Week claims that Congress won’t act on gun control. But Obama and the states can:

Let’s face facts: Congress hasn’t passed a major gun control bill since 1994, when at the behest of Ronald Reagan, it approved an assault weapons ban (long since expired) and, in 1993, the Brady Bill, which requires background checks on gun buyers when a gun is bought for the first time. (Subsequent sales of those used weapons are often unregulated, thus the so-called “gun show loophole.”) The fights to pass those laws were nasty and protracted, and in the ensuing years, positions have hardened even more. Bottom line: As disturbing and outrageous as the Newtown massacre was, there is essentially zero chance that Congress will do anything of substance about it.

The last assault weapons ban was widely regarded as a porous gift to weapons manufacturers. I think that another largely symbolic assault weapons ban is the most that we can expect, but I don’t support one. In Towards A Conversation On Guns, Evan Fleischer sums up a few proposals, but misstates one fact in a way that delights NRA wags:

The best arguments being floated right now seem to strike at a cross between a Dunblane-styled amnesty, setting up a driver’s license process, setting up a Mother’s [sic] Against Drunk Driving shame culture, banning assault rifles and upping funding to mental health programs.

A stricter licensing process makes sense, but I can’t see Americans dutifully giving up their guns as Britons did after the Dunblane mass shooting – nor would I expect law-abiding citizens to give up legal guns. Considering that gun sales go up after every shooting incident, neither can I see a shaming culture taking root.

As gun enthusiasts love to point out, fully automatic assault rifles already are and always have been banned for personal use. Assault weapons is an inconsistent term that includes semi-automatic versions of assault rifles, and semi-autos with features (scopes, pistol grip stocks, bayonet mounts) that make them look like military rifles. Automatics can fire a ten round burst in one second or less; Semi-autos can fire a round as fast as you can keep pulling that trigger – about one round every second or so. From a standpoint of killing power, if one bans semi-auto rifles, one should ban a lot of semi-auto pistols, such as the FN Five-Seven used at the Fort Hood mass shooting, which was banned for civilian use until 2004. To my mind the Five-Seven proved just as dangerous as a semi-auto that looks like an assault rifle. But nearly every pistol sold is a semi-auto.

Upping funding to mental health programs is a two-edged sword, because many of our doctors think that they can cure everything with drugs. While those drugs may make a person docile and compliant in the short term, they may only mask long-term problems. So we are really talking about funding even more medication for unusual people. And no one has proposed limiting gun purchases to people with entirely sane families. The sad fact is that none of the proposed measures would have stopped the Newtown shooter from nabbing his mother’s guns, though they may have limited him to slightly less lethal weapons.

People have claimed that the NRA blames video games, popular culture – everything but the gun – for mass shootings. I’m closer to blaming everything including the gun. If we’re going to live in a society that worships competition, and rewards success by any means, how do we justify arming people that are likely to become bitter losers at any moment? It is one thing to arm a prosperous middle class. It is quite another to arm a shrinking and desperate middle class that will see the rentier class as the monsters. The solution to gun violence, if there is one, does not only lie in restrictions, it also lies in an equitable society.

Who Decides If You Should Own a Firearm?

Yesterday a parent of two small children wrote The Dish about getting the guns in the right hands and out of the wrong hands:

… all my previous beliefs have been upended.  Allowing such easy access to these military-style weapons is madness–how could I have not seen it before? …

Having responsible, armed citizens isn’t an inherently bad idea. There are police officers in every school in New York City, and guess what?  No mass shootings there. Trick is to make sure the right people have them and the wrong ones don’t.  Also, if this debate stops and starts with guns, that will be its own tragedy.  Mental illness and the depravity of our popular culture … must also be addressed.

OK, I thought, but who makes that distinction? Because not too long ago in the US, the right hands were generally white and the wrong hands were generally black. Now it seems that the right hands are rural and suburban and the wrong hands are urban, which often has the same effect as the old distinction. In many other countries the right hands are rich and male and the wrong hands are poor or female. And NYPD do carry out mass shootings — but a mass of shooters against one or two targets.

Banning assault weapons is a logical first step, but as Paul Barrett observed on Democracy Now!, the last attempt at an assault weapons ban was ineffective:

… the 1994 so-called Assault Weapons Ban was one of the most porous, ineffective pieces of legislation that I personally have ever had the opportunity to study. It was shot through with loopholes. It had no applicability to weapons that were made and sold on the day before enactment. And the fact that it was coming for a period of years gave gun manufacturers an opportunity to run their factories overtime and to build up huge stockpiles of the weapons. So we’ll see. But if Congress is not proposing to ban weapons that are already out there, then that leaves millions and millions of weapons already out there.

Orion at dagblog, and a lot of other people, are focusing on the the medicated youth — the Aspies, ADD and ADHD types taking anti-depressant and attention-focusing drugs. That concern is justified in some cases, but many such kids are too busy learning to be bronies and pegasisters to be interested in guns. Keeping medicated folk from buying guns should be a no-brainer, but I worry that people will now assume they are all ticking time bombs.

TPM showcases a letter in which an old-school shooter describes the new paranoid culture of tactical weaponry:

The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization.  …

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends – all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives – for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol – with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements – effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks – e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends – might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy. Not “creepy” in the sense that he’s a ticking time bomb; “creepy” in the sense of…alternate reality. Let’s call it “tactical reality.”

That description fits many people who now frequent The Truth About Guns, where I used to contribute until I felt completely out-of-place. But again, how does one legislate against people owning and carrying because they creep you out?

It almost seems that the only people that should carry guns are the ones that would never think to buy one.

Debt Mediation Scam

I get a lot of unsolicited mail. A recent missive is configured with three tearoff strips to look like an overdraft notice, and has FINAL NOTICE ENCLOSED printed in white letters on a black band on the front. Under that in fine print is:

Warning: $2,000 Fine 5 Years Imprisonment, or both for any person interfering or obstructing with delivery of this letter. Title 18 US Code SBC 1702

Besides the poor grammar, the above essentially means you aren’t supposed to open, read or stop delivery of other folks’ mail. I could put that on a letter to my mother and it would have just as much meaning.

The return address is CRV 5700 Granite Pkwy Ste 200 Plano TX 75024.

Once opened, the note reads:

You have NOT responded to the Debt Mediation Catalog we sent you on 10/16/2012.

Our records indicate that on 10/16/2012, a catalog was sent to you in regards to an opportunity to facilitate settlement offers directly with your creditors for less that what you owe.

This is your final notice that your open enrollment will expire on 12/13/2012. etc. Please call the catalog number 1-800-xxx-xxxx to activate your program before it is too late.

Per the 2012 Fall Catalog you received, you may qualify for one of our programs with a payment of:

Payment: $335.00

Upon clearance of said accounts, all of the major credit bureaus should be notified by your creditors that your debts have been satisfied and paid in full for less than the balance owed.

Please contact us at 1-800-xxx-xxxx and use Reference number AUU-12345

Sincerely,

Illegible signature.
Credit Resolution Department

There’s a lot of fine print with a URL address for Credit Relief Advocates. Googling the name of the company leads to a long list of complaints that read just like my experience:

The purported company CRA (Credit Resolution Advisors) sent a pink notice telling me I had not responded to the first “catalog” they had sent in August. The letter had the appearance that I owed them a payment of 373.00. I have never contacted this or any other company to resolve a debt of my own. Furthermore, when I searched on Google Maps the address on their letterhead, I found it to be the address of James F. Scott Investment. The whole letter smells of fraud. I will not even respond to it.

I did get their catalog, and I tossed it because I don’t need debt mediation services. I’ve gotten a lot of phone messages along similar lines, but I never answer the phone unless I recognize the number. I certainly won’t call them, or anyone with a similar name, even if we do someday need financial services.

Update 2013/02/18: I got an almost identical notice except that the address is 15950 North Dallas Pkwy Ste 400 Dallas TX 75248, which is also the address on mailings from American Debt Mediators. It’s another final notice. There’s a different reference number, but otherwise the same pitch. See Debt Mediation Scam 2 for more on ADM.

Black Enough, Thin Enough?

Robert Griffin III is a standout African-American quarterback in Washington DC, a largely African-American city. He has an amazing ability to run with the ball, but I have read concerns that he may end up badly injured someday. I have mixed allegiances, but my siblings are all Skins fans, and seem as devoted to RG3 as they were to Sean Taylor. But I just ran across a WTF on Buzzfeed, in which ESPN analyst Rob Parker asks:

“Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?” … “He’s not really. OK, he’s black, he does the thing, but he’s not down with the cause. He’s not one of us. He’s kinda black … but he’s not really like, the guy you want to hang out with cause he’s off to somethin’ else. … I don’t know because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancee, we heard all this talk about he’s a Republican, but there’s no information at all.”

You may have guessed that Parker is black, and apparently he is certain that he is black enough – whatever that means – to question Griffin’s personal life. I think he’s overstepping. Anyway, ESPN is evaluating the situation.

On the other hand, a few days ago I read about the flap over former #1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. Tall, blonde Wozniacki was warming up for an exhibition match in Sao Paulo with taller and blonder Maria Sharapova, and went for the joke. Tennis fans know that Sharapova beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon a long time ago, but has had almost no success against her for many years. So Wozniacki stuffed a towel down the front of her shirt and another towel down the back of her skirt.

In today’s connected world, what happens in Sao Paulo doesn’t stay anywhere. A pic made the rounds and Wozniacki drew criticism for a racist portrayal of Serena. The NY Times Straight Sets blog sums up:

Wozniacki furthered her imitation by adding an uncharacteristic grunt, which drew laughs from the crowd. Landing neutral shots in the middle of the court, Wozniacki did not play much like Williams. But when she won the point she fist-pumped dramatically, and then yanked the towels out of her clothing. … Imitations of the game’s famous figures, including Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe, have become standard fare in exhibitions as players seek to be crowd-pleasers. Even the relentlessly nice Kim Clijsters once re-enacted Williams’s notorious United States Open foot fault controversy while playing to the crowd.

Sherri Shepherd and Whoopi Goldberg objected on The View, Shepherd taking personal offense:

“Inside, it does something to me, because we’ve been made fun of for so long for different parts of our body. And to see Serena Williams reduced to this, I don’t like it. I know they’re friends and I know Serena hasn’t said anything, but…”

Friends is an elastic term in competitive sports, but Fox predictably defended the white girl in Wozniacki’s Serena send-up not racist:

When Williams was sick with blood clots in her lungs and home scared for her life, Wozniacki dropped by her home in Los Angeles to comfort her.

If you look at it out of context, without one tiny bit of research or reporting, this impersonation can be turned into a bitter moment. It was not one. In fact, Wozniacki did a similar impersonation last year that didn’t seem to bother anyone, including Williams. And when Wozniacki did her impression at the exhibition in Brazil, Williams reportedly was in the audience.

Part of the problem is that you have Williams fans who are not tennis fans. For people who don’t know, this probably comes across as someone taking a cold shot at Williams. Maybe they don’t realize that tennis players mimic other players all the time. Every tennis fan has seen video of Novak Djokovic’s on-court impersonations of Maria Sharapova and other players. He did an entire commercial for Head tennis racquets in a blonde wig, ending by saying, “My name is Maria Sharapova and my game is instinct.’’

You can’t expect everyone to understand. But it would be nice if talkers and analysts did, or at least studied up.

There was nothing mean-spirited about Wozniacki’s impression. She was not suggesting that Williams is overweight, or that there is anything wrong with Williams’ body-type. Williams has called herself “bootylicious’’ and talked about her extra “assets.’’ Wozniacki was not insulting the look, but playing it up, like “vavavoom.’’

I’m not convinced. I suspect that Wozniacki meant no offense and that Serena has probably learned that there is no upside to taking offense. I ran the story by my young, black, fellow tennis fan in the office – trying to be neutral. At first he said it was funny, but the more he thought about it, the more he said that Wozniacki probably shouldn’t do that. And therein is the quandary. What is funny within a select group becomes inappropriate in the world audience. Scaring Sharapova with a Serena body is funny to a tennis fan. Calling attention to Serena’s shape probably isn’t funny to a black woman.

So while Parker and his friends are certainly allowed to question RG3’s motivations among themselves, and while Caroline is certainly allowed to poke fun at Serena in private, they have to deal with potential reactions when they broadcast their attitudes to the public.

How could it happen here?

At work, I noticed a news blurb about a shooting in Connecticut, and thought, “Not another one.” I bounced the headline off my office buddy in the next cubicle and she just droned, “Oh Great.” I didn’t read it. We’ve all been terribly busy at work, and in America, a few people getting shot isn’t such big news anymore.

Somewhat later, I pulled up Talking Points Memo, and saw that 27 people were dead, and most of them were children. I cried out, “Oh my God, someone killed twenty children!” Other folk started checking the news outlets. I’m working on an elementary school right now, so it was hard to look at the plans with all the little chairs.

Watching the MSM coverage last night, I first noticed that NBC had a background gunsight graphic. Hmmm. I guess I’m just tired of the way everything is packaged.

Then I noticed that every other person being interviewed said some permutation of, “that sort of thing just doesn’t happen here.” While I understood that they were in shock, I couldn’t help but abhor the implicit acceptance that shootings, killings and violence was expected, just not here.