Blue Marble - February 2009

A Dispatch from Darwin Day

| Thu Feb. 12, 2009 5:24 AM PST

Christians have Christmas. Atheists have Charles Darwin's birthday--a date that has inspired months of zealous non-worship in the lead-up to today’s fete of his 200th. Before midnight the world will have witnessed some 600 Darwin Day events, from the Darwin Day Barbecue in Melbourne, Australia, to the Darwin Day Rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the Darwin Day Evolutionpalooza, a gathering last Sunday in the basement conference room of the San Francisco Public Library, where 100 guests of the local atheist club ate birthday cake and heard the Charles Darwin Backup Singers belt out “The Twelve Ages of Evolution,” a Christmas-inspired ditty that ended with the Pleistocene era’s shopping list of "bisons and humans, hawks and higher primates, horses and whales, conifers and mammals, bipedal dinosaurs, reptiles, trees, and insects, spiders, mites and sharks, land plants and fish!" And the list went on.

Other than taking place in America's most Godless major city, San Francisco’s D-Day was notable for the presence of the mutton-chopped Darwin himself, who took to a podium in a chiffon scarf tied like a cravat and thanked the crowd for "all your great efforts in channeling me into the 21st Century." Forthwith began the kind of autobiography that could only come from a scientist--a mostly dry, rambling affair occasionally enlivened by Far Side jokes. "I have a friend who was Unitarian," Darwin said at one point, without mentioning that he was raised as one, "and the Klu Klux Klan burned a question mark in front of his house."

Evolutionpalooza, which was advertised on Facebook with a drawing of hominids evolving into a man carrying a birthday cake, is the brainchild of atheist author David Fitzgerald, who’d shown up wearing the classic walking fish shirt. "I hesitate to venerate Darwin too highly, to make him sound like he's our prophet," he told me. "There's already so much baggage attached to that kind of thing." But, he added, Darwin was a convenient rallying point in the effort of group’s 1,000 members to counteract the Religious Right. And they certainly had cause to party: President Barack Obama had proclaimed during his inauguration speech that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” This followed by Darwin’s bicentennial hinted at sunrise over a decade of darkness: “I have never been more optimistic about seeing Atheism being accepted in America,” Fitzgerald said. “The more we learn, the less plausible any one of those religions out there seems.” 

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San Francisco Rejects American Apparel: Has the Fight Against Chain Stores Gone Too Far?

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 11:51 AM PST

Last week, activists from the hippest street in San Francisco's uber-hip Mission neighborhood—where skinny pants and a shrunken American Apparel sweatshirt are like Polos and Dockers in Nantucket—successfully defeated American Apparel's application to open a store there. The backlash has been swift. Not less than three San Francisco Chronicle columnists weighed in, noting that American Apparel would have filled one of Valencia Street's 27 vacant storefronts with 15 employees earning $12 to $14 and hour plus healthcare—and during a recession! "American Apparel is lucky," sneered columnist Caille Millner. "What a burden it would be to have a store in a magical place with such nasty elves."

The elf in question is Chicken John Rinaldi, a performance artist, boat-maker, and 2007 San Francisco mayoral candidate (he got 2,500 votes) whose recent blog post inspired some 200 people to flood a planning commission meeting and buzz-saw the store's permit application like high school disciplinarians tackling an overgrown handlebar mustache. I spoke with Chicken John this morning as he was driving home from his art studio in Winters, California, (he can no longer afford to work in San Francisco) with his equally vocal best friend, Dammit the Amazing Wonder Dog.

 

Mother Jones:What happened?

Chicken John: We explained to American Apparel in no uncertian terms [that the store would never get approved], and I called their guy on the phone, and the guy was like this indignant fucker, like, "Yeah, we'll see. What you got?" And I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me? I eat guys like you for breakfast." [See American Apparel's response at bottom]

MJ: Clearly, a lot of people in the Mission oppose American Apparel coming in.

CJ: Let's not use the term "American Apparel" anymore. Let's use "Formula Retail." There's a lot of people in the Mission who oppose formula retail on Valencia Street. No one's saying that we oppose formula retail in the Mission. We just oppose it on eight blocks on Valencia Street. You want to put America Apparel [one block over] on Mission Street? I think that's a great idea.

MJ: What's wrong with Valencia Street in particular?

CJ: You want to put a chain store on the only eight blocks in America that don't have a chain store? If you can't see why that's wrong and bathed in vileness, then we're just going to have to agree to disagree. Like if you can't see that it's the last place that doesn't have a fucking Starbucks on it. Have you been to the rest of the country? It's out of control. There is no coffeeshop anymore. There is no diner.

MJ: There are other places in the city that don't have any chains.

CJ: Name one.

MJ: Hayes Valley has a rule against chains as well. But if you look at Hayes Valley, it's also full of stores selling $10,000 coats. Isn't that the issue, as opposed to whether the hipsters in the Mission, who already shop at American Apparel, are gonna have an America Apparel next to them or not?

Are Non-Stick Chemicals And Aging Dads More Dangerous To Babies Than Cocaine?

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:21 PM PST
Last week the New York Times printed good news about a worrisome issue in childhood development. As it turns out, children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy have only slightly lower IQ scores than children whose mothers didn't use. The difference between the children's scores was so low it was deemed "scientifically insignificant." In fact, the effect of alcohol on the fetus is more detrimental than cocaine's, while tobacco's is about the same. But potential parents have some other science to consider this week. In the latest issue of Human Reproduction scientists found that women with higher levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, or the chemicals that make products "non-stick") in their blood had more trouble getting pregnant. Women with higher levels of the two main chemicals—PFOA and PFOS—were up to 154 percent more likely to be infertile. Exposure is a particular problem for developed countries like the US, where eight percent of women of childbearing age have consulted a doctor about infertility. And, like we've said before, Teflon is forever.

Men's Health Worst Foods: Healthy List or Sneaky Ad?

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 4:16 PM PST
Image by flickr user Matt NichollsFrom Men's Health magazine comes a list of the worst foods in America of 2009. By "worst" Men's Health means worst for your body; by "food" the magazine means products or menu items. The list is basically a catalog of the fattest prepared foods in America.

Topping said list is Baskin Robbins' infamous Large Chocolate Oreo Shake, which with 2,600 calories (about 400 more calories than I consume in a day) and 263 grams of sugar (that's equal to about 18 cupcakes), is essentially a heart attack in a disposable cup. Ian Froeb at the St. Louis Riverfront Times tried the Oreo Shake last month and found the taste and color somewhat wanting:

Eleven States Enter New Abortion Debate

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:24 PM PST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 2:34 PM PST

President Obama thinks that "legislation to expand access to contraception [and] health information...[will] help reduce unintended pregnancies." But this month pro-life legislators have taken a more underhanded approach.

Eleven states are currently considering bills that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion. Sixteen states already have laws that require doctors to offer women the option to have an ultrasound. Oklahoma's proposed law goes even farther, and would force women to view ultrasounds and require doctors to verbally describe the images. Many legislators say the efforts are not political, but rather about providing "information to a mother who is in a desperate situation," says Senator Tony Fulton (R-NE), "information about what she's about to choose; information about the reality inside her womb..."

Earthquake in China Caused by Dam After All?

| Sat Feb. 7, 2009 2:10 PM PST | Scheduled to publish Thu Feb. 5, 2009 10:16 PM PST
In September I questioned the theory going around that the devastating  Sichuan province earthquake in May was caused by the Three Gorges Dam. The idea was inspired by research out of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in 1999 (long before Three Gorges was built) that said that the weight of the water held back by the dam could cause "reservoir-induced seismicity." The problem with Probe International's charge was that the fact that Three Gorges happens to be 400 miles from the epicenter. But now scientists have found that a closer dam might have contributed to tectonic shifts of the 7.9 variety, that its several hundred million tons of water would have put "25 times" the stress of natural tectonic movements on the fault line.

That the dam involved is not the controversial Three Gorges doesn't lessen the consequence here: an earthquake caused by a man-made dam means the government has to answer, at least in part, for 80,000 deaths.

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Does the EPA Know Which Industry is America's Dirtiest?

| Fri Feb. 6, 2009 10:57 AM PST | Scheduled to publish Fri Feb. 6, 2009 10:57 AM PST

Today the EPA filed a laudable lawsuit against Kansas-based Westar Energy for violating the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act. Laxly enforced by the Bush Administration, the rule requires power plants to install more advanced pollution-control technologies when they perform upgrades. The EPA action is part of what it bills "a national initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal-fired power plants." Sounds good to me, but unfortunately the EPA gets a bit carried away in its press release, which says: "Coal-fired power plants collectively produce more pollution than any other industry in the United States."

Weighing the Climate Impact of the Stimulus Bill

| Thu Feb. 5, 2009 11:16 AM PST | Scheduled to publish Thu Feb. 5, 2009 11:16 AM PST

Today Greenpeace released a report indicating that the House's $819 billion stimulus bill is a net environmental gain by a longshot. The bill's energy efficiency and conservation provisions alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 61 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of electricity use in 7.9 million American homes. Meanwhile, the worst-case-scenario for the bill's transportation provisions would reduce the overall carbon benefits by only 5 million tons annually. The report, which was written by the respected energy consulting firm ICF International, apparently didn't examine other provisions in the bill, but given that transportation is by far the biggest environmental white elephant, the overall package looks surprisingly eco-friendly. Ironically, the real downside won't kick in unless the stimulus succeeds in reviving the economy, causing consumption to rise. Yet if the bill starts rebuilding the economic system into something sustainable, we'll be better off than where we started.

The Real Problem With the Digital TV Switchover

| Tue Feb. 3, 2009 10:14 AM PST

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On February 17th, the government-mandated switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting is expected to spur a rush on electronics stores, as thousands of clueless Americans suddenly realize that their old TVs will no longer work. Worried that too many people aren't ready for the change, Congressional Democrats tried and failed to delay the switchover another four months. But their fear that Joe Sixpack might miss a few episodes of CSI is misplaced. The bigger concern should be what we'll do with millions of obsolete boob tubes with innards full of toxic heavy metals. Although electronics stores and manufacturers have started take-back programs, the only real way to keep TVs out of landfills and environmentally devastating Chinese scrap yards is to make it illegal to put them there. And unfortunately, only six states (California, Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Maine) enforce laws governing environmentally-responsible disposal of electronic waste. Long before making the TV switch, Congress should have passed a national electronics recycling law. But I guess they were too busy doing other things. Like watching CSI.

The Groundhog Who Bit Bloomberg Got It Wrong

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 3:52 PM PST

Writing on this blog, Josh Harkinson has fun at the expense of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose hand was bitten by a Staten Island groundhog:

Maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was [the groundhog's] way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

Actually, Bloomberg, who made his fortune not by swindling anyone but by providing a media service for which there was much demand, has done more to save the world than your average, TARP-sucking plutocrat. From a recent The New York Times story: