Thursday, March 30, 2006

Americans and their powerful cars

Do you wonder why, given 25 years advancement in technology, the average mileage of automobiles in America has remained essentially the same?

The average vehicle, which 25 years ago accelerated to 60 miles an hour in 14.4 seconds, now does it in 9.9 seconds, a pace once typical only of sporty or luxury cars like Camaros and Jaguars. And vehicle weight now averages about 4,100 pounds, up from about 3,200 in the early 1980's, as many buyers switched to larger, roomier cars or to sport utility vehicles and minivans


If 2005 model vehicles, with their better technology, had the performance and size of those in 1987, they would use only 80 percent of the gasoline they do today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That alone would get the country nearly halfway to the goal President Bush set in his State of the Union address: to cut American oil consumption enough to nearly eliminate the need to import from the Middle East.

But because Americans have not insisted on better fuel economy, "we can take the technology in the cars and turn the knob toward performance," said Karl H. Hellman, an automotive development expert who retired from the E.P.A. two years ago.

Improving mileage now would be easy if drivers sacrificed some zip in new cars, he said, "but in this country, we don't sacrifice for anything." (NY Times)

Oh, but we do sacrifice. It's just a matter of where. Do you want more terrorism, more funding of Islamist schools, more entanglements in Middle East politics, more animosity abroad? Keep using and demanding all the oil you can! You won't sacrifice how quickly you can get your enormous automobile off the line, but you'll sacrifice blood, money and safety.

The 2005 Toyota Camry, one of the most popular sedans, accelerates more quickly than some 1975 Pontiac Firebirds. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer, an S.U.V., can reach 60 miles an hour in 8.2 seconds -- about half the time of its 1985 ancestor. The 2006 Cadillac STS-V, which can reach 60 m.p.h. in less than five seconds, is one of many cars that now have more than enough horsepower to pull an 18-wheeler.

An image of oldsters in their Cadillacs compensating for some other perceived deficiency comes to mind. Would it be too much to ask that, while they're zooming around in their state-of-the-art hot rods, they give half a thought to the young people abroad giving up their lives trying to keep the Middle East (and oil prices) stable?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Would Jesus torture?

According to a Pew poll, Americans favor torturing detainees. Sad. The worst part of it?

[If] you are an American Christian, you are more likely to support torture than if you are an atheist or agnostic. Christians for torture: it's a new constituency. (Andrew Sullivan)

Yikes. Guess it's time to start dusting off those What Would Jesus Do bracelets, you think?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Your tax return for sale

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is quietly moving to loosen the once-inviolable privacy of federal income-tax returns. If it succeeds, accountants and other tax-return preparers, for the first time, will be able to sell information from individual returns -- or even entire returns -- to marketers and data brokers.

The possible change is raising alarm among consumer and privacy-rights advocates. It was included in a set of proposed rules that the Treasury Department and the IRS published in the Dec. 8 Federal Register, where the official notice labeled them "not a significant regulatory action." (Seattle Times)

The kicker? The press release announcing the above change was titled "IRS Issues Proposed Regulations to Safeguard Taxpayer Information."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pro-family party?

Read about how the Republican party undermines families by siding with business when push comes to shove. (Latest example: the recent legislation making it harder for families to declare bankruptcy yet doing nothing to curb banks' predatory practices.)

Did you know the Democrats were the original "pro-family" party?

SOME HISTORY may help here. The modern "family issues" are actually about a century old. The first openly "pro-family" president was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Between 1900 and about 1912, he wrote and spoke often, and eloquently, about the dangers of a rising divorce rate and a falling birth rate. He celebrated motherhood and fatherhood as the most important human tasks, and described the true marriage as "a partnership of the soul, the spirit and the mind, no less than of the body." He blasted as "foes of our household" the birth control movement, equity feminism, eugenics, and liberal Christianity.

However, the Rough Rider was the only prominent Republican of his time to think and talk this way. The dominant wing of the GOP tilted in favor of the banks, the great industries, and -- perhaps more surprisingly -- the feminist movement. Indeed, as early as 1904, the National Association of Manufacturers had formed an alliance with the feminists, for they shared an interest in moving women out of their homes and into the paid labor market. When the feminists reorganized as the National Woman's party in 1917, the manufacturers' association apparently provided secret financial support. More openly, Republican leaders embraced the feminists' proposed Equal Rights Amendment, first advanced in Congress in 1923. The GOP was also the first major party to endorse the ERA in its platform.

Meanwhile, the Democrats consolidated their 19th-century legacy of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion": that is, as the party favoring beer halls, the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, southern agrarians, northern Catholics, small property, the trade unions, and -- importantly -- the "family wage" for male workers. This cultural and legal device sought to deliver a single wage to fathers sufficient to support a wife and children at home. The Democrats also welcomed the "Maternalists" into their ranks, female activists who -- while believing strongly in equal legal and political rights for women -- also emphasized the natural differences between the sexes when it came to childbirth and child care. They favored federal programs for the training of girls in home economics and for "baby saving," meaning efforts to reduce infant and maternal mortality. They fiercely opposed working mothers and day care. Under this Maternalist influence, every New Deal domestic program openly assumed or quietly reinforced the goal of a "family wage" and the model American family of a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother, and an average of three or four children.

In short, from 1912 until 1964, the Democrats were -- on balance -- the pro-family party. The Republicans, on balance, were the party of business interests and the feminists.

All this changed between 1964 and 1980 with the emergence of the "Reagan Democrats."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Abortionists against adoption last week modified its search engine after an abortion rights organization complained that search results appeared skewed toward anti-abortion books.

Until a few days ago, a search of Amazon's catalog of books using the word "abortion" turned up pages with the question, "Did you mean adoption?" at the top, followed by a list of books related to abortion. (NY Times)

Note to reporter: "adoption" is not the same as "anti-abortion". Or is it?

Amazon removed that question from the search results page after it received a complaint from a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national organization based in Washington.

"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis, a retired Episcopalian minister in Charleston, W.Va. "It represented an editorial position on their part."

This boggles my mind. After years of hearing abortionists say they are not pro-abortion but are pro-choice, how exactly does adoption pose a threat to them? Or even an "editorial position"? Do they really care if a woman chooses adoption instead of abortion? Do they somehow have a vested interest in women choosing abortion?

[The] Rev. Jeff Briere, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a member of the abortion rights coalition, said he was worried about an anti-abortion slant in the books Amazon recommended and in the "pro-life" and "adoption" related topic links.

"The search engine results I am presented with, their suggestions, seem to be pro-life in orientation," Mr. Briere said. He also said he objected to a Yellow Pages advertisement for an anti-abortion organization in his city that appeared next to the search results, apparently linked by his address.

Funny, it wasn't too long ago I read about abortionists trying to claim the title of "pro-life" and label those against, er, "choice" as "pro-abortion". I'm glad we've left that muddle behind.

Against fully-informed choice: check. Hoping women will choose abortion instead of adoption: check. And one more thing Mr. Briere objects to: pro-life advertisements. The nerve of those pro-lifers! Perhaps the abortionists should buy some ads against the search term "adoption" and hope they can win some hearts and minds back to their side.


Wired News has an article today about converting organic material into a petroleum substitute.

Bio-oil can be made from almost any organic material, including agricultural and forest waste like corn stalks and scraps of bark. Converting the raw biomass into bio-oil yields a product that is easy to transport and can be processed into higher-value fuels and chemicals.

"It is technically feasible to use biomass for the production of all the materials that we currently produce from petroleum," said professor Robert C. Brown, director of the Office of Biorenewables Programs at Iowa State University.

The United States can grow enough fresh biomass -- more than a billion tons each year -- to supplant at least a third of its annual petroleum use, according to an April 2005 study (.pdf) by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy.

Note to average American consumer: that's one third of current use. Even if the fantastic effort was made to fuel our country via biomass, we'd still have to import oil. More has to be done. Like, say, conserve? Unless you like countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to yank our chain?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Credit reporting agencies against protections

Just in case you thought credit reporting agencies were Your Friend:

In a dozen states, legislatures have set up procedures for residents afraid of identity theft to lock and unlock their credit reports.

But credit-reporting agencies are pushing Congress to override the state laws, which could make it harder for Americans to keep their credit information under wraps.


The agencies [dislike] laws like New Jersey's because they fear that making it too easy to lock a credit report may ruin their business in the way that the Do Not Call list decimated the phone solicitation business. The companies' main business is selling credit information to potential lenders, insurers and even employers. (NY Times)

It seems that you don't own your credit history: the agencies do. And if the agencies' making it available to anyone that requests it allows someone to steal your identity, tough.

SUVs "socially embarrassing"

SUV sales are off. Less than half of luxury SUV owners purchase another one when trading in. Manufacturers have to offer record incentives to get SUVs off the sales lot.

The higher cost of gasoline plays a big role, as it has for the last year of high oil prices. But wealthy buyers, who used to shrug off the expense, are shifting gears, as excessive energy consumption is becoming socially embarrassing. (NY Times)

National Biodiesel Day

Happy National Biodiesel Day!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cancer-causing sodas

Last month, the FDA quietly revealed that some soft drinks were found to contain the human carcinogen benzene in levels up to 10-20 parts per billion (ppb) -- four times the acceptable limit found in drinking water. Benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer, forms in certain beverages under certain conditions, such as exposure to heat and light.

The agency immediately downplayed the risk, saying that such small amounts did not pose a significant danger to health. "Levels like that with benzene, our only concern would be lifetime consumption," says George Pauli, associate director of science and policy in the office of food additive safety. (AlterNet)

Wow, we are fortunate that no one drinks soft drinks their entire lives!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Google buys Writely (and its effect on OpenOffice)

Google has purchased Writely, an online word processor accessible through Windows and Mac using the Internet Explorer and Mozilla/Firefox browsers.

At first I thought this might be bad news for Google's partnership with Sun and the latter's free OpenOffice word processor (and the possibility that Google would help create an online version of OO) but maybe not.

Writely already supports importing and exporting OO documents (in addition to Microsoft Word documents) and I expect Google will continue this and more. Perhaps they could add seamless functionality to OO that allows one to load and save documents to a Writely workspace? And then edit these documents via OO or Writely? In any case I see this as a plus for OO and the move to have an open document standard replace the proprietary MS Word.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Senate approves video game study

Democrats Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois persuaded a Senate committee to approve a sweeping study of the "impact of electronic media use" to be organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Even though the legislation -- called the Children and Media Research Advancement Act -- does not include restrictions, it appears to be intended as a way to justify them. That's because a string of court decisions have been striking down antigaming laws because of a lack of hard evidence that minors are harmed by violence in video games. (CNET

It's amazed me the justifications that judges have used to strike down the sale of explicit video games to minors. State after state has failed in its attempt to limit sales. And with the industry unwilling to help (I imagine they like those illicit sales) I guess it's up to the feds.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The rights of the child

The president of the National Organization for Women, Kim Gandy, acknowledged that disputes over unintended pregnancies can be complex and bitter.

"None of these are easy questions," said Gandy, a former prosecutor. "But most courts say it's not about what he did or didn't do or what she did or didn't do. It's about the rights of the child." (Associated Press)

Yes, you read that right. The president of NOW says the rights of the child are paramount.

Oh wait ... that's only when a father wants to opt out of his responsibilities. When a woman wants to, she can just have an abortion.

(Glad we got that cleared up.)

Tightening Catholic Lenten regulations

The latest trend in abstinence, however, is not to loosen Lenten regulations but to tighten them, especially if there's an endangered species to save. In Mexico, conservationists are pleading with Rome to declare that the meat of sea turtles -- a popular soup ingredient -- shouldn't be on the Lenten menu, even though the flesh of reptiles and other cold-blooded animals has generally been allowed.

If the Vatican cooperates, it can expect an arkload of follow-up requests. Next on the list is probably the green iguana, another threatened reptile that's on a Latin American soup recipe.

Wall Street Journal

Shiny happy people

Evangelicals are 26 percent more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Almost half -- 43 percent -- of evangelical Protestants described themselves that way, compared to only 34 percent of Americans.


[Ruth] Tucker said she doesn't think happiness is necessarily biblical, but it is preached from church pulpits as a Christian calling.

"There's very little room in megachurches for lament and grief and expressing one's deep sadness," Tucker said. "If you feel deep depression or sadness and are going through a rough time, you are told to stay home from church."

The contemporary church's pursuit of happiness is markedly different from historical Christianity's, said Florida State University professor Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History. Christians in the early church, he said, did not expect to have happiness before death. Much of Augustine's City of God, he notes, criticizes those who seek perfect happiness in this world. Original sin, Augustine wrote, made earthly happiness impossible.

"It's only relatively recently, since the 18th century, that people expected religion to make them happy," McMahon said. "In a way, it's a perverse affirmation of the Enlightenment."

Christianity Today

Wal-Mart increasing organics

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. aims to be the mass-market provider of organic food, and will have doubled its organic offerings over the next couple of weeks, Wal-Mart's head of dry grocery told Reuters on Monday.


Wal-Mart is the top U.S. grocery seller and also No. 1 in organic milk sales. It carries organic baby food, juice, produce and pasta sauce, but will be expanding its offerings to include products ranging from pickles to macaroni and cheese.

Priest said Wal-Mart has paid close attention to the small-but-growing organic market for several years, and decided to make its move now as studies show a majority of U.S. consumers buy at least some organic food. (Reuters)

Wal-Mart the #1 seller or organic milk? Huh.

This is especially interesting to me because Wal-Mart is angling to build a store within a mile of my house. There's a bit of local opposition (if you can imagine), but if it goes through, they'd be the closest store to me that sells organic food. I'll continue to use the local health food grocer, but it being about 7 miles away will I overcome my misgivings about Wal-Mart's ethics to pick up some milk or eggs there? I don't think so, but stay tuned.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see how their prices compare to my grocer's. When local mainstream grocers have added organics, their prices have always been higher.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

smart fortwo bound for US?

Who wudda thunk? Sounds like DaimlerChrysler is seeking approval to sell the 2007 fortwo in the US.

Hybrid != green

Marketers are jumping on the green-car movement and the gears are audibly grinding over what counts as a "hybrid vehicle."

First applied to small sedans emphasizing fuel economy, the term is now blithely used to encompass a vast array of trucks, SUVs and luxury cars that in some cases offer only modest fuel savings over traditional vehicles, some critics charge. (Wired News)

It should be a simple technical matter what qualifies as a "hybrid". Perhaps where the education needs to be is that a hybrid automobile is not necessarily efficient or "green". Driving an unnecessarily oversized SUV is never "green", no matter what technology it uses, because you could always save more resources by applying that same technology to a smaller, more modest automobile.

According to UCS, the upcoming 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line SUV along with the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado hybrids, make claims that are "hollow" and classify them as "mild hybrids" that should not be considered the same class of vehicles.

Nathanson said that while the Saturn Vue hybrid includes useful fuel-saving features such as deactivating cylinders when not in use and shutting off the engine while idling, a hybrid should include a battery with a minimum of 60 volts of power. By way of comparison, the Saturn hybrid's batteries (produced by Ovonics' subsidiary Cobasys) are rated at 36 volts, while the Toyota Camry hybrid includes 244-volt batteries.

While hybrid vehicles from Honda, Toyota, Ford and Lexus include battery packs that can recover substantial amounts of energy from the braking system (known as regenerative braking), the Saturn hybrid battery pack "doesn't have sufficient power to provide an assist to the engine," according to Nathanson.

For more information about Hybrids, you can go to the HybridCenter web site.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Thou Shalt Separate Church and State

You might think that I, as a biblical scholar and an observant Jew, would have been overjoyed that the Supreme Court recently agreed to take up the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings. After all, our nation's highest arbiter of justice is about to give free publicity to the book I love and teach. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

[The] monument displayed in the Texas Capitol building -- one of the three monuments being ruled upon by the Supreme Court -- contains the words "The Ten Commandments." There is only one historical problem with the monument: There are no Ten Commandments in the Bible.

Marc Brettler explains how the Ten Commandments are a Christian interpretation of scripture and not as inclusive as some like to think.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Fashionable promiscuity

the most striking element [in the 1934 movie "It Happened One Night"] is the attitude toward drunkenness. The first time we see [Clark] Gable's character he is roaring drunk, and this is assumed to be hilarious. His drunkenness is encouraged and subsidized by other characters. In the post-Prohibition decades, being drunk (as opposed to merely drinking) was seen as rebellious, cool, and fashionable, and people who objected were depicted as prudes and squares. That fad eventually passed, when the damage done by alcoholism could no longer be romanticized away.

Now, in the post-sexual revolution decades, being promiscuous is seen as rebellious, cool, and fashionable, and people who object are depicted as prudes and squares. That fad too will eventually pass, when the damage done by abortion, divorce, and sexually transmitted diseases can no longer be romanticized away. (Frederica Mathewes-Green)

One can hope.

Falseness in Christian churches

We have attended “high” churches where the same impression of falseness was left by liturgical choreography and precisionism, low churches where programmed spontaneity is the accepted measure of piety, and others in which small but no less shocking things show the same disease -- such as musicians using the prayers (addresses to God Almighty, as reputed to be “present among us”) as an opportunity to re-arrange themselves for the next “piece.”

Were I a serious non-Christian, visiting -- visiting not because I required a religion that would “speak to me where I am,” which is a particularly recalcitrant form of atheism, but because I was seeking God -- I would find it easy to conclude that these people did not believe in God at all (or at least in any God worth believing in) but were turned in upon themselves, serving some sort of need for religion they felt, a need that could be adequately served with ceremonies, effusions, and entertainments. If I wished to find the God of whose eternal power and God-ness I already knew in my heart, it would be better to look among people who showed signs of actually believing in him by doing him the honor of taking him seriously. Perhaps among the Muslims who kill people for blasphemy and are themselves willing to die for their faith, or among Jews who fear even to speak his name.

I am in entire sympathy with those who, meeting these forms of “Christianity,” turn elsewhere in disgust, and while I believe there is no way to God except through Christ his Son, neither do I believe the Lord will abandon those seekers of truth who reject, for truth’s sake, much what has presented to them as Christianity. They will find Christ. God has promised they will.

S. M. Hutchens