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In late spring of 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River in Virginia, whose course served as the de facto boundary between the Union and the Confederacy. Led by Ulysses S. Grant, they inconclusively fought Robert E. Lee’s forces—his first battle facing Grant—for three days at a place called Wilderness, decamping and continuing their advance (to Todd’s Tavern and Spottsylvania Court House) 145 years ago today.


Now the Wilderness Battlefield is at risk. Wal-Mart, riding the tide of the booming economy, is planning to open a store on the site.

On the side of right are actor Robert Duvall, Vermont Democrat Rep. Peter Welch, and historians and preservationists nationwide. On the side of Wal-Mart, however, is Wal-Mart . . . and the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is making no move to induce the megacorporatioon to spare the historic site.

The name “Wal-Mart” normally sets liberal blood a-boil, but even many who shop at and like the big-box chain are standing against them on this one: the issue, at least for them, is not the existence or even the presence of Wal-Mart, but rather the location. Wal-Mart would be well served to choose a site not in the middle of a Civil War battlefield for their newest store along the banks of the roaring Rappahannock.

h/t magpie

Without even trying abstinence-only education, the Federal government has gone right to HBC to combat an alarmingly high birthrate.

This is causing a huge outcry, even though it’s not people. Rather, it’s wild horses, who roam the American Southwest, fucking*.

The outcry is . . . very hard to explain, frankly, but it appears to be over the fact that the government is involved, which is feminine. Or something like that. Real men, it would seem, deal with the problem by simply shooting the horses (don’t they?)

That’s not at all like drowning unwanted puppies; horses are much bigger. And less cute, I suppose. It’s not sporting to shoot a dog, they come when you call anyway.

Horses’ lives, however, are no less valuable

*Presumably they stop roaming temporarily in order to do so.

Happy Passover, the time of year when scientists scientifically explain the ten plagues, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.

Uh-huh. Fascinating. Pass the tsimmes.

What’s the point? I don’t think any faithful Jews are going to say “it was all done with mirrors? Well then, gimme that razor!” Conversely, skeptical atheists aren’t going to say “wow, that scientific explanation shows the hand of God after all!”

Ultimately, the exodus story is a post facto explanation of contemporary laws and traditions. It should’t matter, to the faithful or anyone else, if the events actually happened or if the story as narrated includes metaphor and exaggeration. It’s not about the details, it’s about the moral and ethical lessons.

There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times about a movement towards mixing concrete to be environmentally friendly (though not “green,” which means freshly poured).

Concrete is one of the oldest manufactured building materials, having been used in ancient Rome, and that kind of provenance tends to discourage significant expeimentation. So it’s good to see people working to take a process that is probably not severely polluting, as industrial processes go, and actively make it cleaner. It’s particularly encouraging that a technique is being developed with a negative carbon footprint—a rare example of industry having a net positive effect on the environment without necessarily going for the hippie dollar.

One of the most important issues of the first quarter of the 21st century will be clean, sustainable energy. I believe the key will be a panoply of sources: instead of using one process, one form of fuel (e.g., fossil fuels) to meet substantially alll of our energy needs, we will combine solar, geothermal, wind, waste biomass, and other sources as yet undiscovered so that no one thing has too big a burden.

One thing slowing progress is that, in part for reasons of infrastructure, petroleum is significantly cheaper than most other fuels. No one has any motivation to switch other than ecological altruism because it requires such a massive investment of time, money, and effort (to find a source for solar panels, or whatever it is).

In particular, using biodiesel in your car requires making it at home: there are no filling stations because so few people have appropriate vehicles, and no one wants a car that requires biodiesel because it’s so inconvenient to refuel.

One solution is to run your car on straight vegetable oil. This, however, makes it impossible to run the car on regular diesel fuel, which is available at filling stations, and it uses food crops (the U.S. grows so much corn that we feed it to cattle, whose bodies metabolize it far less efficiently and completely than grain, and make it into sweetener, which the government creates a market for by levying a tariff on sugarcane).

Another possibility is to use algae. Algae are easy to grow and not used for food, so there’s no chance of the fuel exacerbating food shortages. While the current method of extracting fuel from algae requires toxic solvents heavily regulated in this country, a company in Horseheads, N.Y., has developed a new solid catalyst that may alllow algae-based fuels to be produced at filling stations.

Today’s New York Times introduces us to Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was responsible for forming the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, famous home of Peet’s and Pixar.

JBEI is a research facility dedicated to efforts to produce useable fuel from a type of plant cellulose called lignocelulose. If successful, that would mean fossil fuels can be supplemented or even replaced by renewable waste plant matter—e.g., stalks and stems—to power homes and businesses and for transportation. It would be a triumph of applied science, with vast and far-reaching effects.

This is one of a number of alternative fuel research projects Chu initiated and implemented during his tenure at Berkeley Lab. The current Secretary of Energy, research chemist Samuel Bodman, is one of the few members of the Bush Administration about whom I can’t find anything really negative to say; however, his energy approach seems to center on nuclear power, which requires costly infrastructure and perpetuates the vulnerable power-plant-based model of electric power.

To power a community with nuclear energy, you have to build an expensive nuclear plant. If accident or terrorism disrupts a nuclear plant, while that probably wouldn’t be dangerous by itself, entire towns, states, or regions could go dark—in August of 2003 such an accident shut off power for an estimated 50 million people in Ontario and eight northeastern states in the U.S. (and Al-Quaeda falsely claimed responsibility). On top of all that, nuclear energy is a useless option for cars, trucks, trains, and air travel—you can’t put a nuclear engine in an airplane, if only because of the weight of the necessary shielding.

Global warming and global warfare point to the need to embrace new sources for energy. Steven Chu is on the forefront of that effort. It’s good to see the incoming Obama administration supporting progress in this area.

And with that, I’m taking the week off. Happy holidays, one and all.

Few people these days believe that television poisons the mind, but more and more scientists are growing concerned that plasma TVs may be poisoning the atmosphere.

That’s because a gas used in the manufacture of LCDs and plasma screens, nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, has been implicated in global warming. In fact, NASA researchers believe NF3 is an even more potent hazard than carbon—possibly 17,000 times as effective as carbon gasses at trapping sunlight in the atmosphere.

Interestingly, NF3 was chosen because it was less polluting than carbon dioxide. Not because it’s a weaker greenhouse gas, or easier to contain close to earth. The Kyoto Protocol regulated carbon emissions, but some other pollutants weren’t regulated at all1. So factories located in Kyoto signatories could release as much NF3 as they needed to (which, admittedly, wasn’t much when Kyoto was drafted) without being considered polluters.

Researchers are working on other, non-polluting gasses that can be used in the process for which NF3 is used, or ways to make LCDs without using it at all. As LCD TVs and monitors become more and more ubiquitous, the need is becoming ever greater.

1Which is not to say it wasn’t a step in the right direction

Today’s Times brings us the tale of Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician in California who strove to have himself certified organic.

Organic foods in the United States are certified under rules developed by the National Organic Program of the USDA, though the actual certification is done by private groups that may be for-profit. If a product bears the seal, it means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, a designation that presumably includes (filtered) water. For an ingredient to be organic, it needs to be raised without antibiotics or hormones or grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizer (as appropriate) and producers—a loaded word, that—must follow soil and water conservation procedures and treat animals with a minimum of humaneness. I was surprised to learn that; I hadn’t realized organic meat was antibiotic-free. Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that antibiotics are needed to produce maketable meat from cattle raised on a maize-based diet because cattle do not thrive on a maize-based diet.

The system isn’t perfect. For often perfectly benign reasons, regulations such as those for organic foods tend to be written and enforced to favor industry. The cost of certification—not organic practices, maintaining the paper trail and paying the inspectors—can be more easily borne by large businesses.

The biggest problem is that the regulations govern technique, not outcome. So the oregano you grow in your window box or the tomatoes you grow in your garden are not organic, no matter what you did or didn’t do in growing them. More seriously, a farm such as Polyface in Virginia can’t be certified because it’s a lot of frankly unnecessary work to maintain the necessary records. Organic livestock has to eat only organic foods for three years, just as Dr. Greene did, and they won’t just take the farmer’s word for it. This doesnt mean the farm doesn’t operate under principles that I, at least, trust will produce food that’s no less healthful or sustainable than the duly inspected products of the nutrition industry.

One benefit of the system, however: when you eat organic, you know what you’re getting, which is more than you can say for processed foods.

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