Foreclosing the fourth estate

Imagine the local network news casters are telling you that a storm is coming. This might require imagining yourself as someone who still watches the local news, which may be a stretch, but bear with me. Can you picture your local news people? The male anchor with good teeth and hair and the hot, yet professional, woman of indeterminate ethnicity joke with each other, then put on their “grim face” as they talk about the “Storm of the Century”. Custom made graphics woosh in each time they cut to another story about it. The Wacky Weatherman gesticulates wildly in front of a superimposed map, showing a spiral storm cloud off the coast. Reporters out in the street stand in the rain and warn of heavy winds and describe the storm as the coming apocalypse. The news offers a brief snippet of the governor calling the storm “the real deal” and that “as of right now”, your area “is definitely the target for this hurricane” and suggests you might want to think about going to higher ground, and take “small quantities of food for three to four days”. The local news shows shots of people leaving and interviews of people staying. They assure you that they’ll be there covering it all, so stay tuned.

Do you leave?

I wonder how many people in Louisiana and Mississippi looked at the dire warnings on the news and decided to stay because the local news always makes dire warnings about even insignificant weather. If this happened to even one person who got killed, it’s yet another indication (if you needed one) of the media’s collossal failure to fulfill their basic purpose. As John Stewart observes:

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy. It serves to inform the voting public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they stopped doing that is a mystery.

I’m breaking my own rules by bitching about this without a solution to suggest, but I’m at a loss on how to fix this. Do we just stop watching until they shape up? I’ve been trying that for years and it doesn’t seem to be working. If anything, reducing the number of viewers used to thinking for themselves just makes it worse. Do we just beg them to stop? The blogosphere is starting to marginalize the press in some ways, but this is a mixed blessing, as most blogs check facts more loosely than television and most follow no editorial standard at all. Maybe the point of the blogosphere is really that of fact checker for mainstream media. It’s proving that it does that job really well. Will this turn the media back into something trustworthy? Was it ever trustworthy?

Looking back at how the press covered Katrina before it hit has been enlightening, and I recommend it. You can see a map showing predictions of flooding scenarios, for example. You can see the director of the National Hurricane Center describing the coming Katrina as “really scary” and “a worse-case scenario”. (I’d be curious to see how local TV covered that.) You can see New Orleans main newspaper’s June 2002 story about New Orleans washing away if hit by a big hurricane. You can see Bush follow three paragraphs about Katrina, in which he urges people to seek safe ground, with a dozen about Iraq. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but it’s good to see how the world looked before something bad happened, to see if you could recognize the signs of it if it happened again.

Africa’s ruin or salvation

The Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory can now make gem quality diamonds at reasonable speed. This seems like a great thing because it seriously threatens to destroy one of the more repugnant companies on the planet: DeBeers. For decades, DeBeers has enjoyed a monopoly on the world’s diamond market, keeping the price of what is actually a fairly common mineral high by means of controlling its supply. They’ve used this monopoly to fix prices, influence and back brutal governments and indirectly fund violence against civilians. To it’s credit, DeBeers has been strongly lobbying against conflict diamonds recently, though I can’t help suspect this has more to do with further controlling supply than altruism.

Nearly all of the “common knowledge” about diamonds is a direct result of DeBeers marketing. They completely invented the “traditions” of the diamond engagement ring and tenth anniversary band and how much should be spent on each (“two months salary”, unless you live in Japan, where it is three). They are directly responsible for glamour attached to diamonds in film, backing films featuring diamonds and seeding celebrities like Marilyn Monroe with jewels for public occasions, a practice with many imitators today. All of the “common sayings” about diamonds are either DeBeers marketing slogans (“diamonds are forever”) or commissioned songs (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Recently DeBeers has been using feminism to market the right hand diamond ring. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were also masters of the altered deal.)

Synthetic diamonds are nothing new. Heck, you can even get the carbon released from cremating your body pressed into a gemstone. What is new is the low cost and high speed of production already achieved by Carnegie Institution. Mass produced gem-quality synthetic diamonds could completely undermine the DeBeers monopoly by creating an essentially infinite supply of diamonds that are higher quality than nearly all mined diamonds and completely independent of geography. Further, if the inventors of this process are really interested in using it to usher in the diamond age, they would license it very widely and cheaply. It’s conceivable that anyone with electricity could eventually grow gem-quality diamonds in their home. In this scenario, though, making gems would likely be a small afterthought to more impressive uses of similar technology (like building an elevator to space). Chances are, this won’t happen, at least for a while. Either DeBeers will come to control this new process or those that do control it will reach a “gentlemen’s agreement” with DeBeers limiting production of gems (tactics similar to those they used with GE and the Soviet Union).

Sooner or later, though, technology will reach the point when diamonds and other gems can be manufactured on a scale large enough to destroy conventional mining. The descendants of DeBeers will probably end up owning a big chunk of this industry, so they should (unfortunately) come out OK. The citizens of Africa, on the other hand, are likely to get really, really screwed by this development.

Over half the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa. In the country of Bostwana alone, in the year 2000, diamonds represented 36% of GDP and 82% of exports. Imagine that just vanishing over the space of a couple of years. Add to that the ancillary economy that supports and surrounds all that mining and you get a fairly bleak future, especially since unemployment there is already between 22 and 40% and roughly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

More diversified countries like South Africa should fare better, but trouble in African countries tends to spill into its neighbors one way or another.

Should the rapid collapse of the diamond mining industry come to pass, I predict an equally rapid increase in what Africa has proven, over the last fifty years, that it does really well: genocide. Since the rest of the world has indicated that it doesn’t give two shits about what happens in Africa, loss of mining income will lead to battles for control of natural resources coupled with campaigns against nearby helpless ethnicities. While militaries seize oil fields and logging operations, “terrorists” sporting equipment mysteriously identical to the local military will start slaughtering the scapegoats of the day. The tinpot thug who runs the place will vocally decry the “terrorists” but, equally mysteriously, will be unable to stop them. His wife(s) will embezzle several hundred million dollars and relocate to Europe. After the killing has gone on for several years, Kofi Annan will be horrfied and state that something must be done. The UN will ignore him by endlessly debating “sanctions”.

After a long period of this, maybe fifty years or so, people will start realizing that Africa is the only place left on Earth with easily accessible natural resources (timber, oil, various metals, uranium, cheap labor, etc.) The resulting resource rush and potential Renaissance should be something to behold, for the dozen or so Africans still alive to witness it.

Faint praise for antievolutionists

Kansas (a few miles from my birthplace physically, light years philosophically) is considering changing their definition of science from:

Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us

…to…

Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena

Started by proponents of intelligent design (ID), this has raised a huge outcry (mostly from those in other states) who view it as an attempt to inject religion into schools. While I can’t find much wrong in the suggested definitional change, those who fear the creationists have legitimate grounds to do so, given the release of the wedge memo into the wild. This memo “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” by creating a scientific-sounding basis for God and brainwashing people with it (instead of the Bible). The creation of ID is “phase I” of the strategy in this memo. The activity in Kansas is phase II.

While I have as much use for creationism as I do for the African myth of Bumba vomiting up the sun, my reaction to the events in Kansas, even if they do make this change, is fairly indifferent. This is for three reasons. The first is that I don’t think the wedge strategy will work. In fact, I think it will actually make creationism weaker. Right now, some evidence exists that evolution isn’t taught that much even now, particularly before high school, because creationists raise a ruckus about it. The semi-parody Evolution Outreach Project, for example, offers “gifts for science teachers” that include bullet-proof vests and stun guns. The wedge strategy seeks to replace the ruckus with a presentation of both ID and evolution. While the balance of such presentation is likely to vary widely (as per the wedge strategy), it seems to me that any mention of evolution in school (even negatively) is better than none. I suspect that most people who have chosen to teach science tend to lean more towards evolution anyway, some of whom will jump at the opportunity to openly teach rationality. Some teachers are already figuring out ways to do this:

There’s no question that if science teachers had their druthers, they wouldn’t be teaching intelligent design or gratuitously criticizing evolution in their classrooms. But they do. They can whine or refuse or resign. How much better for them to take this opportunity to teach their students while exasperating their school boards with the power of thoughtful investigation. And have a whole lot of fun doing so.

That ID embraces this “thoughtful investigation” seems even better for evolutionists. In a true stand-up comparison between evolution and ID, evolution completely crushes ID as a rigorous, scientific theory. Granted, you might not get that impartial comparison everywhere, but my guess is you’d see it more than you do now.

I’d rather have kids in conservative Christian parts of the country learning about a semi-sensible, though flawed, concept of “irreducible complexity” rather than “it’s true because it’s in the Bible”. At least the former follows some semblance of active logical thought, rather than passive surrender of cognition to vauge authority.

Secondly, I think the power of a school to influence thought on this subject is overrated. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that people, even kids, rarely change their opinion because of facts. More often, an opinion is formed first, then “facts” are found (or disgarded) in order to justify it. Regardless of what they hear in school, kids who want to believe in a creator will likely continue to do so and kids that don’t, likely won’t. For many of them, it won’t particularly matter what the curriculum is.

Lastly, as flawed as intelligent design is, both it and the political tactics that back it are significantly healthier than previous religious objections to science that dissagreed with dogma (which usually involved setting people on fire). Those who oppose evolution are, dare I say it, evolving.

Necklace question

The film Timerider featured a motorcyclist who accidentally goes back in time to the old west. Being hunky, he naturally beds a local babe and while basking in the afterglow, she asks him about his necklace, which is this misshappen hunk of metal. He informs her that his grandmother stole it from his grandfather and it was passed down to him. Later, in the dramatic finale, the motorcyclist is hanging from a helicopter, dangling a few feet from the babe. She reaches out and takes his necklace, just before the time portal closes and he is returned to his present. So, the big reveal is that the babe is the motorcyclist’s grandmother, implying that he is is own grandfather. Roll credits.

Since seeing this movie when I was 14 or so, my question has always been: who made the necklace?

Looks like I’ll miss my chance to ask those who might know how to resolve such a time paradox, as I’ll not be in Boston this Saturday. Thus, I’ll miss the time-traveller’s convention (of which, there need be only one). Perhaps I can travel back to it someday, necklace and all.

Circus

After over a decade of being kept alive with technology — possibly against her will — Terri Schiavo is dead. I’d like to be able to say that she died with dignity but, unfortunately, the legalistic, religious and hypocritical furor surrounding her death left very little room for anything dignified.

I’ve been thinking about how to think about the events surrounding Mrs. Schiavo’s death, which provide quite a bit to ponder. Mainly, I’ve been wondering about who, of all involved, can be considered to be acting morally. One possible way of examining this is to subject the people involved into hypothetical situations and see where it takes you.

Suppose I’m a District Attorney. Based on the suggestion that Mrs. Schiavo requested not to be kept alive artificially, suppose I accuse her family of sustained and repeated torture of their daughter, taking calculated and extreme measures to artificially maintain what I (as DA) call “an unpleasant, hopeless existence” in accordance with their own wishes and opposed to hers.

Granted, this is a hypothetical situation about law, not morality, but let’s see where it takes us. As I see it, the family has only two possible legal defenses against such a charge.

The first defense would be to say that the claim that Mrs. Schiavo requested not to be kept alive artificially is false. Unfortunately for the family, regardless of whether or not you personally believe that Mrs. Schiavo truly wished to avoid being kept alive by machines, the court system believes this past all point of appeal. So, from a legal standpoint, this defense would not keep the family out of jail for torture.

The only other defense the family could mount against a torture charge is that Mrs. Schiavo is not aware enough to register pain or pleasure and, therefore, cannot be truly tortured. Whether or not this defense would keep the family out of jail isn’t that relevant to me. What matters is that, to even mount such a defense, the family would have to embrace the idea that they have been fighting against.

To me, this indicates that the family doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Further, it suggests their moral stance is on fairly shaky ground as well.