Driving to town only once a day? It’s crazy!

CNN recently published an article following the fall in ‘drivership’ due to rising gas prices.  Over Memorial Day weekend, people drove less than in the previous year, many opting for a ‘staycation’ or a cookout in the back yard rather than an hours-long trek to someplace else.  Even more people were opting for public transportation to combat rising gas prices.  At long last, people are being reasonable and actually thinking through their driving.  Of course, it’s only because not thinking is hitting them where it hurts most – their wallets – but I’m willing to take what I can get.

The cultural mindset we have about driving can best be seen in one woman’s change of plans – she comments on the ridiculousness of her new habits of catching rides with friends and only going into town once a day, which she calls crazy.  Maybe I’m cheap and/or don’t currently own a car, but I always like to catch rides with friends.  And most weeks, since I work outside the city, I don’t go in more than once a week.

We expect, as Americans, to be able to drive.  We expect to own at least one car, and possibly more than one.  We expect to someday own our own homes – and look where that’s got us.  We expect to be able to afford and be justified in cross-country trips to see family and friends or just to tour famous sites.  We expect to drive our cars to and from work every day, and to every little errand, whether two blocks or two miles away.  Personally I hope gas prices stay high until we know our expectations are unrealistic.  It may take a long time.



In a bid to grab the spotlight for one of the causes he supports, Conservation International, Harrison Ford was recently in a 30-second spot (below) detailing how slash and burn methods in other countries still have a major negative impact on our own.

The slogan of the campaign is ‘Lost Here. Felt There.” While I could focus on how the whole thing makes Ford look pretty bony and old, or how the music is a little out of place and ridiculous, I’d rather focus on the positive: making a statement (punny or no) with your fame. It’s something I hope to be able to do myself someday.

But what are the ultimate results of this campaign?  Conservation international aims to be a force both for education, innovation, and conservation by working with local communities around the globe.  I can fully support that, and I think most of us do, particularly when that kind of innovation means income for the locals as well as conservation of species and other forest resources.   There are always questions regarding whose interests are more valued in conservation efforts – those trying to turn a profit, or those trying to preserve a local ecosystem – but from what I can tell from the general outlines on the website, Conservation International seems to be doing a reasonable job.  Personally, I still take the Ford spot as vindication for letting my own personal leg-forests grow. I’m saving the environment.

Biodiesel and a new triangle trade.

When I was in lower forms of schooling, some of the history I was forced involved the Triangle Trade.  Now, while this title has a catchy, alliterative name, it’s a little misleading.  The Triangle Trade was not necessarily a triangle – it was often more of a quadrilateral.  It involved slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, sugar and rum from the Caribbean, tobacco and indigo from the US, and manufactured goods from Europe.  The idea was that traders profited by moving all these goods from where they were most common to where they were most scarce.  It was also probably somewhat damaging and disadvantageous for local economies, especially in Africa with the loss of the majority of the workforce.

The current price of the cost of oil is high enough that alternative methods, like biodiesel, are being sought after.  The US is even offering government subsidies for certain types of blended biodiesels.  That’s all well and good (other than causing a shortage of certain crops), but it’s also led to another kind of profiteering that may not be so good – ‘splash and dash’ fuels.  These are European-produced biofuels shipped to the US, mixed with a little bit of other fuel here (either another biofuel or regular petroleum), which is then eligible for a subsidy.  The new substance is considered a ‘created’ blend due to the mixing, and can be transported right back to Europe and sold for less than the price of the original biofuel.  Evidently the subsidy covers enough per gallon to make two-way shipping and an undercutting price profitable.

Some may say more power to those able to circumvent the system, but I have a few problems with this.  The spirit of the law is definitely being breached here – it’s costing a high environmental cost to ship all this biofuel in tankers across the Atlantic.  Even without the environmental cost of shipping, I’m not sure how I feel about even having the oil in the water.  Is biofuel less harmful to the environment if spilled?  Obviously, it’s not curde, but it’s still…well, oily.  Even if the Valdez was dumping thousands of gallons of salad dressing, it still would’ve been ghastly.  In addition, the two-way modern ‘triangle trade’ is putting legitimate biofuel producers out of business, at a time when they should be thriving.  Finally, I’m a consumer.  I want to get what I pay for – not what someone can cheat the government out of.

But we paid good money for that!


(brānd) n.

    1. A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer.
    2. A product line so identified: a popular brand of soap.
    3. A distinctive category; a particular kind: a brand of comedy that I do not care for.
  1. A mark indicating identity or ownership, burned on the hide of an animal with a hot iron.
  2. A mark burned into the flesh of criminals.
  3. A mark of disgrace or notoriety; a stigma. See Synonyms at stain.
  4. A branding iron.
  5. A piece of burning or charred wood.
  6. A sword: “So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur” (Tennyson).

American Heritage Dictionary

Though I am not certain, I would guess that our modern definition of ‘brand’ referring to a particular known company producing a certain item probably came from the marking of livestock and criminals. As in the past, the symbols and names of a brand denote a kind of ownership, a possession of both the symbol itself and the materials that make it. In some ways, it remains a demeaning mark. Branding in the modern sense often has longer-lasting unintentional consequences in the restrictions placed on the reuse of branded articles.

Take the recent purse prototype by TImbuk2. Made of recycled plastic bags (which really need to be reused, as they are very UN-biodegradable and often pose a hazard to animals), these flash-laminated bags are both water repellent and designed to take advantage of the bright colors and interesting shapes of the plastic bags themselves. Unfortunately Target saw the use of their bags as an infringement of tradaemark, rather than a promotion of their brand.

In some ways, I can understand Target’s side of the story – they are protecting their rights and defending their interests. And I’m sure they spent a considerable amount of money on the design of their bags, which use their logo interestingly. This good design is probably a part of why TImbuk2 included the Target bags in a prototype purse. But whether or not Target eventually takes advantage of this sort of niche eco-conscious market for bags, the Timbuk2 prototype probably would’ve done little harm to the Target brand.

The question for me that comes out of this story is the freedom given to corporations regarding the extension of brands. The question is not so much whether or not Target’s rights were being violated with the reuse of the bags, but whether or not the bags should be branded at all. Especially in a case like this, where the bags are detrimental to the environment, should corporations be held responsible for the number of bags the produce? Should they be rewarded for the number they recycle? Due to the branding of the bags, wouldn’t a corporation see excess bags as additional advertising, rather than a detriment?

It is for situations like this one that I am not a libertarian. The interests of business in this case are not aligned with the public good. The government, whether national or local, should step in to regulate how many branded article should be allowed, how they should be used, and what the environmental impact of such use can be. In addition, there should be a limit to how long brand-name packaging protection can ‘last’. If you want to brand a shirt, fine – the trademark protection endures. If your brand name is on a product package, that box or bag or plastic wrap should be immediately ‘free’ for re-use. Even advertising, such as billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, and even TV and radio spots, should have a certain shelf-life of protection. Afterwards, the public should be free to use it as it pleases. If it happens with copyright and patents, branded goods should be limited int eh same way.

Bees go AWOL

In my days as a ‘current events avoider’, I still managed to a fear of the loss of honey bees.  As the greatest, most diverse , and most widespread pollinator, we owe this little creature just about everything we eat, grow, or wear.  Outside of the value of honey as a crop, beekeeping can provide additional income to those who travel with their hives to aid crop fertilization, making it a lucrative profession both in America and third world countries.  But it seems like there’s always a threat to these ventures:  mites, fungus, Africanized bees, or even pesticides.

A recent survey of 19% of the commercial bee industry in the U.S. showed losses of 32% over the past year.  True, this survey investigated only the largest operators, but a general trend can be induced from the study.  Just imagine if 1/3 of the people in your office died over the course of a year, or 1/3 of the businesses in your area were closed.  Now imagine that, in addition to rising food prices and the scarcity of certain crops due to their use as biofuel, the loss of 1/3 or more of this year’s crop due to a lack of fertilization.

The most interesting part of the situation, however, is the loss of bees and entire hives to CCD, colony collapse disorder.  Basically, the bees of a hive get fed up, or depressed, or disillusioned with the leadership of their hives, and wander off on their own.  They die alone, the queen dies by herself, and honey production stops, starving off the next generation.  Science has yet to determine a cause, but I have my own theory:  we’ve taught them well.

Florida Tax laws and Bio-diesel

Students at the University of Central Florida are using their own small experimental bio-diesel reactor to avoid the growing costs of gasoline.  This fuel, made from fryer grease and chemicals, costs about 1/5 of the price of regular gas, and burns cleaner than petroleum-based diesel and produces less CO2 than diesel or gas (anyone know how to put subscripts into WordPress?).  They are also donating some of their fuel to their school. earning a tax break from the donation.

What was most interesting to me about the article however, was not the non-disclosure of the bio-diesel recipe or equipment.  It was not the implications of possible widespread use of this fuel.  It was not even the potential benefit to the environment through better, cleaner fuels.  It was the tax implications for the production of such a fuel.  Florida state, like many other US states, has a substantial excise tax fuel.  Excise tax is a tax for the production of goods – you make it, you pay it.  I would guess that in a typical situation, this sort of tax would not affect individuals.  Excise tax is only commonly imposed on certain goods like tobacco and alcohol.  So if you ferment your own cider, you might owe something to your state government.

However, I would think it’s likely that most small producers who don’t sell the goods wouldn’t suffer for not paying the tax.  Such small production has a minuscule impact on the local economy and tax revenue – usually.  However, with the shortage of gas and rising prices, this could mean big money that local governments aren’t getting, especially as more and more people turn to homemade bio fuels.  It may mean more money and certainly more annoyance for the consumers/producers.  The question is how much it will hamper local efforts for the production of a cleaner fuel, despite savings even with the tax paid out of pocket.

USPS controversy and there/their debate.

Recently near Denver, a non-profit manager was accused of violating postal regulations when shipping materials from his organization, Pro-Players Association.  Pro Players is a group of former professional athletes and associated personalities (commentators, media members) who raise money for a variety of charities.  Though I didn’t see any particular charities mentioned that supported environmental causes, they were doing their part and saving by reusing a variety of boxes for shipping.  Unfortunately, Gary Adler, the man in charge, was using Priority and Express mail boxes for regular mail services, which the Post Office would not deliver.

Whether or not the USPS or Adler is ultimately to blame in this case – and probably both sides should take a little blame – the news reporter is definitely to blame.  To blame for this quote: “We took off the tape and we took off the old label that was on their originally,” said Adler describing a box he recently sent that was returned by the postal service.  Now that’s bordering on slanderous.  If someone quoted me as if I were a hick that didn’t know the difference between there and their, I would be highly upset.  Unless the reporter asked me to spell ‘there’ and I goofed.  Then I’d just feel embarrassed and dumb.
Adler says he’s not going to use the USPS for shipping anymore, but I would call this a perfect opportunity for more activism than a simple boycott.  The USPS already has its own recycling program and is committed to using recycled materials.  Why not make such services available to patrons as well?  If Adler was picking up these boxes from Post Office branches, and they weren’t being recycled already, that means consumers leaving the boxes after unwrapping their package.  A simple inclusion of a recycling container within the branch (ostensibly already on site ina  back part of the mail room) would mean the growth of the USPS commitment to the environment and a new service for patrons.  Who wouldn’t be pleased?

The Predator-Prey relationship.

The history of conservation and preservation in America, especially of animal species, has been a constant teeter-totter.  First there was the competition for game resources and the hunting off of predators like wolves and coyotes.  Then there was the destruction of habitat for those game animals as well, occasionally marked by the wholesale slaughter of the animals themselves, as with the bison herds.  Of course, we realized our mistake here, and tried to ameliorate it by protecting deer and elk from hunting on certain public lands.  Then they overpopulated and started starving themselves to death, without any natural predators.  Finally, the use of chemicals in farming and industry, which had unintended consequences on a variety of species, such as the bald eagle.  Now that we’ve banned DDT, everything is hunky-dory and they’re coming back.  In each of these cases, we ‘learned our lesson’.  We are now preserving threatened predators – wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone, and more mountain lions added to the existing population to sustain it.  But finding the delicate balance between managing a population of animals, preserving something of the wilds for future generations and our own enjoyment, and complying with the needs of man and economics.

Take this recent tussle between preservationists and ranchers near Yellowstone.  On the one side, you have people sorry for the madcap (and, from all written accounts, visually disturbing) slaughter of the bison herds, and on the other you have cattle farmers trying to preserve their livelihood.  But it’s not only a case of man vs. beast.  It’s also a case of how much.  How much land should the bison be given?  They have no natural predators, and they are big animals that it takes a fair amount of pasture to feed.  Are 500 bison enough to preserve, and how much land to they realistically need?  As naturally wandering animals, they are not easily contained in one area, even an area as big as Yellowstone.  Does that mean we should go ahead and kill them off to preserve the grazing land and health of cattle?  Does it mean that we should designate ever-widening areas of preserve? Does it mean the bison should be allowed to roam free – even across private property and at the expense of others?

There are no answers to these questions, no real solutions.  As best we can manage an unsteady balance.  Bravo to the Parks Service for doing so thus far.

Khoisan mDNA and Africa’s Eve

There are a few things we know about the ‘original’ man of Africa. Genetics have traced our roots to a specific set of mDNA markers existing 200,000 years ago, a sort of genetic Eve for modern man. Archaeological evidence has traced the outpouring of man across the other continents to about 60,000 years ago (though this outpouring is still a theory only). A variety of methods and tactics have been employed to trace the relations of various groups of people from that point on, both through physical remains and modern biology, and through cultural markers such as language, tradition, history, and religion. But there’s still quite a bit we don’t know.

Quite a bit of what is left unknown is from that time span prior to the diaspora. The stone age began at some point before the diaspora. Such toolmaking has long been interpreted as the advent of civilization and a result of language, but the evidence is spotty at best. Conflicting theories of development (such as the idea, also largely unsupported, that Neanderthals had spoken language) are just as reasonable. Of particular interest are ideas of how one species may have replaced or interbred with another in a specific area.

Through studying the mDNA of Khoikhoi and San peoples, new theories are being posed for this early developmental time in Africa.  Maybe we were all meant to die out 70,000 years ago.  Maybe the speakers of that wonderful clicky language diverged from us genetically earlier than we’d previously thought.  Maybe they’re all closer to our genetic Eve mother and how we’re all ‘supposed’ to look.  Maybe after cheating death for thousands of years, our time as a species has come.  Maybe mDNA Eve is only one instance of the genetic change that was taking place across the globe all at once, and this whole diaspora idea is baloney.  Who knows?  But if we as a species were near extinction way back there in Africa, how would the world have developed without us?  It’s worth thinking about.


While an Aquaball might sound like what Sebastian starts in “Under the Sea”, the reality is slightly less impressive.  It’s a laundry product.  Yay!  I love laundry!  It’s almost as fun as getting hit with two koosh balls at the same time!  Still, it does have redeeming factors.  It has a spiky, neon appearance, which is fun.  And I guess modern or ‘retro’.  It’s supposedly less harmful than other laundry detergents that use more abrasives and chemicals.  Still, I’m not entirely convinced I want to go out and buy one.  Or two.

Several of my issues come from not knowing about the product.  Does it really get your whites whiter?  What are the ionic compounds being released into my wash, and how do they work, exactly?  How does the whole process imbue my clothes with a lemon-fresh scent?  How much, exactly, is 14.95 British pounds, and how much will it cost to get shipped here?  Finally, I was able to find few reviews at all, and only one user review here.

But there are advantages too.  If you have severe laundry chemical allergies, as my neighbor does, this ball thing is probably even better than the dye-free products we currently use.  Also, I’m not polluting by keeping my clothes clean.  I couldn’t figure out the cost issue, but I’m guessing it’s going to work out to pretty much the same as what I already use.  So the change would have to be for other reasons but still.  I am intrigued.  Maybe when we get low on our current round, I’ll see if anyone is making this stuff in the US of A.

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