24 December 2007

Happy Christmas to All

An editorial from the Washington Post whose sentiment struck me as quite beautiful:

ON AND AROUND Dec. 25, 1914, many of the men fighting in the recently inaugurated war in Europe stopped for a short time to observe what came to be known as the "Christmas Truce." They sang carols back and forth, then came out of the trenches to meet, play a bit of soccer, share some food. "Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans," a British soldier wrote in a letter home. "[A] party of them came 1/2 way over to us so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. . . . We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two -- it all seems so strange."
Normality was not long in returning. The Great War resumed in earnest, further spontaneous truces were discouraged in the interest of good military order, and by Christmas Day 1918 nearly 10 million men had died at war, along with some 10 million civilians. And of course it was still early in the century, the 20th since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, an event whose significance had been proclaimed in the Book of Luke in words that resonated among people of every faith and following: "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men." Literally uncounted millions more were yet to perish in the wars, pogroms, purges, ethnic relocations and other acts of organized violence that culminated in the Second World War, which was in turn followed by a long "peace" in which uncounted millions more were killed.

The odd thing is that so much of the horror has been so mindless -- not part of a struggle for food, land or dominance or even of long-simmering discord between one group of people and another, but rather a puzzling eruption of hatred toward entire categories of people suddenly found, for no good reason, to be threatening, deviant, dangerously different -- the cause of all problems real and imagined.

Some students of the subject voice cautious optimism that the impulse to such violence is gradually declining or is being reined in. But then, of course, they thought that a hundred years ago, too. There was confidence then that the forces of education and technological and economic advancement would move civilization forward into an era of prosperity and understanding in which peoples would no longer wage war on one another. Perhaps by now we comprehend that while there is some truth in this, what is far more important than all the engines of progress is simply to understand and truly feel what it was that moved the hearts of the men who put down their guns and walked across a blasted field toward their enemies on Christmas Day 1914.

28 November 2007

Joe Biden Hates me!

Just watched the most recent Democratic Primary debate (I know, I'm running far behind), and I've realized that I like Edwards, Kucinich, and Biden more every time I see them. I liked Edwards back in 2004, but there's this righteous (may self-righteous) anger in he and Kucinich that I just love.

At any rate, Biden was talking about appointing Supreme Court Justices, and he said that he'd appoint candidates with "life experience"--whatever the hell that is. He then said, and this is what pissed me off, that there were enough professors on the bench and what we really needed was a dogcatcher. Really? So us stupid, Ivory Tower, elitist eggheads don't have any life experience? That's painting a lot of us with a broad brush. I moved pianos, worked as a case clerk for asbestos litigation, drove a furniture delivery truck within the last decade, sold interior decorating crap at Pier 1 and Pottery Barn, got a Masters degree and started on a PhD, and taught freshman composition within the last 15 years. Is that not enough "life experience?" OK, my father had a triple-bypass surgery from which he almost died, I had my possibly-cancerous thyroid removed, and I got married all in the same month. Is that not enough "life experience?" Maybe having one of your best friends--a 32-year-old gay man in small town Texas--die of AIDS is enough. No? I've got a million of them: I played big-time high school football in Texas, was recruited by some smaller colleges, spent some time at Brasenose College in Oxford, have been hit on by my share of gay men, (I'd guess--I don't know what my share would be but I worked at Pier 1, Pottery Barn, and Nine West, so most people thought I was gay), gotten my ass kicked by a bouncer, done some farm work, quit smoking, lost my intellectual drive for about two years to alcohol and skirt chasing, cheated the IRS...

I'm not even special. The point is that it's easy to beat up on intellectuals and academics, but when the comet is hurtling toward Earth, you dig up some weird Native American artifact, or you need help writing your fucking paper, who do you call? Us. We have life experiences just like the next person. Tragedy, pain, joy, and love don't skip over us.

11 November 2007

Happy Veteran's Day

We would do well to remember men like Wilfrid Owen--men who gave their lives, of course, but also the men who gave their limbs, their minds, or their youth to whatever The Cause was at the time. Veteran's Day strikes me as a time to acknowledge sacrifice and to account for them, our payments to The Cause. We should see if the scales balance. And if they do not, perhaps we should take a hard look at the value of The Cause.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfrid Owen, 1917

09 November 2007

Update on Kahleefornya Versus the EPA

I blogged earlier about California suing the EPA in order to enforce its 2-year-old law requiring emissions control above and beyond federal levels. Well, it looks like it's really going to happen. And New York is going to follow suit (get it?) with the coal plants. The excrement has most definitely hit the air conditioning. We'll see how far the Administration and the EPA are willing to let this one go. I'm still unclear about the EPA's ostensible objection to this, though I'm sure there is one. We already know the unstated reason. I'm just too tired to find it right now: I've been grading freshman comp. papers, which is a lot like fighting a 14-year-old-girl. I can easily take one. Even 4-5 probably wouldn't be too much of a problem. But 25? No way. There are just too many, and they finally wear me down and break me.

05 November 2007

A Clarification

I railed earlier this week about the political climate in this country that makes it impossible for a politician to change his or her mind these days. I linked to articles about John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and George Bush that accused them of flip-flopping. To me, flip-flopping is of smaller scope--changing one's mind on how to reform healthcare, reversing an earlier policy on a specific bill, or even completely abandoning a pet issue because its solution is untenable or its resolution is no longer a priority (Bush's abandonment of many of his domestic issues can arguably fall into this category). This is why I think the term is so unfair. I mean, how does one decide who has legitimately changed his or her mind and who is flip-flopping?

What I accused Mr. Bush of is not flip-flopping because it is so much broader in scope. It is a sea change in his entire philosophy and that of the Republican party. It is lying to the American people--a moral shortcoming the religious right evangelical base does not acknowledge in their A-1 guy in Washington. (One could argue that these evangelicals are suckers who would follow almost anyone who tells them the right things (like him or him or him or them or him or him), but that is overly simplistic, overly general, and insulting to people like Billy Graham.)

But I was reminded today that there are instances in the smaller scale issues in which it is quite easy to identify flip-flopping. What reminded me was John Edwards' attack on Hillary Clinton during the democratic debates last week. She obviously danced around Tim Russert's question--which was of the "yes or no" variety. Either she supports New York governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants or she does not. It's that easy. Of course, she can answer that question and then qualify it, but would that qualification really make it on the news? Nope. FOXNews would lead the pack (but they'd all follow) with headlines howling something like "Clinton for Licensing Illegals," and her qualification would never make it on the air and would be buried in the newspapers.

So great. The media outlets are forcing the sort of political doublespeak that we complain about today. What's that to do with flip-flopping? Like I said, Mr. Edwards jumped all over Mrs. Clinton (and Mr. Obama did, too) for this doublespeak, and I thought to myself: Good for him. It may be politically motivated, but at least he's trying to spotlight political doublespeak when he sees it.

Then I read this, watched this, and read this. Well, crap. I like John Edwards, but he is obviously not as different a politician as I thought he was. Bash Mrs. Clinton for not giving a clear yes-or-no answer, fine. But you'd damn well better have a yes-or-no answer when someone eventually asks you. That didn't happen, and that is what I'd consider a flip-flop. He intimated that he would be against giving illegal aliens drivers licenses, but then Mr. Stephanopoulos presses him further, finally saying that he was actually echoing Mrs. Clinton. "You're saying the same thing, right?" To which Mr. Edwards almost sheepishly replies, "That’s true." If only we could say that about everything they say...

04 November 2007

Lesser Known Signs of the Impending Apocalypse

Stuffed Crust Pizza and Oreo Pizza (mmmmm, high fructose corn syrup)

Bestiality is Not Illegal in Some States that Don't End in "-ansas"

Sir Mix-A-Lot as a Part of the Day You'll Remember for the Rest of Your Life:

People Don't Know the Difference Between "Then" and "Than"

People are Concerned about Signs of the Impending Apocalypse

State's Rights in Bush's Bigger/Smaller Federal Government

I'm getting a cold, so I might be a bit more snarky than usual. Really.

When then-governor George W. Bush was campaigning for president in 1999, he was asked a question about the legality of medical marijuana use--and the federal government's role in policing its use. He said: "I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose." That didn't last very long. By 2003, Doug Bandow at the conservative National Review was lamenting the disconnect between what Bush said and what he did on this issue.

In 2000 en route to winning the South Carolina primary, Mr. Bush said (try to ignore Tapper's obvious Northern provincialism) he thought "it's the people of South Carolina's decision." He continued: "If I may, I don't believe it's the role of someone from outside South Carolina and someone running for president to come into this state and tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag....As an American citizen, I trust the people of South Carolina to make the decision for South Carolina." The decision he's talking about is, of course, whether or not the confederate flag should be displayed on the state's capitol building.

It's not just flags and pot. It's also gay marriage, on which he believed "the states can do what they want to do." But once he was in office, as politicians are wont to do, he changed his tune.

To be fair, these stances were outlined seven years ago, and politicians have the right to change their minds. Would we respect Jefferson Davis if he changed his mind about the Confederacy, but stuck to his guns because of a perceived political fall-out? Would we respect LBJ or Nixon if they'd changed their minds about the Vietnam war but kept on plugging away because they'd get eviscerated in the public media as flip-floppers? The very notion that we won't let politicians change their minds on issues is ridiculous; they need to be able to admit mistakes and to admit they are people and can change their minds when new and different information comes to their attention.

But the shifts in President Bush's administration positions I've just briefly outline are symptomatic of a larger policy shift--a shift away from his platform outlined in 2000. This was firmly based on Republican reform ideas: 1) "We’re coming to understand that a good and civil society cannot be packaged into government programs"; 2) "The leadership our governors have shown in these matters only strengthens our commitment to restore the force of the Tenth Amendment, the best protection the American people have against federal intrusion and bullying....The dramatic success of welfare reform — once the States were allowed to manage their programs — is a stellar example of what happens when we give power back to the people....Therefore, in our effort to shift power from Washington back to the states, we must acknowledge as a general matter of course that the federal government’s role should be to set high standards and expectations in policies, then get out of the way and let the states implement and operate those policies as they best know how. Washington must respect that one size does not fit all states and must not overburden states with unnecessary strings and red tape attached to its policies."

That institutes an overall policy declaration, not just specific campaign promises. But apparently, the rights of states to make decisions for themselves is an issue only when a Democrat is in the White House. (As SNL's Churchlady might say, "How conveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenient!") No longer does Mr. Bush and the Republican administration back state's rights. None too secretly, there was a sea change in the Bush administration's actions: it has continually sought to grow government agencies, add government agencies, and expand presidential power. And now, this (click link to read entire article):

State to sue U.S. to allow tailpipe rules by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times , October 20, 2007

California will sue the Bush administration next week in a bid to force the Environmental Protection Agency to allow the state to issue greenhouse gas regulations for automobiles.

The lawsuit, which would make good on a threat made six months ago by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, will demand that federal regulators give California a waiver under the U.S. Clean Air Act, as they've done dozens of times for similar air pollution controls.

A waiver would allow California to require automakers to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 30% between 2009 and 2016 -- as mandated by a law the state passed in 2002.

The suit is aimed at getting the attention of President Bush and Congress. "It is highly significant that the most trumpeted Republican governor in America feels it's absolutely necessary to sue the Bush administration in order to defend California's rights to protect the environment," said Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who will represent California in court.

Automakers oppose the waiver request as well as the regulations, and they are fighting the California law in a complaint before a federal judge in Fresno.

What happened to the rights of the governors--especially those Republican governors so touted in Mr. Bush's 2000 platform--to do what works for their states? What about the federal government getting out of the way? It's not just Democratic-controlled governments that get in the way. California is having to fight the Environmental Protection Agency (and, indirectly, the automakers) just to protect its own environment! Nice one.

29 October 2007

Life is so Much More Interesing if you Know Literary Terms

I was over at The Austinist, a sort of local news/blog/social networking (a social blewg?) out of Austin, TX. Allnychen, the editor over there, wrote about a new, 668-page report from the state of Texas that concludes the state produces far too many reports. Really. Chen notes how "meta" it is (and it is), but there's also a total ignorance of the concept of irony. Anyone who's been in a graduate English seminar or has seen Reality Bites knows that irony is when the actual outcome differs or subverts the expected outcome (yes, I know there are many kinds of irony and that this is technically situational irony, but this general definition will do). Apparently, the state of Texas can't recognize it when it sees it.

Of course, neither can Alanis Morrisette (as her song, "Ironic" shows) or the typical college student. This paper shows that many students can't understand the irony of dowloading and plagiarizing a paper from an online paper-mill (called "echeat.com," no less) that cites an essay called "A Whole Lot of Cheatin' Going On," which is--you guessed it--about cheating on college campuses. That's irony, my friends, and not recognizing it is symptomatic of an inability to look at the larger scope of things, at the life going on around you, at the arc of your own life. Instead, students tend to focus only on the short-term. I don't have time to write the paper, so I'll just download this one. Nevermind that plagiarism can and has ended collegiate and professional careers. Nevermind that it's usually incredibly easy for instructors to spot plagiarism in student writing. No, downloading a paper like this is just illustrating a broad-scale stupidity on the part of the student.

The problem is that we, as a culture, do not think about what we do on a larger scale. I'm not saying that we should be a culture of chess-players (though it wouldn't hurt), but we need to look up every so often. Most of us stumble around--like a cross-country runner trying to finish the race while only staring at her feet. We need to slow down for a moment; we've become so enamored with our ability to create--the product of which is often immediately available for public consumption (like this blog or emails or webcams)--that we don't think things through the way we would if, say, we were using a pen and paper.

Don't misunderstand: I'm no modern-day Luddite, and I'm not trying to the get toothpaste back in the tube by advocating a rejection of electronic technologies. All I want is for us to slow down. Maybe ease off on the quantity demands a bit and focus more on the quality demands. Instead of 4-6 page papers, try 3-5 pagers instead, but increase the standards a bit. Make students actually think about the arguments but also the paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and even words they use. It would take the same about of time but would yield much more thoughtful and well-wrought ideas, texts, and products.

27 October 2007

Carbonized Papyri not Well-Done?

I was over at Bede's Journal yesterday reading a post about the discovery of manuscripts at Herculaneum. He is amused that classicists have found mostly sub-par works in the library known as the Villa of the Papyri. I would think that finding sub-par works in a private villa in what was essentially a resort town would be unsurprising. How many people in Jackson Hole or West Palm Beach have extensive libraries consisting of Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton? Hell, how many would include Dorris Lessing, T.S. Eliot, or Salman Rushdie? Not very many. You'd more likely find Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen King books, and Microsoft Office manuals. Which are not a lot different than the bad poetry and painfully dry rhetorical treatises we've found in Herculaneum.

But that is a minor nitpick. What I find more disquieting is his later notion that "People imagine the ancient world's literature must have been amazing and the fact we have lost so much a complete tragedy. Well, it is a pity. But the fact is that the stuff that was preserved are [sic], in the main, the best bits. Their survival is precisely because they were valued more highly and more likely to be copied."

This argument is troubling for a few reasons--and I've heard this argument before. First, it's based on two logical fallacies. The more obvious one is the argumentum ad ignorantium. Lack of evidence is not evidence, and I would expect anyone who has submitted his PhD in philosophy to recognize this fallacy! There's absolutely no way to know what we've lost: who knows what burned in Alexandria? But we do have references to other, lost works; off the top of my head, I'm thinking of Aristotle's lost works on comedy and his lost dialogues, but there are lots and lots we've lost. So how do we know that we have the "best bits?"

We were a few degrees (literally) from losing the Nowell Codex, the only extant MS of Beowulf. If we didn't have it, we would have lost a significant source of information about Anglo-Saxon culture and literary practices. Maybe in the grand scope of things, Beowulf isn't one of the "best bits"; maybe we only think it's the greatest Old English poem because it's the greatest Old English poem we have. There's no way to know. The point is, we can't know what we've lost, and laughing up our sleeves at others who are hopeful to find new texts because we think we have everything that's really important is a great way to make sure we don't find anything good and to look like fools when we do.

The second fallacy inherent in his argument is the post hoc (ergo propter hoc) fallacy. Just because the MSS we have were the ones preserved, it does not follow that they were the most important ones (see the above-linked story of the Ashburnam House fire and the Nowell Codex). But maybe there were foundational texts that were about as popular then as Nietzsche's (4,416 on Amazon) or Chaucer's (6,833 on Amazon) are today: foundational, yes, but popular, not so much--at least not as popular as Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You).

On the other hand, maybe the texts that survived were the most useful ones. Dr. Spock's book on childcare and The Guinness Book of World Records are among the top ten most popular (by copies) English-language books of all time--along with the Bible. Should we say that they have the same sort of value (whatever that is) as the Bible? Maybe a cultural theorist would, reading The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare as a cultural index of anxiety about child-rearing and The Guinness Book of World Records as a crystallization of our interest in the novel. But there wouldn't be much there for a New Critic!

Which brings me to my last point. This argument rests on the assumption that there is something inherent to a text that makes it valuable and that the intrinsic value of the texts could be recognized by anyone capable of reading it (sometimes called an "ideal" or "informed reader"). Therefore, only the "best bits" are copied and are preserved for us to read. I've already questioned the logical soundness of the idea, but lots and lots of theorists also dispute the universal, intrinsic value of any specific text. If we had numerous Old English epic (or romance, or lyrical depending on whom you ask) poems like Beowulf, then maybe it wouldn't be as important or as "great" as people seem to think it is. (Personally, I love it, but again that is a personal preference and there is nothing theoretically I can point to to say it's inherently better than "Judith" or "Christ III.") No one can judge literature in a cultural, historical, or personal vacuum--and even if we could, we'd never agree on the criteria set by which we would judge them.

16 July 2007

How are you today? What's Your Pain Score? (Pt. I)

Repost from 22 May 2007

I'm really getting tired of this whole pancreas thing. I've got a lot more trips up north in my future, and each ERCP is more painful and harder to recover from than the last. I have no muscle tone. I am addicted to opiates--physiologically, yes, but that still technically makes me a junkie and much closer than anyone else I know to being Sick Boy. My only hope is that I know someone who's a real junkie, but I just am unaware of that fact. Wow, that sounds awful.

I don't like hospitals. It's really a combination of their assault on my senses. Of course there's the pain, fear, discomfort, unease with not being in familiar surroundings. But it's more than that for me. Initially, it's the smell. It's that antiseptic smell that tells me so many things at once. First, nowhere in my near future would there be any sort of natural products--only man-made synthetics will be going in or on my body for awhile. Second, there is something to fear, something to kill: we have to be so careful to keep everything clean (although look closely at a hospital bed or phone the next time you're in a room because they are not at all clean) because there are things that you can't see trying to kill you. Outside with trees and dirt and a breeze, it doesn't seem like these things can hurt you. At least they couldn't when I was a kid. But in a hospital it feels like any little thing can hurt you. I guess that smell in hospitals is the smell I associate with despair and vulnerability--and no one likes those things. Perhaps it's that hospitals smell too much like nursing homes, too much like the discarded humans of our society and the death they're patiently waiting on.

Secondly, it's the way hospitals look. Institution-white floors and standard-issue fluorescent lights really bother me in any context, but especially in hospitals. Both the local hospital and the one up north are guilty of this. (At least Local's new campus and current outpatient center are trying to overcome it: fake wood flooring, mauve or moss green walls, and wood trim on cabinets and doors make a huge difference to my mind.) I suspect, however, that after awhile this won't matter. If you remember, the walls of schools and hospitals used to be painted that sea-foam green color. It got a bad rap, so they switched to white or beige, which currently has a bad rap. It's nothing inherent in the color itself; it's the context and connotation of the color that makes me cringe. Visually, I also cannot stand hospital gowns, paper cups, wall-paper, privacy curtains, etc. That multi-color 80s squiggle art--the ones that are usually mauve and turquoise--or the forgettable waiting-room-chair pattern makes me think of the hospital and fake gaiet

And I cannot imagine a more frightening vision than the ones I experienced quite a few times in the last year or so. It's become a sort of television/movie cliché by this point, but it is still very scary: imagine on your back on a gurney staring at acoustical tiles and fluorescent lights going by. I could either look at the dismal scene going by or close my eyes. I couldn't move my head really, so I didn't have much choice. That is kind of creepy, but what was much, much worse was lying on the operating table. You can't see anything except the ceiling, and in the procedure rooms, there are the giant OR lamps that you always see on TV, but there are also large metal tracks that run along the ceiling. From these tracks hang a lot of machinery. There's a giant fluoroscope (a sort of X-ray machine) and a large monitor bank made of 2-4 screens. These things are hovering over you; the doctors and nurses have on radiation gear; someone is sticking nodes onto your chest and back at the same time someone is strapping a blood pressure cuff onto your ankle, someone else is preparing the IV, someone is attaching guards to the side of the table that press your arms to your sides, and someone else is prepping the drain site by taking the dressing off, cleaning it, and removing the stitch.

You know this is happening, but you can't move, and you can't see it. It's cold, and all you can see is the random masked face and the machinery hanging over your head. That visual input, combined with the bustle of all the unseen hands working on you, can cause some extreme anxiety. At least until the drugs kick in, and then it's all good and everyone is your best friend.

Sound-wise, a hospital is terrible. There is no peacefulness, no comfort. At the Northern hospital, I would constantly hear "MET Team to room whatever" or "Code Red in room whatever." All I could ever think (and this speaks perhaps more to my mindset than anything wrong with the hospital) was that someone was "taking a turn for the worse." That is hospital/doctor terminology for "really fucking bad news," by the way. At Local hospital, I would hear this lullaby ("Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep Little Baby") at random times. On my third stay, I finally cared enough to ask what it meant, and Ada, one of the coolest nurses there, told me it played whenever a baby was born. That should be a good thing, a good connotation. But I was there again recently, and that song played over the loudspeaker. I cringed, and my heart sort of dropped. If we have a child here, that song will play when it's delivered, and I'm afraid that such a beautiful moment will be tainted (even slightly) by what's happened to me over the last year. That is an unfair long-term effect of this experience on me.

13 July 2007

Wanted: Quality '76 Firebird (Must Run on Biodiesel)

(Repost from 21 May 2007)

The lease on our Vibe is coming due in August, and we've been looking to buy a car. It's been a good car mechanically, but cosmetically it hasn't held up very well. Nothing significant, but lots of dings and chips that show the poor quality of the paint Pontiac used. And on a road trip, we lost part of the luggage rack on the top of the car. It just flew off.

But we need a replacement that is a greener alternative to my SUV (We both use E10 bioethanol, but the SUV doesn't get very many mpg). The Vibe on the other hand has gotten very good gas mileage, but ethically, we feel like we have to do more than we are now (which consists only of the "easy" stuff so far: joining a CSA, switching over to a green power program for our electricity bill, using cloth bags for our grocery shopping, driving the Vibe whenever possible, and watching Living with Ed. So we started looking at hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, biodiesels, and PZEVs--and I have to say that I am shocked and chagrined, horrified and stupefied. Well, maybe just confused.

What we looked at first were hybrids. Of course, everyone knows the Prius, and Toyota has started making a Camry hybrid, too. Saturn makes the Aura Greenline; Honda makes a Civic and Accord hybrid; GMC makes some sort of behemoth hybrid that defeats the purpose (leave it to a US car company to pervert green technology). But the one hybrid I was really interested in is for some reason not available here. The Nissan Altima is offered in a hybrid, but I think they only offer it in California, which is stupid. We test drove the Civic Hybrid and Prius, and the Civic is vastly inferior to the Prius--aesthetically, technology-wise, ride-wise, and comfort-wise.

But I wonder what happens to the batteries after they're finally depleted (which the Toyota and Honda salesmen said would be over ten years). Not only would I not want to buy new ones, but I also would be concerned about how recyclable those used batteries might be. The other (and relatively new) concept to think about is the cradle-to-grave sustainability of the car. From what I understand, the nickel used in the batteries for many Priuses is mined and smelted in Canada, then shipped to Japan to be put in the batteries. Once those batteries are installed and the cars assembled, they're shipped back to North America to be sold. That is a lot of diesel used in inefficient trains, trucks, or freighters to move this nickel around. It just doesn't feel quite right to me, but Mrs. Grendel thinks the gas hybrid is the best option. We're either uninterested in the alternatives (Saturn and GMC offerings), unimpressed with them (Civic), they are unavailable to us (Altima), or they are out of our reach, financially (Accord, Camry). The Prius remains the only real option here.

What we considered next is the flex-fuel vehicle (FFV). These cars can run on either gasoline or ethanol (or both, an E85 blend). The FFV is what the dirty bastards at GMC, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler were making in past years but not telling the people who bought them. (Imagine that. You buy a car that can run of gasoline, ethanol, or a mix of both, and the carmaker doesn't even bother to inform you of this tidbit. That tells me that US automakers thought it would be considered a liability not an asset by American buyers. Why flexibility in fuel sources would be considered a liability is beyond me--even if there were no ethanol outlets where you live.) Anyway, I think there are actually fewer FFV models in 2007 than there were before FFVs were common knowledge: it's almost as if they're embarrassed that they made them. Dodge's Avenger is a FFV, but go to the website and see if they advertise that anywhere on the page. (Here's a spoiler: they don't.) You have to find the 2.7-liter V6 engine to even know they make a FFV model. Genius marketing strategy.

Anyway these cars are an interesting option. There are few around, but I like the flexibility that they provide and the smaller carbon footprint they leave (in comparison to the regular Avenger). But efficiency-wise, the Avenger is not so good: 19 city/27 highway. My SUV is almost that. Almost. So the FFV is definitely an option, but the lack of selection makes it difficult to pursue.

Biodiesels are my personal favorites. They're a lot like FFVs, but there's not a lot of special adaptation between a regular diesel engine and a biodiesel one. As long as the hoses that come into contact with the fuel are synthetic rubber, I think you're good to go (the used vegetable oil eats through regular rubber hoses after awhile). We have a car lot here that sells biodiesel-converted cars only. They're mostly older model Mercedes-Benzes, since they were diesel-powered in the 70s and 80s. I'm not so keen on driving an '85 Mercedes 500SEL. I just don't think that the kind of performance and/or creature comforts we want is going to come out of an older Mercedes or Volvo. I think that VW is going to make some diesels in 2008 or 2009, but that won't help us now.

Which puts us in a quandary. What are we supposed to do for a new car? Our performance demands exclude a lot of the older biodiesel options, our ethical values exclude the newer gas-guzzlers or non-green options, and our financial concerns (stupid hospital bills) exclude most of the newer gas hybrids. What we are left with, as far as I can tell, are few options:

1) Buy a car with a high-efficiency gasoline engine (Subaru Impreza, Scion Xa, Mazda 3, Honda Civic) and use E10. Subaru has been advertising that their factories are zero-landfill enterprises, which is nice (and Imprezas are cool).

2) Lease one of the above cars for a few years (using E10) until the US decides to stop screwing around and provides us with some genuinely effective options.

3) Buy a cheaper, older car that I could work on myself (pre-1975 domestic models), and pay to have it converted to diesel engine, and then converted to biodiesel. If I had my pick and neither time nor money were issues, this is the way I would go. I would buy an older muscle car (Charger, Firebird, Camaro, etc.) or a late-70s Corvette, put a diesel engine in it, and then convert that engine into one that can burn biodiesel.

I just don't know what diesel engine might fit on those motor mounts, though. But, that would be my dream car: a 1976 Firebird with a Smokey and the Bandit paint job and biodiesel engine. I'd probably have enough left over to buy one of the cowboy hats with a feather on the front that Burt Reynolds wore. Keep your nose between the ditches and smokey out of your britches, I'm gone.

11 July 2007

The Threshold Limit Value of Car Air Freshners

(Repost from 20 May 2007)

So I was driving home from the hospital today, and I got behind this white Civic. We were sitting at a traffic light, and I noticed something odd: there were three of those dangly pine tree air fresheners hanging in the car. One from the rear view mirror and one each from the clothes hangers that they put above the doors in the back seat.

I find this odd. I mean, one I can understand. I wouldn't put it in my car, but I can understand it. One really has got to be the threshold of normalcy for a dangly air freshener. Two is pushing it. Three is way, way too much.

By passing the one-freshener threshold, I think you may be conveying some fairly unflattering information about yourself or your car. You're saying that either you or your car stank--not just a little funk, but actual stank. You're also saying that you would rather spend your money on fake-pine-scented cardboard than taking steps to actually clean and/or remove the source of the offensive odor. Perhaps removing the remnants of the old fries from under the seat, cleaning the splattered Mochaccino off the door frame, or steam cleaning the crumbs from dozens of Doritos that you repeatedly ground into the seat would help.

I guess I'm a little sensitive to the ubiquitous American-style handling of problems. Bigger, newer, more is what we want, and it's also how we solve lots of our issues. (I know that others before me have noted and railed against the consumerism rampant in America, but it's my blog and I can produce whatever kinds of hackneyed drivel I want. And I will...oh, I will.)

Lane County, where I live, lost its funding from the federal government (we were getting money because a lot of our land is bound up in parks so we can't develop it), and the county's first response was to try to institute a 1.1% income tax to keep "vital systems" running. Why? I want a good police force, too (because we've got a lot of tweakers here), but I'm not paying a county income tax on top of my federal and state taxes so they can continue to waste money in other areas of local government. I've passed utility workers four times this week, and on each side of the work site, they pay a guy to hold a sign that says "Slow." That's all they do. Those guys make good money, and I'm not sure I see the value of it. Trim some fat off before asking me to dig deeper into my pocket. Damn.

I've experienced it in the medical world, too. Western medicine is really, really good at covering up symptoms but sometimes really bad at finding the root causes of those symptoms. They'll throw morphine, demerol, fentanyl, and oxycontin at you until you feel better (or sometimes until you end up with vertigo for a day and nausea for three), but at times don't seem all that concerned about the root cause for the need of narcotics in the first place. Maybe if my doctors and nurses weren't so focused on that particular aspect, I wouldn't have gotten so sick (and wouldn't be a a virtual junkie right now). Maybe I would have. I don't know. I'm not complaining that they worked to make me comfortable because I needed it and am appreciative of it, but I just wish someone, somewhere along the way had taken an interest in what was causing this before it got bad enough to put me in the hospital for three weeks.

And since I'm on the subject: God help us if we continue to eat like we do in this country. Take, for instance, KFC. What the hell happened to just regular fried chicken? It's been around for a long time. People have apparently enjoyed it. So why does KFC need to invent a bowl that consists of reconstituted mashed potato flakes, cheese product, chicken bits, and corn? We survived for centuries in this country with regular fried chicken; why do we need a chicken bowl? And the thing is big, too--more than anyone really needs at one sitting. Again, bigger, newer, more. Same thing with Pizza Hut or Papa John's or whatever chain is stuffing the crust with cheese or making it into garlic bread that pulls off or whatever. It's all a big song and dance to cover up for the fact that the food is substandard fare.
23 October 2007 UPDATE: We now have Oreo dessert pizza, which is, I think, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; I'll need to check the verses to be sure.

But let me clarify: there's nothing wrong with novelty in the food world. Fusion cuisine has produced some of the most wonderful dishes I've ever had, but the eateries that make fusion dishes also typically don't fall into the bigger, newer, more category. They--and other non-fusion but creative places--are experimenting and innovating to see what they can actually do, not attempting to make it easier to eat ever-greater amounts of crap-tastic food or to make it possible to eat without the need of even a spork. It's the difference between a place like Noodlism in Austin, TX and Panda Express. Hell it's even the difference between California Pizza Kitchen and Pizza Hut or CiCi's. Essentially, it's the difference between innovation for the love of food and innovation to sell more "units."

I seem to see it in almost everything now that I've conceptualized what I think the problem is. Bigger cars, newer cellphones, more food. Flashing lights, Powerpoint presentations, and snappy soundtracks to cover up the lack of real content. I guess you could say that it's the Vegas-izing of America. Bigger, more, new to cover up the lack of original thought (which explains the Paris and Luxor hotels there).

I even see it in my students' writing. They tend to want to include four or five different supporting reasons in their four- to five-page essays. Instead of including less and actually thinking about what they're saying, they'd rather throw more information, quotations, or points into the paper and think about them less. It drives me nuts. And it's so obvious to me because I used to do the same thing. If there were pictures, tables, or graphs in one of my papers, you could be sure that I had no idea what I was saying or that I didn't say it very well. And I knew it. That's why I put that crap in there. Those bells and whistles were nothing more than an overabundance of pine-scented-cardboard to cover up my lack of effort.