Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Oil Worth the Risk?

The October issue of National Geographic features an in-depth report on the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and opens with the question (in the physical magazine), “Is it [deep water drilling that is] worth the risk?” No. There. Done.

Oh. You wanted a little more. OK. Let's just assume for a moment that burning oil isn't contributing to climate change. And let's also assume just for a minute that the oil available in American accessible deep waters could meaningfully lessen our dependence on foreign oil and free us from problematic relationships with countries where people still get their heads cut off, like Saudi Arabia for example. While we're at it, let's also assume that the research and development of deep water drilling would create or sustain more jobs than would be created or sustained by a transition to a different energy economy, say one with solar panels, wind turbines, and tidal buoys. You know what, let's just go ahead and assume every crazy, ridiculous, inaccurate, short-sighted reason you usually hear given for pursuing deep water drilling is true, because if even if you accept every one of those points right up to the most completely batshit spit in the face of science reasons, deep water oil drilling is still not worth it.

Because even an oil company lobbyist accepts that no more oil is being made. That's definition of a “fossil fuel.” Oil was created by millions and millions of years of intense pressure on prehistoric plants (love to see how a conservative creationist reconciles that timeline) and drilling for more won't make any more. So the oil is going to run eventually. Nothing we can do can make the oil not run out. Oil does not care about Yankee stick-to-itivness or American innovation or anything else. This means that all breakthroughs in drilling technology are delaying tactics not solutions. 

No matter how deep we drill we are going to run out of oil. We might run out in ten years, or fifty years, or five hundred years, but no matter what we do we will run out of oil. And this means that even if drilling technology develops perfect safety with foolproof fail-safes and no environmental impact, it will be millions and probably billions of dollars spent on developing technology we know for a fact will become obsolete. In fact, the longer we drill for oil, the harder it will be to extract, the more money each technological development will cost in order to be effective and the less oil there will be for it to extract. So, if you'll follow this thought experiment to the end, the single most sophisticated oil drilling technology will be developed to extract the last bit of oil left and then it will be instantly useless, as will every oil drilling technology that preceded it. 

So even if all that crazy, wildly illogical, and totally incorrect stuff that people say to defend deep water drilling is true, deep water drilling will still spend billions and billions of dollars on developing technology that is guaranteed to become absolutely worthless. I may not be the most fiscally responsible person in the world (I seem to keep buying books for some reason), but I'm pretty sure that's a waste of money.

So is the risk of additional ecological catastrophe worth pursuing for a big gigantic waste of money? I've ceded proponents of deep water drilling nearly every point they could ask for and deep water drilling is still not the worth the risk, because even if everything works perfectly we still end up with an oil-less economy and a bunch of useless deep water drills. The fact that there is still debate about deep water drilling (and the oil economy in general, but I'll stay focused) shows just how short-sighted so much of our (human probably) decision making really is.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Third Best Season of the Decade or How Bill Hall Became the Most Important Red Sox Player in 2011

OK, maybe Bill Hall in particular won't be the most important player in 2011, but one of the silver linings in a season defined by who did not play, was the excellence of those who really shouldn't have been playing. But first lets go back in the season in the season a little bit.

There was a very brief period of time when the Rex Sox were at about 90% healthy; about two, maybe three weeks total there was a decent approximation of the designed Red Sox taking the field every day. During that time, the Red Sox were at the top of the AL East, which might have been the best division baseball has ever seen. (Since 1995 the AL Wild Card winner has come from the East 12 times, 4 from the West and 1 from the Central). In other words, when the Red Sox fielded the team they intended to field for the season, they were the best team in baseball. But that's not why this was the third best Red Sox season of the decade.

Then the torrent of injuries. At one point both starting catchers were out. Three starting pitchers; Beckett, Bucholtz, and Matzuzaka had a variety of injuries that cost them starts and compromised performances. Jed Lowrie's return from his wrist injury was delayed by mono. Then reigning AL MVP and former rookie of the year Dustin Pedroia went down. Then AL MVP contender Kevin Youkilis went down. Plus the Ellsbury and Cameron.

So, to recap, the Red Sox had rolling injuries in their starting rotation, one third of their outfield, a stretch of games without Victor Martinez or Jason Varitek, a back up playing short stop for the bulk of the season (though at least that was expected for a portion of the season), and their two best players gone for the season. They weren't eliminated from the playoffs until the last week of baseball, and if Papelbon preserved the sweep against the Yankees the Sox might have had a chance to play for the Wild Card in the last series. In other words, an absolutely decimated team was in playoff contention in the highest quality division perhaps in the history of the game until September. This team forced the Yankees to alter their pitching rotation to secure their playoff spot. And let's just for a second imagine they played in the AL West.

Now the obvious way to go with a narrative like this is to talk about the grit and determination of the players, how utility journeymen stepped up and contributed (the aforementioned Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald); how starters played above expectations (did you know Adrian Beltre could hit, because I didn't), and how minor leaguers and prospects demonstrated their ability to play in the bigs (Kalish, Nava, et al.) but that's not the way I'm going to go. I'm going to take this in two different ways and they both argue for the 2011 Red Sox as pre-season world series favorites.

At about the same point that the Red Sox slipped out of legitimate playoff contention, I looked up and realized that the Red Sox had one of the best left-handed starters in the game in John Lester and that Clay Bucholtz had blossomed into a Cy Young contender. That is two legitimate aces who aren't named Beckett, Matzuzaka or Lackey. One of the best starting rotations in the game, saw its two young pitchers blossom into aces. I also noticed the Sox had a top five catcher in Victory Martinez, another MVP contender in Adrian Beltre, the number 2 or 3 young reliever in Daniel Bard. David Oritz can still generate runs and though next year might always be THE year he doesn't perform, I think he's got two more seasons in him. And then there are all the knowns returning from injury. In other words, the Sox on paper at the beginning of the season were World Series contenders and if they are able to return that team to the field they'll be World Series contenders again.

Or, maybe they decide not to. The real forward looking silver lining of this season, is that a whole raft of players proved they could contribute at the big league level. If the Sox decide they want to retool the bullpen over the off-season, or maybe 2011 is the year Papi doesn't have it and they need a new DH, or maybe some big name ends up on a selling team at around the trade deadline. Whatever the reason may be, the Red Sox now have perhaps the biggest pool of talent to draw from in the 2011 trade circuit. A proven utility man like Hall or an exciting young player like Kalish are exactly the kind of players teams usually need to complete a deal for a superstar. And that's how Bill Hall might become the 2011 Red Sox's most important player because he might be the final piece of a trade that brings a difference making superstar to the Red Sox.

There was a lot for the Red Sox to be proud of in how they performed this year and if they win the 2011 World Series, that championship will be based, in many ways, on how they performed in 2010, making 2010 the third best season in the decade.

And it'll be a crime if Tito doesn't get manager of the year. Not topical, I know, and certainly no way to conclude a well-structured essay, but I wasn't going to get another chance to say it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

As Long as You're Not Making Explosives or Household Cleaners No One's Going to Die if You Mess Up the Recipe

Like millions of Americans, I have recipe anxiety. Those numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though mincing garlic were akin to sculpting of David, steps, instructions, and/or techniques, always look to me, like a numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though browning onions were akin to pitching a perfect game, list of chances to fail. Every instruction is a potential mistake.

Given this, I, like so many people, perhaps even some of your loved ones or those friends whose Facebook statuses you do not hide, too often select my recipe based on the number of possible mistakes. The fewer the better. What if I add the garlic too soon? What if the chopped vegetables aren't all ½ inch cubes? Are translucent onions the same as translucent other things, or do they have some special magical lucency that transforms light into a noxious tear inducing vapor? And what the hell is al dente anyway, I mean, if you're not slurping it through a straw it's pretty much always “to the teeth,” right? The common response, one could almost say, the natural response, to recipe anxiety is to avoid it entirely. No one is at your house with a gun to your head commanding you to stir fry and there aren't that many chances to mess up a microwave dinner.

I was making this fried potato cake recipe from the Silver Spoon (one of the absolute best cookbooks ever in my humble opinion) and the cakes, well, they wouldn't stay together. I'd followed all the instructions in the recipe as best I could but when I tried to form the shredded potatoes into cakes to pan fry, they just wouldn't stay together. In retrospect, I guess I didn't use potatoes with enough starch. I don't remember what potatoes I used, or, now that I'm on the topic, which are the starchy and which are the less starchy potatoes, but that's what the Internet is for. So, in a stroke of what some might call good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity and others might call desperation, the potatoes, I mashed them.

And, because the Silver Spoon is one of the best cookbooks ever, the mashed potatoes were awesome. And that's when I realized that unless you're making explosives or home cleaners no one is going to die if you mess up the recipe. Sure, you might end up with something unpalatable, or perhaps even inedible, but there is still the opportunity to order that pizza you were thinking of ordering in the first place. If we won any truly lasting practical victory for the American people in the Cold War, it was the opportunity to just screw this disaster of a gumbo and get take out. Furthermore, every mistake is a lesson. You make a bad meal once, but you learn about a flavor combination or a technique combination that you can apply for the rest of your life. And sure, if you're cooking meat, you can certainly mess up the recipe in a way that makes you sick (though thanks to modern agribusiness you're more likely to get salmonella from an innocuous looking bag of spinach, but that's another essay) but if you have any doubts you can just keep cooking whatever it is you're cooking. It might not end up tasty, but it'll be safe.

The point is that the benefits of a home cooked meal greatly outweigh the risks of screwing up a home cooked meal. Not only do you have control (and responsibility) of everything that goes into it allowing you to tailor it to both your tastes and your health concerns, and not only will you deepen your connection with one of the most fundamental aspects of whatever culture the recipe comes from, and not only will you get the satisfaction of having made something, even if you don't end up particularly proud of it (I'm compelled to remember a CD “holder” I made in shop class in high school, roll top and everything, that barely held itself together let alone the dozen CDs as promised by the instructions), you'll also avoid eating processed food. Have you ever read the ingredients of those instant dinners? They're like an instruction manual on how to get heart disease and diabetes and probably rickets or gout or one of those other olde timey sounding diseases of affluence.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of 20th century nationhood (I'll make this topical, don't worry) is that fascism, no matter what philosophical superstructure is tossed on top of it, is fundamentally destructive. Whenever you reduce anything complex, and everything in the real world is complex, to unalterable absolutes you set yourself up for some kind of disaster. So don't worry if you give in to recipe anxiety every now and again. I think people should cook from scratch more, but I'm not going to publicly shame you if you eat a Hungry Man Dinner once in a while. (Well, maybe there's a little Hungry Man specific shame, but you get my point.) It's not the occasional microwave dinner that's demolishing the bodily health of our society, but constant microwave dinners. So try to make something tonight. Just remember not to mix the ammonia with the bleach when you clean up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Banned Books Week Spiel

A couple of weeks ago libraries, bookstores, and book people around the country celebrated Banned Books Week, an event and organizing concept that draws attention to school districts and public libraries making certain books unavailable to their communities, while celebrating the contribution to our culture made by those books. It is supposed to be a celebration of the right to information and a reminder of the importance of intellectual freedom and in a way it is.

But. There was a time when an ignorant parent, teacher, school board member, city councilor, or other figure with municipal power could ensure with a decent level of confidence that no members of his/her/their community would be damaged by exposure to the offending book. However, a city council can't stop a bookstore from carrying the book and they certainly can't stop someone from ordering the book online. One might argue that it is a bit presumptuous to assume everyone can purchase a banned book if their library doesn't have it, and it is true there are families who can't make rent let alone buy books, but the real problem in that case is not that the book is banned, but that there are families who cannot afford to buy the occasional book. That's another essay over in the politics section. Regardless, it's not as easy as it once was to restrict access to information. And there's no easier way to make a teenager want to read a book than to ban it. Hmm. Maybe I should ban Ulysses.

Oh wait, somebody already has. Just like somebody has banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Beloved, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, A Separate Peace... In fact, pretty much every influential important book has been banned or challenged (and let's not get into that strange little phrase “or challenged” that pops up in Banned Books Week material) by someone somewhere who heard something about the book and then flew off the handle before actually reading the book or bothering to consider the context of the story.

I think, more than anything, this shows that some people can be offended by anything and sometimes those very same easily offended people are self-righteous sanctimonious pricks who think they know what other people's children should not be allowed to read. If there were only a way to divert their attention to the assault on our psyches that is contemporary TV advertising, but that's another essay.

Furthermore, no matter how many American classics they ban, they can't ban them all. Maybe they get Slaughterhouse-five, but not Cat's Cradle. They'll get Beloved but miss Sula. And there's a ton of sophisticated YA dealing directly with the challenges of growing up in modern America. A town might get Speak out of their library or curriculum but their kids will find other books. In fact, book banners are fighting a losing battle. Curious children have always and will always be able to find books that speak to their questions about the world and experiences with the world, whether those books conform to some narrow minded adult's conception of “appropriate literature” or not.

Furthermore, book banners have taken a fairly rational idea, extended it to hyperbolic proportions and attached hysterical consequences to it. That rational idea: children do not have the critical apparatus to fully understand some books. For example, I'm not a fan of teaching Moby-Dick in high school because I think most students don't end up with the critical sophistication necessary to effectively engage with the work, but I don't assume students who read Moby-Dick before they're ready are going to start throwing harpoons at obese nurses, I assume they're going to be bored to death and have a terrible reading experience with an absolutely amazing work. Similarly, the millions of teen and pre-teen girls reading the Twilight series bothers me, not because the main female “character” (I almost pulled a muscle throwing the air quotes around that one) is a self-less receptacle for male desire, but because I'm not sure they've acquired the critical apparatus to analyze the value of such a character (And thanks to Suzanne Collins for bringing us Katniss when she did.). That said, I don't believe that every girl is going to turn into Bella if she reads Twilight or that even if girls mimic some of Bella's traits, they will maintain those traits for the rest of their lives. Raise your hand if you are the exact same person you were in middle school. Furthermore, I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing to read books you're not ready for, but that's another essay.

In an odd way there is something affirmative about book banners. Ultimately, the source of all of their ridiculous fear is the assumption that books are powerful. When they ban a book they say that book is capable changing how children think and what they do. And they're right. And I think that's awesome. One does not usually fear the irrelevant. In their own narrow-minded, short-sighted self-righteous profoundly-prickish way, they are telling us that books are doing exactly what books are supposed to do; changing the minds and lives of the people who read them.