Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The world's newest religions

When I went vegetarian in 2001, the hardest part of the transition was replacing meat. How could I replace the central part of the meal? So I ate a lot of fake-meat products--veggie burgers, tofu dogs, and the like. But I asked the wrong question: going vegetarian doesn't mean replacing meat.

But that's at the heart of the matter when people ask why I'm a vegetarian. "What do you replace meat with?" they ask, unable to imagine how I might answer. A similar question seems to be implied when people learn I'm an atheist. What do I replace God with? The binaries become tofu versus meat, God versus the Void.

Or, in some cases, Religion versus Science. Because movements need war metaphors, religion needs, for fundamentalists, an opposite. But strangely enough, people often define their opposites by the very thing they are. Thus, global warming becomes "a religion." For Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Peter Bronson, the city's suggestion that people eat less meat is "a crusade."

These are old tropes, familiar in the "War on Terror" and Richard Nixon's conquest of cancer. Usually, one drums up support for a cause by attributing a religious aura to one's acts. But I find it ironic that groups associated with religion attempt to denigrate their perceived opposites as religions. Maybe it's easier to tilt at windmills if you see them as false idols rather than separate modes of inquiry or different lifestyles.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

All things green

I'm not a pot smoker, but I'm sympathetic to Michael Phelps. (We have similar body types, you see.) Here's the statement he should have released about his bong photograph.

If Germany can do it

Re: Eating less meat in Cincinnati

Looks like we're not alone. If Germany can realize the environmental and economic dangers of heavy meat-based diets, maybe the Germanic city of Cincinnati can, too.

Monday, February 2, 2009

How PETA screwed the pooch

Not that Super Bowl ads are ever that good, but last night's were terrible. And even though I'm not crazy about PETA, I would have loved if they'd gotten an ad in. Not the ad they made, but the ad they should have made.

You're probably aware of the following:

'Veggie Love': PETA's Banned Super Bowl Ad

Yes, PETA made an ad they knew would get banned so they could have a PR round of instant meaningless controversy. They even feigned surprise that the ad was banned. (Though I admit that anything that leads to the phrase "screwing herself with broccoli (fuzzy)" has benefited the world.) But PETA would have done much better to make a good advertisement using the same theme, one that would have made their point as well as the airwaves.

So, free of charge, my case for the ad they should have run, the ad that would have used the "veggie love" theme:

We open at a dining table with a woman chewing her food, licking her lips, etc., and saying how wonderful the meal is. The camera pans back: her dining partner is a guy in a giant broccoli suit. (Fuzzy.) Various shots of romantic dinners with men paired with asparagus-women, women paired with pumpkin men, etc. Then the "studies show that vegetarians have better sex," with some actual effing suggestions about where to find this info so people don't immediately dismiss the claim. Finish with a closed door, moaning sounds, maybe even a joke about how the broccoli gives good head.

I'll admit that what I've described above isn't necessarily a great ad, but it could be aired, it has some wit to it, and it's engaging. What PETA ran (or, rather, made much ado about not running) has none of those things. And as many admirable things as PETA does, their stunts don't make the case for vegetarianism well. Hell, they don't even tap into the potential target market viewing the Super Bowl, unless you believe that the condescending truck and beer ads accurately reflect the viewership.

Eating less meat in Cincinnati

The city of Cincinnati now has a food task force as part of its Green Cincinnati Action Plan (warning: link goes to pdf). Since the Plan was passed last June, this isn't news. What's news is that our local newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, posted a news item about the Plan's food recommendation with the odd headline "Cincy wants you to eat less meat":

"Yes, even in this city symbolized by a flying pig and once called Porkopolis, officials worry about residents leaving too big of a carbon footprint. So as part of the Green Cincinnati Plan to make the city more environmentally friendly, proponents want you to at least think about choosing fruits and vegetables more, meat less.

"Nobody wants Jeff Ruby to have to take out an ad that says, 'Why are you hurting my restaurant?' " said Daniel Oerther, chairman of the University of Cincinnati's environmental engineering department who leads the city's food task force."

The suggestions laid out in the Action Plan are reasonable, even in a city as meat-centric as Cincinnati. But the Enquirer's comments section provides us the entertainment. To witless:

"Global warming! In a pig's eye! Have you greenie weenie's been in a cave the last week or this winter? Don't suggest or tell me what to eat! It's none of your dam business! It's called freedom you dunder head's! So stick it where the sun don't shine!"

"What a joke. Man made global warming is a HOAX. (, has the data to show what a HOAX it is. Humans are only responsible for less then 1/10th of 1%, so any changes we make have almost no affect on the total amount of co2 in the air. This is more about control and making money then it is about saving the planet."

"how about teaching people to stop eating so much fast food and start eating a bit more healthy. Keep the theme a bit more basic. Meat is an important part of the diet for a human. We do not need to spend money on this program, nor do I need someone telling me what to eat."

"Eating all vegetables and no meat is not healthy as it is not a well balanced diet. Most vegetarians I know out there have very little muscle tone and just look plain sick. On the other hand, eating mostly meat and no vegetables is also very unhealthy. The key here is moderation. Make sure you eat a well balanced diet and there will be no problems."

"I don't trust people who don't eat meat!"

There's no point in taking the time to refute all this, but for one point: meat is not a necessary part of a human diet. Not only are vegetarian and vegan diets perfectly healthy, they're better for you than meat-based diets.

Of course, that's beside the point. What's crucial here is how the Enquirer, our terrible newspaper, angles the story: they take a single recommendation from the Action Plan and skew the story. Cincinnati won't be regulating diets; the city would undertake a relatively inexpensive ad campaign to promote a lifestyle choice that's better for individuals and for the city as a whole. But the responses online reflect paranoia about the city legislating all freedom out of their lives.*

*I'm not aware of any freedom to eat meat, but that's another issue for another post.

My brother is awesome

Exhibit A:

Hypermiling cartoon from john green on Vimeo.

Carbon footprint

Ecological footprint or carbon footprint? Granted, these measures are likely about as accurate as a calorie counter on a treadmill*, but here's a good introduction to the varieties of online carbon-footprint calculators. Even if they're only a rough estimate, they're a good test of what we can cut back on.

*if it's warm enough to run or bike outside, avoid the treadmill. Cut down on energy use.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snow day

According to Drudge, it snows, thus global warming is fake. Also:
  • There was no talking in Buster Keaton's movies. Therefore, he was a mute.
  • My house caught on fire today. Therefore, my house will catch on fire tomorrow.
  • A group of Muslims attacked the United States. Therefore, all Muslims are dangerous.
  • I can't see evolution happen. Therefore, evolution is not real.
  • Socrates was mortal. All monkeys are mortal. Therefore, Socrates was a monkey.
  • One time, a gay man was promiscuous. Therefore, all gay men are promiscuous.
  • Nelly Furtado sang a song called "Promiscuous." Therefore, she is gay.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Proud to be vegetarian. . .

. . .after seeing this:

(h/t videogum)

I'd love to have an entertaining report, but. . .

So I was all jazzed to give an entertaining update about the great global-warming debate on the cleanmpg forum, but sadly, the moderators took down the best post ever. In short, my interlocutor compared environmentalists to both Nazis and Stalinists. You can get the flavor in some of the posts here and on the next page, where some of us quoted him. Also, here's his bastardization of Martin Niemöller:

"They asked for the gas guzzling SUV's, but I didn't speak up because I didn't drive a gas guzzling SUV.
They asked for the plastic bags, but I didn't speak up because I didn't use plastic bags.
Then they asked for me, and nobody spoke up because there was nobody else left."

I have to admit, I'm more than a little disappointed that they took down his post. Not only was it bizarrely entertaining, he has every right to say what he believes. Comment moderation is important in forums, but he didn't insult anyone there, as far as I can tell. (Other than the Nazi/Communist comparison, which was so far-fetched I didn't take it seriously as an insult.)

My favorite part: he claimed "The 'green left' is the old 'red left' revised." Not only is that a howler, it turns out it's from George Will. I think someone's bowtie is too tight.

Update: Via Coby Beck's site in a roundabout way, here's a great challenge to global warming deniers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Global warming: dumb arguments

I try not to get into pointless arguments online, but this one started in the forums at, a website I like. Strangely enough, a contingent of that site's members think the theory of man-made climate change is a hoax. So when one of the site's moderators linked to an article about a survey of scientists who agree that anthropogenic climate change is real and a danger, some people in the forum started making bad arguments.

I jumped in to respond, with the help of Coby Beck's "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" series. Some of the responses asked the right questions: what about the planet's longer-term climate, what about recent cold weather. These are all, of course, questions scientists have answered, with broad consensus. But even when I've provided answers and links to detailed explanations, I've changed no minds at all. (At least not among the vocal posters.)

The worst part about it, though, is that a couple of the respondants clearly have no idea what they're talking about. They dispute the current scientific consensus by pointing to unverifiable online petitions and cite people who aren't authorities or researchers. They then claim that, in the 1970s, there was scientific consensus that we were headed for an ice age, but they evidence they provide for that claim doesn't present anything even remotely resembling a consensus. Even in the face of evidence that they're wrong, they keep on swinging.

This problem extends well beyond that forum, a place I would expect people to be better aware of climate-change science. Google the words "global warming," and you get a mix of links to science and utter bunk (the latter of which has often been debunked). A google search for "climate change" fares much better, but clearly we need to speak more loudly and directly about the myths and realities around global climate change. Cory Beck's series, linked to above, does a lot of the hard work of debunking frequently cited (and wrong) objections, but I want to emphasize a few based on the experience I'm having in that forum:
  • Make clear the difference between weather and climate. "It's cold today" doesn't refute evidence about global warming.
  • Make clear the difference between media depictions of science and peer-reviewed articles and research. I've been amazed that the people who call The New York Times a left-wing newspaper cite a single article from the 70s as proof of a "global cooling" consensus. (Especially when the first paragraph of the article says there is a major dispute about whether the planet is cooling or warming.)
  • Explain what a consensus is. Just because the founder of the Weather Channel disputes global warming doesn't mean there's a lack of consensus. It means that a meteorologist who founded a cable network, did no scientific research on climate change, and holds a B.A., doesn't understand climate science.
  • Cite the most recent research you can. If you show a graph of global temperatures that ends in 2004 or 2005, the response will be along the lines of "but what about the last year?"
  • Always remain civil. If you can.
That's a start. (And in a great coincidence, I chose the image above the same day as KSK. It isn't planned synergy.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural thoughts

  • As happy as I am that we can now say President Obama, the whole inauguration seems silly to me. The whole thing smacks of coronation. Also, it produces a lot of garbage.
  • I try not to take pleasure in the pain of others, but wow: Dick Cheney in a wheelchair. Not only did that lead to Tom Brokaw comparing him to Dr. Strangelove, he also invited comparisons to Blofeld and Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life.
  • I know Aretha Franklin had a great hat on, but let's not forget about George H. W. Bush. (The H. W. stands for HNanook of the WNorth.)
  • I'm not religious, but I'd love to spend time in Joseph Lowery's church.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaza, torture, and the rule of law

As I wait for the inauguration of Barack Obama, I have to acknowledge skepticism on my part about the next four years. I campaigned for Obama, and I'm indescribably happy that he is about to become our president. Still, I have some reservations about him, in part because of the signals he's been sending about whether or not to investigate George W. Bush and his administration for their crimes. So the below (very general) essay sets forth a few of my concerns, especially regarding human rights and foreign policy.

It’s fitting that Barack Obama suggested that he won’t investigate the Bush Administration for their use of torture, warrantless wiretapping, and other illegal acts. In the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israel committed horrific atrocities in Gaza—over 34% of the dead and injured Palestinians are children, and the rate of death is over 800 in Gaza and 10 in Israel, most of the latter in friendly fire incidents—and the United States has been one of the few countries to demonstrate one-sided political and military support for Israel.

Why would President-Elect Obama neglect justice regarding both Gaza and President Bush? Quite simply, and quite sadly, because in the United States, the rule of law has become so effectively degraded over the years that to actually follow the rule of law would run counter to American practice. Though President Bush’s use of torture, of violence against other nations, and of acts that undermine the Constitution, have been more explicit than those of any other president, they are only novel in their scale. (NB: This does not exonerate Bush; on the contrary, his blatant illegality makes his actions all the more appalling.)

Consider torture: if Obama pursued an investigation of Bush’s use of torture, he would also have to investigate Presidents Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy. Even himself. (I end the list there a little arbitrarily because members of those administrations are still living and, in some cases, dictating American foreign and domestic policy. Also: I only leave Jimmy Carter off the list because I’m less well-informed about much of his presidency and his relationship to the CIA.) Each of those presidents has employed and supported the CIA to varying degrees, and torture has long been part of official CIA policy. If you find this unbelievable, research Kubark. Moreover, presidents since the establishment of the CIA have been aware, to varying degrees, not only of contemporary CIA practices, but presumably of their past employment as well.

Thus an investigation into President Bush’s crimes would necessitate an open and honest investigation into a long tradition of horrific practices endorsed, overtly or covertly, by the American government. Such an investigation would indict a huge number of individuals who wield a great deal of power in American policy and in discussions of American jurisprudence.

What does this have to do with Israel and Gaza? U.S. foreign policy, implicitly and explicitly, has supported Israel well above all other nations in the Middle East, whether Israel has erred or not in any given instance. (NB again: I don’t condone terrorism or the violence done against innocents in Israel. But I don’t condone terrorism when practiced by a nation, either.) If the United States were to condemn Israel, it would require, as in the case of torture, a monumentally difficult national and legal self-reflection upon American foreign policy and action in the Middle East. Our hands aren’t clean, either.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Vegetarian leftovers

If you're looking for a good vegetarian cookbook, buy Veganomicon. Yes, it's vegan, not just vegetarian. That means you don't have a pound of cheese in every other recipe. But for those of you scared by the word vegan, I'll say this: anyone would love the recipes in this cookbook. Among my favorites:
  • The best effing barbecue I've had since I stopped eating meat, and possibly ever. I served the BBQ Seitan on New Year's Eve, and several meat eaters thought it was pulled pork and asked for the recipe. Yes, it's that good.
  • Three different tomato-based pasta sauces that compete with restaurant-quality Italian food. (No, not Fazoli's quality.) Serious kick, serious flavor.
  • The best tofu marinades I've found anywhere.
I've loved almost everything I've made from this cookbook. Seriously, buy the damn thing.
On a completely different note, I'm reading and re-reading various chapters of the Bible for a course I'm in. I only mention this because of something in Genesis I'd never noticed before. I was aware that some religious groups use Genesis 3 to argue that, in our original, pre-fallen state, human beings were vegetarians. (NB: I'm an atheist; I don't believe in any original, pre-fallen state. I'm just summarizing the argument.)

Here's what's interesting, in terms of the vegetarian Eden argument: as we all know, Adam and Eve clothe themselves with fig leaves after they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But notice this, Genesis 3:21: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them." (Italics mine; NSRV translation.)

That moment sticks out to me for two reasons. First, what a weird moment of empathy that God shows, making clothing for Adam and Eve on their way out. Strikes me as a complicated parental gesture. Second, and much more interesting for the vegetarians/Christians out there, is that, though Adam and Eve clothe themselves in fig leaves, God creates animal skins for them. It's the first use of animal flesh for any functional purpose, and it's a result of God banishing Adam and Eve from the life of paradise. Bizarre.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Recommended reading

In addition to various permanent links on the right side of the blog, I'm now adding what I call Recommended reading. These are various things across the web I've read and think everyone should read. Occasionally I'll post a video, but for the most part these are nonfiction, mostly political. I'm adding links at the pace of roughly one per day, so try and keep up. (I think the list turns over at ten.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Water, water, everywhere, and nada

I can't voice this strongly enough: CUT WAY DOWN ON YOUR WATER USE NOW!

So, why so strident? Let's start with an easily digestible bullet list:
  • The earth's population is over six billion; roughly 1.1 billion have no access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • The average American uses 150 gallons of water every day; the average citizen of a developing country uses about five gallons.
  • The EPA fails to regulate fifty-one known contaminants in public drinking water.
  • Over 116,000 man-made chemicals find their way into public water supplies.
(h/t to the documentary Flow and its website for the above facts.)

Water has become a commodity so valuable that wars are fought over access to it (Sudan). Yet in the U.S., many of us act as if water is a natural resource without end. That perception is easy to have, especially in Cincinnati. To get to UC's campus from my house, I travel over one river (the Little Miami) and alongside another (the Ohio). We have oceans of water.

Unfortunately, most of that water is undrinkable. To render much of it suitable for human use, it has to be purified or distilled, a process that creates an incredible amount of chemical waste. So what to do? Here are a few ways you can immediately cut down on your water use. And all of these will save you money. (That's an added bonus, not the primary reason.)
  • Take shorter showers, and turn off water when you aren't using it. The average five-minute shower uses 40 gallons of water. The water doesn't need to be on while you're lathering your hair or skin; in most cases it doesn't need to be on when you're shaving or brushing your teeth. (Shaving your skin, I mean--not your teeth.)
  • Stop buying bottled water (and don't steal it, either). If you're drinking bottled water because you don't trust tap water, bad news: bottled water isn't healthier than tap water. But it's worse for the planet. Even if we recycled all the plastic water bottles we bought, the extraction of water damages the planet. Companies like Nestle go into areas like the Great Lakes area of Michigan, drill down into the water aquifers, and extract water from localities and leave waste behind (the CO2 from trucks that ship the water among them). The draining of the underground aquifers shrinks streams and other waterways, which has an incalculable impact on the local ecology. In almost every community that water companies go into, they negotiate prices that are startlingly beneficial to them without any benefit for the community they enter into.
  • Replace your faucets and shower heads, if possible. Low-flow shower heads can reduce your water use in a shower from as much as eight gallons per minute to less than one gallon per minute. That not only lowers the water you use, it cuts down on your energy use as well--that's less water to heat. (And plenty of money to save.)
  • Watch the documentary Flow to scare yourself into taking these steps. You can rent it from Netflix. Lackluster Video doesn't seem to have it.
These are all easy steps. You can also sign a petition to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one that adds access to clean water as a fundamental human right. Unlike oil, water is necessary to life.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Teaching to the evaluation

Via The Edge of the American West: Texas A&M, aka The Yale of College Station, will now be giving $10,000 bonuses to faculty based on student evaluations. Generally, I support initiatives to help faculty focus on better classroom practices. I've been a college student an incredibly long time now, and I've had instructors who teach badly, often for a variety of reasons. But I've also taught, and I think most teachers understand why student evaluations are a bad metric for giving away money. Among the more compelling reasons not to do this:
  • Positive evaluations correspond to higher grades. Classes that frequently reward students with substantial high marks receive higher student evaluations. This is troubling for several reasons. First, and this has been pointed out elsewhere, making student evaluations a sole serious metric for bonuses would lead to grade inflation. And if universities need anything right now, it's less incentive for grade inflation. Second, and this is more crucial, I think, is that teachers who structure their classes around frequently rewarding students will be perceived as better teachers. Classes that grade based on more cumulative criteria--say, for example, freshman composition courses, which measure a student's development as a writer over the span of an entire term--give students less of a grade-based incentive for enjoying the course. So depending on the requirements of a given course within a given department, the timing of grades varies.
  • Race, gender, and "attractiveness" play a role in student evaluations. Interestingly enough, male teachers that students call "attractive" get better evaluations that female teachers that students call "attractive." Also, the placement of men and women in teaching posts varies from department to department, as does the gender makeup of the students from department to department.
  • Electives will, on average, fare better among students than required courses. Required courses have a stigma built in before students even enter the first class meeting: they are the lima beans of the university experience. Take these courses before you can take the courses you want.
  • Student evaluations are arbitrary and vary not only by department, but also by course. When I teach composition, I not only keep regular office hours, I require individual conference meetings with students. I also respond to all class-related emails quickly (in my opinion; and I should note, anecdotes are never great evidence). Still, every quarter a handful of students claim I was unavailable outside the classroom. Yet I received nary a peep from these students during the quarter about needing to meet in my office. From what I can tell, the students who claim I wasn't available outside class are those students whose grades aren't very good.
There's a broader point beyond that anecdote. Departmental evaluations are written to cover a very broad spectrum of courses that serve students in very different ways. Our English department, for example, offers courses (and degrees) in literary study, journalism, rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and editing. How do you objectively compare student evaluations as metrics for rating these courses?

For more on this, follow along at Edge of the American West, which has given Ezra Klein, who supports the bonuses, the corporal punishment he deserves.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Michael Savage, Amateur Psychologist

I doubt Michael Savage has any respect for psychologists, and I know he has no respect for homosexuals. (I also doubt he knows any psychologists or homosexuals personally.) So why is he psychologizing homosexuals, and in such a stupid, stupid way?

(And you can listen to Savage to hear the phrase "a horsiness of the brazen tart." Man, I need a radio show.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Welcome me back with open arms

Thanks to some very impressive nudging on my brother John's part, this blog is coming back to live. Here are the goals:
  • Semi-regular posts, roughly three or four a week.
  • Open topics, from politics to lit to religion, but with the primary focus remaining on Cincinnati and its green needs.
So in the spirit of new developments, please head over to the new CincyStreetcar blog to read up on why putting the streetcar in Cincinnati is so important.