Jun 032007

The WP has a great story on researching human’s altruistic nature called If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. When we give, it activates a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots — such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment — that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior.

They also have some interesting bits on how damaged brains react to tests, and how different parts of our brains clash with each other over difficult moral questions. Well worth the read.

Feb 222007

As my previous post stated, we are all causing massive changes to the earth by producing green house gasses and eradicating carbon absorbers. Skeptics, Grist has done a great job rounding up the usual suspects if you want to know more about certain points.

The question is, what to do about it all? Running through the various greenhouse gas calculators, Anna and I will produce about 14 tones of CO2 this year. Our total is roughly half of what the average American couple produces, but we really shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back. A closer look at the numbers: we share a car, and we car pool to work. Our 1913 house has no heat or air conditioning, and all of our lights are compact florescent. We are also able to get the vast majority of our produce locally, year round. When you look at all these factors, we are actually not doing as well as we should.

Our base numbers are relatively low, but are skewed by one thing, frequent air travel. For example, Anna and I are going to Europe this spring. Just these flights there and back the 18,774 KM will produce about 4.2 tones of CO2. Our entire year of driving will only produce about 2.2 tones of CO2. Add in our other trips and you can easily see where the majority of my CO2 comes from. It is little wonder why the Bishop of London recently proclaimed that flying on holiday is a sin.

Of course, we could just purchase carbon offsets. And actually, we have. Anna and I are “carbon neutral” (select the right carbon off setter, they are definitely not equal in their solutions). Have we redeemed ourselves, now free of sin? Enter in cheatneutral.com to show how silly that notion is:

What is Cheat Offsetting? When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere. Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience. Can I offset all my cheating? First you should look at ways of reducing your cheating. Once you’ve done this you can use Cheatneutral to offset the remaining, unavoidable cheating

As the above satire shows, carbon offsets are good intentions, but really shouldn’t be an excuse for not getting your house in order. The changes are all going to be a bit different for everyone. People are generally at a different level already, and the changes depend a lot on your location. But it pretty much all boils down to the following:

1) Reduce electricity consumption. The biggest bang for buck is simply changing lights. Compact florescent lights consume 25% of the amount of power to provide the same light as a traditional light bulb. While at it, go for the low mercury versions of CFL’s. That done, there are plenty of other ways to reduce energy consumption – Energy Star appliances, insulation, efficient home design, and line drying clothes. Industry has a ways to go on this front. Office buildings are notoriously inefficient, and our computer industry is only going to consume more power.

2) Live locally. Try to buy foods produced locally, and organically. It is easy to pick on things like water from France, berries air shipped from Argentina, and Brazilian beef. But even transportation and freezing of produce in the USA produces huge amounts of green house gas. An easy way to do this is to subscribe to a CSA, community supported agriculture, hit the farmers market, or start a garden.

3) Eat less, or better yet, no meat. Eating meat has about the same environmental cost as driving a polluting car vs. a hybrid, about 1.5 tones of CO2 per year. This is due mostly to the increased energy inputs meat requires, but also the current state of industrial meat farming. In addition, most of the rainforest devastation has been to plant soya for animal feed, this further reduces the amount of CO2 that can be reabsorbed.

4) Reduce auto and air transit. Bike, train, bus, or carpool where possible. As stated above, we are definitely guilty on this one, and business travel will need to change. Read this for a bit of an efficiency shock. Most of North America is designed to only work with everyone having a car. This needs to change. We need to promote more efficient city design, as well as better public transit.

The above changes are important, but ultimately I believe we are going to have to have consume less and have a smaller footprint on the earth to get levels where they should be. Really, the planet can’t support us living the way we are right now. I’ll be writing another post soon about the changes Anna and I are making to try to reduce our consumption and greenhouse gas production.

Want more ideas to reduce your greenhouse gas production? Here is a short list:
EPA’s suggestions
EUROPA’s suggestions
Climate Crisis’ suggestions
Greanpeace’s suggestions
Treehugger’s suggestions

Feb 202007

“Most Americans believe global warming is real but a moderate and distant risk. While they strongly support policies like investing in renewable energy, higher fuel economy standards and international treaties, they strongly oppose carbon taxes on energy sources that put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Titled Americans Believe Global Warming Is Real, Want Action, But Not As A Priority, this report on a University of Oregon study is an interesting look on American attitudes:

Using affective-image analysis, Leiserowitz also asked Americans what thoughts or images came to mind when thinking about global warming. Sixty-one percent of their associations fell into just four categories: melting ice in the Arctic; warmer temperatures; impacts on non-human nature; and polar ozone holes.

“These responses help us understand the connotative meaning of global warming — and why Americans react the way they do,” Leiserowitz said. “These associations are to geographically or psychologically distant impacts, generic warming trends, or a completely different environmental problem. Thus it’s not too surprising that global warming remains a relatively low priority.

“One of the most important things that we found is what we didn’t find,” he added. “We found no references, no associations, of the impacts of climate change on either human health or extreme weather events. Yet these are, arguably, among the most important potential impacts, because, ultimately, the consequences are going hurt people.”

America needs a kick in the ass. For example, this should feel like a punch in the gut: A series of connected lakes has been discovered deep beneath glaciers in Antarctica and are speeding streams of polar ice into the sea, scientists announced. Water under glaciers has been shown to significantly speed up glacier slide off and melting, raising the sea level. To add to the point: Scientists warn it may be too late to save the ice caps – The Guardian says the calculations for totaling green house gasses have been wrong, and the increases will almost guarantee the melting of the caps, resulting in sea level rise of 4-6 metres (13-20 feet). Some of this will happen when we are already dead; the consequences will continue long after us.

To bring it home, for San Diego this would mean much of the coastal areas under water – PB, IB, and the complete loss of Coronado. It also seems to suggest Imperial County and Baja California would see massive changes – The Sea of Cortez would reach almost to El Centro and Calexico. It would seem to only take a storm or two to threaten floods of the entire Imperial Valley. Imagine the Salton sea becoming part of the Sea of Cortez, and the Pacific.

As dire as the sea level rise is for certain areas, everyone will be affected by weather and biological changes. Rainfall patterns are a matter of life and death in many parts of the world, and weather systems may change dramatically with changing temperatures. This of course will have a huge change on our food supply with a very real threat to our industrial agriculture that feeds much of the world. This look at hardyness zone changes from 1990 to 2006 is very telling.

The increase of C02 will mean more is dissolved in the ocean to form carbonic acid. This results in ocean acidification, placing many ecosystems at risk. Overall, the changes are expected to extinct 15 and 37 percent of known species by 2050. On the flip side, these changes will also bring new opportunities to invasive species and diseases that are quick to adapt.

It is hard to imagine the response to this. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, even if we adopted the most far-reaching plans to combat climate change, we would still watch greenhouse gases rise for decades. He argues that in addition to reducing our output, we have to start figuring out how to cope with the damage we have already done:

“Many environmental advocates fear that talking about coping with global warming will hamper efforts to slow it down. In fact, we have no alternative but to do both. Mitigation and adaptation complement each other. In both cases, the crucial need is to stop talking and start acting.”

More to come from my high horse later…

Feb 012007


Most folks have heard about the Aqua Teen Hunger force ads (up for weeks in 12 other cities) causing a terrorist scare in Boston by now. I know if I was going to plant a bomb it would look like a Lite-Brite showing a cartoon character flipping the bird. Sigh. But their press conference just takes this absurdity to a new level:

Two suspects arrested for their part in a hair-brain TV cartoon marketing campaign that ultimately paralyzed downtown Boston held a wild and mocking press conference Thursday, during which they would only answer questions regarding… their hair.

“I feel like my hair is pretty perfect but altogether I want to redirect this to the haircuts of the ’70s,” Berdovsky said, ignoring reporters’ shouts.

“I really like the one where the hair curls around to the back,” Stevens replied.

“Oh yeah, that one’s so hot,” Berdovsky then responded.


Oct 042006

Kurt Andersen has written a great piece over at NY Magazine. Titled “The End of the World As They Know It”, it dives into culture and attitudes obsessed with apocalypse.

Five years after Islamic apocalyptists turned the World Trade Center to fire and dust, we chatter more than ever about the clash of civilizations, fight a war prompted by our panic over (nonexistent) nuclear and biological weapons, hear it coolly asserted this past summer that World War III has begun, and wonder if an avian-flu pandemic poses more of a personal risk than climate change. In other words, apocalypse is on our minds. Apocalypse is … hot.

Millions of people—Christian millenarians, jihadists, psychedelicized Burning Men—are straight-out wishful about The End. Of course, we have the loons with us always; their sulfurous scent if not the scale of the present fanaticism is familiar from the last third of the last century—the Weathermen and Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians. But there seem to be more of them now by orders of magnitude (60-odd million “Left Behind” novels have been sold), and they’re out of the closet, networked, reaffirming their fantasies, proselytizing. Some thousands of Muslims are working seriously to provoke the blessed Armageddon. And the Christian Rapturists’ support of a militant Israel isn’t driven mainly by principled devotion to an outpost of Western democracy but by their fervent wish to see crazy biblical fantasies realized ASAP—that is, the persecution of the Jews by the Antichrist and the Battle of Armageddon.

When apocalypse preoccupations leach into less-fantastical thought and conversation, it becomes still more disconcerting. Even among people sincerely fearful of climate change or a nuclearized Iran enacting a “second Holocaust” by attacking Israel, one sometimes detects a frisson of smug or hysterical pleasure.

He doesn’t have much trouble finding examples these days. I must admit, to a certain extent, I have also slipped into the mindset that the future will get worse, before it gets better. Why? I don’t think any one thing can be singled out. It is probably equal parts climate change and dangerous energy dependence, a sprinkle of looming brinkmanship, and a dash of perpetual war. Top with consumer and government spending and savings habits, and bake for 10-20 years.

But after thinking about it some more, I have to add in another ingredient to my pessimistic future pie. It is the increase in apocalypticism – the very subject of the article. Growing up on the evangelical side of the christian spectrum, the view point was not uncommon. The rapture was going to happen any day now. In that environment, it didn’t seem like such a strange thought. Now of course I fear what that does to one’s mindset and motivations. I mean, why fix this world, when doing so will delay your god’s coming?

Enough of my ramblings, the article is definitely worth a read.

Sep 112006

One of the things I love about California is that you can grow pretty much anything here. I don’t own a patch of dirt, but I’ve got a patio with potted fig, mandarin, lemon, and avocado trees. The yield isn’t spectacular, but I still love it. In fact, if I had my way, we wouldn’t plant anything but fruit bearing trees in our public spaces. Why do we bother planting and watering park trees that don’t produce anything? Fruit for the people!

Village Harvest is a group doing some great things. They get neighbors and community organizations to provide food for the hungry by harvesting extra fruit. The California Report did a great story on them:

A Backyard Bounty – California is celebrated for its bountiful produce. Residents love the fresh fruit the growing climate provides. But there is another side to it for some homeowners, like rotting plums on the driveway and smashed oranges on the lawn. How do you keep up with the bounty? In the Santa Clara Valley, homeowners can fall back on some unique help.

Fallen Fruit has a more guerrilla approach, but I still love the idea:

“Public Fruit” is the concept behind the Fallen Fruit, an activist art project which started as a mapping of all the public fruit in our neighborhood. We ask all of you to contribute your maps so they expand to cover the United States and then the world. We encourage everyone to harvest, plant and sample public fruit, which is what we call all fruit on or overhanging public spaces such as sidewalks, streets or parking lots.

We believe fruit is a resource that should be commonly shared, like shells from the beach or mushrooms from the forest. Fallen Fruit has moved from mapping to planning fruit parks in under-utilized areas. Our goal is to get people thinking about the life and vitality of our neighborhoods and to consider how we can change the dynamic of our cities and common values.

Sep 092006

(All photos for this post can be found here: 2006.09.01 Barona Powwow)
Barona Powwow Barona Powwow Barona Powwow

A few weeks ago Anna and I started hearing some ads on KPBS for the Barona Powwow. The event is free (including free camping), so I’m still a bit puzzled why they would pay for airtime. Excess casino cash maybe? In any case, Anna and I took them up on the offer and attended the opening Friday, September 3rd. I hadn’t been to a powwow since I was a kid, so I was long overdue for a visit.

The Barona Powwow took place on a a ball field about a mile past the huge casino. It was an intimate affair, with only a few hundred people attending. In fact, I’d guess over half of the crowd were participants as well. The standard south-west vendors were there, plenty of gut-bomb fry-bread treats, blankets, and assorted tchotchkes. A powwow is a meeting of tribes, and this was no different. The biggest group seemed to be from Oaklahoma (for good reason) but there were a fair number from the south-west and Califonia.

The powwow started with drumming and singing, then lead into a few Gourd Dances. After that there was a memorial walk for the exiting princess’ grandmother, with many of the other participants joining in for support. It was then time for the powwow grand entry. The grand entry is always fun. All the tribes and dancers follow the eagle staff, flags, elected royalty around the center. Each dancer type is grouped up, so you get to see the participant’s costumes and dancing style for that type. After that it was on to welcoming, crowning the new royalty, and inter-tribal and exhibition dancing. It was worth the drive, the Barona tribe put on a great event.

It was also an interesting event to attend as a Canadian. While parts are the same, the art, dances, and even the look of the people is quite different compared to the northern tribes. I’ve been meaning to write about my native experiences in Canada, perhaps the Barona Powwow experience will give me a starting point.

May 252006

While restocking at Trader Joes the other day, I was surprised to find an ingredient I haven’t had in 15 years – fiddleheads. Sauteed with a bit of butter and lemon, they are one of my favorite greens.

When I was younger my family lived in central B.C. (Canada). In the spring we would sometimes collect fresh fiddleheads to eat at home. Thinking back, we used to do a fair bit of wild food harvesting when I was a kid:

Choke cherries – a small, bitter fruit with a large pit. Makes great syrup or jam.

Highbush cranberry – not really a cranberry, but has a bit of a bitter edge. Found near rivers, the berries are usually sweet enough to eat right off the tree after the first frost. Makes a fantastic syrup and jam. This is a flavor I really miss.

Soapberries – crushed and whipped, these make a bitter foam called Indian ice-cream. Add in a bit of sugar or fireweed, and it takes the edge off.

Wild mushrooms – if you know what you are doing, you can find some great wild mushrooms in BC. I remember mostly pine mushrooms, but there were probably some chanterelles and morels mixed in as well.

Wild berries – Raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, saskatoon, etc. The berries are typically pretty small and low to the ground, but the flavor can’t be beat.

Wild meat – Lots of salmon, trout, and kokanee. Occasional venison, moose, and grouse. It is still pretty common for people in rural areas to have full winter freezers from fall hunting.

I wonder if there are many wild foods to gather in San Diego. I can’t imagine quite as many down here, simply because of the desert aspect. I can only think of one wild food I’ve seen around – the lemonade berry. It seems to have a lot more uses than just making a tart drink though.