Sunday, May 25, 2008


F1 never fails to entertain, off the track as much as on in the last couple of seasons. Last year was Spygate, which gave the patrician Max Mosley, President of the FIA, opportunity to give a good reaming to working class Ron Dennis, boss of McLaren, for allegedly using purloined Ferrari information, courtesy of a disgruntled Ferrari man, on his cars. The extent to which McLaren did so, Ron denies it, and the advantage if any gained, will never be known for sure; but I suspect the lordly Max did not regret slapping the $100 million penalty on Ron.

This season the aforementioned Max himself is the centerpiece of the continuing off-track entertainment for his starring role in a spanking video with several prostitutes which, according to the film's producers, the ever-scholarly, truth-seeking, and even-minded News of the World, has clear "Nazi role-playing." Max is the son of English fascist Oswald Mosley (watch Remains of the Day for a review of the English aristocracy's attitudes towards Germany in the years before WWII). Max considers the whole thing a terrible invasion of his privacy (the kind of "what I do in my private life is my business" attitude) and is determined to stay on. A meeting of the FIA in June will determine his fate. My money is on his staying. Needless to say, Ron Dennis denies any role in the sting, though he would not be at all at fault for deriving just a crumb of satisfaction from seeing Max's lashed bottom available for public scrutiny.

Apart from the obvious voyeuristic appeal - YouTube videos and all - Spankygate provides an informative insight into the minds of rich, powerful men. Some have come out in support, like his chums at Ferrari (some say the F in FIA stands for Ferrari); and one can appreciate the natural affinity of the class-conscious Max with the faux aristocracy of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo (kind of like the mysterious "Count" in Real Housewives of NYC - yes I do my homework here). They say that Max is doing a good job and his "private life" (now extremely public) has nothing to do with it. Except that no one now wants to touch Mosley with a ten foot pole, as he has been unwelcome at any of the F1 races since the scandal began. For others, the sticking point seems to be the Nazi bit; as if to say it was really okay provided there wasn't any of that stuff going on. Are we to conclude that the FIA members are not opposed to a bit of slap and tickle (and spanking) - it all being in good sport? Maybe strippers emerging from large cakes is a regular item on the agenda at their meetings on road safety or whatever else they prate on about.

I told Dulcie about it in great excitement when the story first broke and her first world-weary question was, "What is the FIA?" I replied that it was a really important organization. Ever penetrating she asks what they did. I had to say I really didn't know; but they are "really important." On reflection I still don't really know, but I suspect it is a collection of middle-aged men having regular parties at other people's expense in order to create a sense of importance where none might really exist. Max thinks he is important and is telling the FIA members that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone (he of the short stature and two tongues) will steal F1 away from the FIA if Max is whacked. Truth be told that F1 needs the FIA as much as a healthy prostate needs a poorly lubricated finger. Bernie probably would want to steal it, but he is too smart to actually say so before doing it; and has responded to the FIA by rebuking everything Max has claimed.

However it plays out, once again one is left to marvel at the hubris and utter lack of shame displayed by these folks in high places who risk all by indulging in perverse antics, thinking all the while that they have the right to do so and can get away with it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Academic Integrity - Naperville Central Style

Yet another Illinois administrator (previously there was Mr. (or is that Dr?) Poshard from SIU and a dean at NIU - the latter I have actually met) has been caught with his academic trousers down. This time the principal of Naperville Central (the other Naperville high school) gave a speech that he had stolen wholesale from a former student. What's worse, the student in question is now a teacher at the school and was in the audience. What can one conclude other than these administrators are either very craven or extremely dumb. Or perhaps both. These high schools take a very rigid zero-tolerance attitude towards plagiarism as I know first-hand from my children; their essays are fed into the Turnitin checking software and if it comes up worse than yellow, for whatever reason, it's an F. I tend to take a softer approach with these things because you need to judge each situation on its merits; I don't like doing it just by the percent match.

In Mr. Caudill's case, it was a "mistake," although he might have used the word "blunder." He says he was going to call the author but got "too busy" and didn't want to send her an e-m. Jim, Jim, this is a lamer excuse than I get from my lazy-assed students trying to explain away their copied assignments; but at least you didn't use the "death in the family" line I guess. Jim, why didn't you simply say at the outset that you were lacking inspiration, which you said was the reason you borrowed it in the first place, and give her all the credit by saying her speech, which you are using, was much better? You would have looked humble; she would have looked good. Now you look like a complete dope and have lost credibility, rightly so, with the students.

The superintendent is "concerned and disturbed" and needs to talk with the "key players" before deciding what to do. Hmmm...Now let me guess what the outcome will be...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"I don't know whether to eat or not"

Is a line from the A.R. Gurney play "The Dining Room." In my case it is perhaps a case or not knowing what to eat. With an impending food crisis about to doom mankind I am feeling a growing responsibility to eat with a social conscious. Trouble is, what exactly does that entail?

The locavore philosophy (see earlier posting in archives about white asparagus) that entertains only local produce does not necessarily ensure superior environmental stewardship; it may yet be better in some cases to ship the same product from a different clime where it grows more energy efficiently. In any event, locavoredom only makes practical sense where you can obtain a diet that is more varied than corn and turnips.

Then there is the whole organic thing. Some folks on the radio this Saturday were celebrating some sort of green festival and were chortling enthusiastically about the growth of organic farming compared with conventional. I don't dispute the claim for the growth; but when you look at the relative quantities, larger growth on a very small amount is not significant. Moreover, anyone who seriously believes that organic farming is the solution to the world's food problems is seriously delusional. Wholefoods may be a great way for the upper middle classes to indulge their self-absorbed, gluttonous cravings, but it is scarcely a practical solution for the world's poor.

My biggest quandary perhaps is the fish. Given the decline in stocks you might have thought the farm-raised fish is the way to go, environmentally responsible and sustainable. Not so goes the argument: appallingly inefficient, unhealthy (all those toxins and metals concentrated therein), not to mention the awful quality. So, should we all be eating line-caught salmon? Preferably served with a video showing its capture, and maybe with a podcast describing its life history (as Charlie Trotter would do). This seems unlikely given that the salmon season in California and Oregon has been canceled because of the low stocks.

Part of the problem with the food crisis is all the uppity Chinese and Indians abandoning their traditional diets in favour of a more western meat-focused one. As an aside, one notes yet again how the much reviled U.S. is being copied by other nations. I have yet to see nations abandoning the western diet in favour of a bowl of rice and a stick of bok choi. And here is the problem: all that meat requires lots of energy and lots of food to grow it. One is forced to the conclusion that all the good foods, meat and fish, must be discarded in favour of more lowly creatures: instead of a salmon, a fistful of sand eels; instead of a steak, a well- washed clump of grass. I'm not sure I'm quite ready for that.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blue bags over...

Fortunately not the White Cliffs of Dover to paraphrase the immortal wartime anthem of Vera Lynn; but they are banished from the streets of Chicago and the fields of Indiana (their usual destination). The city announced that the Blue Bag recycling program is to be replaced by more practical bins that separate the recyclables at birth so to speak, rather than wait for some hapless twerp to perform the task at a later time in some garbage dump someplace - which of course didn't happen. The program had long been a farce of preposterous proportion, accompanied by monstrously inflated claims of success by Mayor Capone (the king of bicycling and other things green) until the whole sham was ripped open, much like the bags themselves tended to do, by a series of articles in the Tribune. Why were we not surprised to learn that the infamous blue bags, if they were used at all (the general gender appeared to show some intelligence by disdaining them as pointless), were dispatched with the rest of the rubbish in some far-flung field in another state, rather than being painstakingly picked over at great expense to retrieve the precious cans and bottles.

Recycling in a large urban area remains a formidably complex problem. Although instinctively one feels it is the right thing to do, returning all those materials back into the cycle of production, the costs of doing so don't necessarily reward the effort. When all the factors are taken into consideration; and that exercise is very complicated and occasionally controversial; for some materials one is left with the conclusion that maybe all that effort to do the "right thing" was in vain, as more resources are spent on the recycling than on getting fresh material. Unfortunately the materials that are most in the public eye in recycling - all those horrid plastics that don't degrade - are the ones least effectively recycled and the ones that emanate from our precious dwindling fossil fuel supplies. In Europe, recycling is more institutionalized; but for them recycling also includes burning stuff to obtain energy; and that is the fate of most plastics - not exactly the cradle-to-cradle philosophy expounded by the likes of Bill McDonough (self-proclaimed sustainability visionary). The Euros recognize the difficulties associated with recycling plastics and they take the path of avoiding their use. While more beverages appear in the plastic in this country, you will not find a single one on a European grocer's shelf.

Is using glass and aluminium actually superior? When one accounts for the energy costs in extracting them the answer is not so clear. There are several questions really: the availability of resources, the energy costs, the global warming impact, pollution and other environmental effects of disposal. While we feel good by religiously putting all the stuff with triangles in the blue bin, and get all self-righteously angry at those that don't, it is not at all clear that we are actually doing any good by it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Congestion Relief

So on Saturday I ventured forth on a rare road trip, burning some more of our precious fossil fuels in the process and adding to my carbon footprint, the nagging sense of guilt all adding to the stress of the occasion, to Oakton Community College. I took to the tollway system which was a carpet of orange cones and diamond signs from beginning to end of my journey: all in the interest of "Congestion Relief" a larger board declared, though I could scarcely avert my eye from the constantly switching lanes to really digest it. In view of my considerably weakened state at the hands of a particularly virulent virus, congestion relief was what I needed, but perhaps not of the tollway's thinking. As I raised my transponder in a salute to our little Napoleon (Blago) at each "open-road tolling" stop, one finger vertical in his honor, another 40 cent deducted, I was given to thinking there are easy ways for the system to separate us from our money. Seeing as how not a single vehicle adheres to the 45 mph limit in the zones, a couple of speed cameras could be hauling in hundreds of thousands per hour at $375 a clip without the need for elaborate toll collection systems. Why don't they? The English do it with some success; even the threat of a speed camera indicated by the rectum-clenching sign induces all but the most brazen of motoring criminals to slow down. At the entrance to I-88 there was one forlorn sign warning of photo-monitoring of speed but no one believes it for good reason: it isn't done. It would seem to me far more effective in terms of road safety to enforce speed laws than erecting monuments to the Gov to shake us down for 40 cents a time.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hero to Villain in half a gallon

In a world sinking under the weight of its computing power, where one can learn and communicate information almost before it happens, why do some things seem to catch us unawares? It wasn't that long ago that the financial folks were gladly handing out loans to anyone who could sign their name using a variety of financial "products" like 125 % mortgages. All of a sudden there is a mortgage crisis and all those smartly dressed banking chaps are wearing a sheepish look as if to say they had no idea how it happened. Now the world is suffering a "silent tsunami" (overused word) of a food crisis. How do these things happen so suddenly? Well they don't really but it is the manner in which events are managed and reported that gives the impression that they are sudden and unexpected. Folks at Enron knew very well what was going to happen and manipulated the situation to suit themselves; to outsiders the inevitable collapse was sudden and unexpected. Much the same picture could be drawn in the banking cartel: collapse was inevitable and anticipated by the insiders, yet the ship sailed on; after the denouement, the hapless homeowners and taxpayers pick up the bits. The food thing is a bit more complicated. Weather, and inevitably climate change, can be blamed.

So can ethanol.

It seems just a few years ago that I attended a lecture at the COD about global warming (really before the mass publicity) at which the virtues of using corn rather than fossil fuels were being touted as a means to both energy independence and carbon neutrality. Both of course are wrong when a proper look is taken. Ethanol became the saviour and there was E85 and of course in Illinois the ethanol plants popped up like mushrooms and our politicos supported it (still do). Now it is the villain of the piece, blamed for rising grain prices with all sorts of knock-on effects to other crops since farmers want to grow corn rather than soy for example. Now the environmentally conscious Euros are complaining about the dumping of all those subsidized biofuels made in America. What is becoming clear now should have been obvious back in the day. Ethanol from corn was never going to be carbon neutral; it was never going to provide energy independence; it was never going to be economic (thereby introducing the absurd policy of subsidizing something really, really bad).

But the corn to ethanol thing is only one aspect of the dark side of biofuels. All over the world disastrous things are happening as various countries are trying to get into the act, destroying natural vegetation and habitats in misguided attempts to contribute to the biofuel supply by planting new crops to convert to ethanol. If this is motivated by the goal of carbon neutrality and energy savings it cannot be more disastrously wrong, because neither is likely to be achieved by turning peat bogs or forests into some other crop.

Meanwhile people whine about $4 a gallon and Presidential candidates want to save people money by waiving taxes. What would that accomplish? The wrong thing. To put it in perspective the European price is about $8 a gallon so there is a long way to go. Prices must increase to encourage conservation and efficiency, not decrease to promote consumption, which would make things worse. The chickens are coming home to roost after decades of squandered opportunities to develop rational alternatives to the American lifestyle: excessive consumption, grossly over-sized homes, grossly over-sized vulgar (more to the point) cars (Hummers etc.), absurd commutes, neglect of transportation infrastructure.

My main complaint is that the prices of Three Floyds have increased through all this. How about a subsidy for craft brewing?