FEMA’s Fake Press Conference

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants you to know they’re still doing a heckuva job. That’s why they held a press conference last Tuesday to discuss the California wild fire situation, to calm the public and answer their questions. The prerecorded press conference was televised on Fox News and other stations.

Unfortunately FEMA only announced the press conference 15 minutes before it was due to start, which didn’t give real reporters enough time to arrive. So FEMA employees dressed up like reporters and asked questions described as soft and gratuitous.

“I’m very happy with FEMA’s response,” Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson said at Tuesday’s conference in response to one employee’s question, adding, “We’re doing a heckuva job.”

Claiming the questions were intended to “provide useful information”, FEMA now admits the staged conference could have been an error in judgement.

Thus ended the career of Pat Philbin, a rookie PR Director, who took full responsibility for the stunt noting sadly that the phony press conference had damaged his credibility. The outgoing patsy expressed regret at the shame he had brought to the Philbin name and assured the public that it was a one-time mistake and not a systemic problem deserving of any scrutiny or investigation.

“It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House,” A White House spokesperson noted, adding, “unless you count those staged Q&A sessions between Bush and troops in Iraq in 2005.”

New studies on benefits of organics and free-range

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I ran into these 2 recent studies:

In the case of organic foods, it’s not a big deal to me if they contain more nutrients. I care about the pesticides. There is considerable evidence that pesticides are very carcinogenic (quick results from a search: this and this), so I’d like to see more marketing of organics on that angle.

Colbert support already up to 13%

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As viewers of The Colbert Report already know, actor/comedian Stephen Colbert has entered the South Carolina primaries as both a Democrat and a Republican. Whether this is a publicity stunt, a political statement or a legitimate run for the White House, it has energized the political climate in the US.

Well, the early polls are already rolling in. “The overall numbers show Hillary Clinton at 45%, Rudy Giuliani at 35%, and Colbert at 13%.” In hypothetical three way election scenarios, Colbert’s huge support among 18-29 year olds trounces the Republican candidates and is second only to Hillary Clinton.

Strangely, Colbert’s liberal counterpart didn’t fare as well. ” An earlier survey found that only 8% of Americans say they would definitely vote for comedian Jon Stewart if he was on the ballot in 2008. 38% say they would definitely vote against Stewart.”

Both parties are already fielding at least a half dozen candidates, but the crowded field just works in Colbert’s favour. Democrats have been torn between a few promising candidates while Republicans bemoan the collection of unelectable extremists pandering to various incompatible segments of the party’s base. Colbert’s actual political views are unclear, as he very rarely breaks character on camera. However, his steadfast commitment to saying the opposite of what he really means likely makes him the most honest candidate on the Republican ticket. At least people know when he’s being truthy instead of truthful.

Update: After South Carolina Democrats voted 13-3 not to allow him on their ballot, Stephen Colbert has dropped out of the race. He notes that he lost by the smallest margin in presidential history, 10 votes.

Best organic food choices

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A good article here at the New York Times: Five Easy Ways to Go Organic. I know first-hand that trying to eat exclusively organic foods is very expensive. But, I personally think organic foods are one of the best things to do for our long-term health. A good compromise is to find the common foods that can give the largest reduction in chemical intake, and eat non-organic otherwise.

I’ve posted this before, but I really like this site: FoodNews: Produce pesticide guide. Scroll down to see the “Full List.” They tested all kinds of produce at the point consumers get the food and rated them on pesticide content. If price is an issue, only focus on organic for the produce with the worst scores.

The chains of consumerism

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This is a great post: 9 Tips to Throw Off the Chains of Consumerism

I think the Western (and predominantly North American) drive to consume as much as possible is one of our worst social behaviours. Not only is it driving a large portion of the population into massive debt but also making a sustainable civilization continually harder to reach.

It’s also very depressing to watch people I know continue working jobs they dislike all because of the drive for more status and money. Money does not equal happiness. The only time I’d believe that could potentially be true is for a massive change in income lifting a person out of poverty. For example, a family that goes from making $25,000/year to $100,000/year has the opportunity to be happier mostly because of less stress from worrying about how to meet basic necessities.

But, it is so hard to avoid the temptations of consumerism even when you’re aware of it. Unless most of the people you interact with are of the same mindset it’s difficult to not feel the same pressure. Even scarier is how to raise children so they don’t fall automatically into that trap when they are constantly bombarded with the messaging.

Where did the north pole go?

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During all the news about Al Gores Nobel prize win, I ran into this scary article: Global Warming: Scientific Consensus Proved Wrong.

I had heard some of these points before but it was good to see it all in one article. The summary, supported by the previous estimates plotted against reality, is that the consensus had vastly underestimated the speed of polar ice melt. Take a look at the satellite image of the north pole and imagine how anyone could pretend we’re not having an enormous effect on this planet. There’s now an big sea (or ocean?) where there used to be ice.

Voting: rights and responsibilities

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I hope everyone in Ontario is voting in the election and the referendum today.

While walking back from voting I was thinking about why people might not want to vote. I realized that people who don’t vote because they are apathetic are directly responsible for increasing and continuing their own apathy, which eventually comes down to their own laziness.

For a person who is apathetic because they dislike the current “establishment” and feel their vote won’t change anything, their act of not voting is actually giving more strength to the “establishment” they claim to dislike. The best thing a person in this position could be doing is one of:

  1. Voting for a candidate who is closest to their position, realizing none of them will be exactly where they want. This would typically be a smaller-party candidate. A vote for a party you know will not win the election is not a wasted vote, by any stretch. Further, by helping increase the profile of the smaller-party candidate you are helping to bring the “fringe issues” you care about into the mainstream, and eventually a candidate who is closer aligned with your real position will be able to run a viable campaign.
  2. If you really can’t vote for any of the candidates, go to the polling station and decline your vote. This sends an important message and still ensures your voice is heard.
  3. Vote for the MMP referendum. This would actually help smaller candidates and parties get seats in parliament to push issues you care about.

Lastly, I’ve always liked this: if you don’t vote you give up your right to complain about anything related to politics.

Optimizing the Brain

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Everyone knows whether they are left- or right-handed. Most of us have an educated guess whether we are left- or right-brained. A left brained person is expected to think mostly in terms of words, numbers and other structured symbols. A right brained person is more visual and creative. If you haven’t a clue which description best applies to you, look at your hand. For most people, the dominant hand is linked to the dominant half of the brain, although on the opposite side, thanks to the brain’s asymmetry. Thus, right handed people are largely left brain thinkers.

However, not many of us know whether our left or right eye is dominant. But we do have a dominant eye. In 70% of us, our dominant eye is also linked to the opposite side of the brain. However, studies have shown that this is not an optimal arrangement. People whose dominant eye was linked to their “spare” half of the brain actually had detectably better visual recognition of characters, making them faster readers.

Picture your brain as a PC with two CPUs. One is the main CPU, on which the operating system and simple tasks are performed. Large or low priority tasks are offloaded to the spare CPU, the back of your mind. Controlling your dominant hand and your dominant eye are applications that retrieve, process, interpret and react to input. The implication of the study is that having both applications running on the same CPU puts too much load on it, limiting its bandwidth. When each application has a dedicated CPU, their performance improves.

As a left brained, right handed, left eyed person, these findings gave me a lot to think about.

A Slippery Slope to Socialism

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Recently, George W. Bush used his presidential veto power to veto a bill which would have supplied health coverage to children in families not quite poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, the existing medical insurance assistance program. The bill would have covered an additional 10 million American children.

He expressed two reasons for this veto, only his fourth ever and only his second that didn’t relate to stem cell research. First, he called it an “entitlement program”, the first step on a slippery slope to socialized healthcare. Apparently Americans aren’t entitled to anything they didn’t pay out of pocket for. You just need to look at Canada to see what a terrible thing that public health care is. Pop quiz: how many Canadian children have no health coverage?

Second, he pointed out that people who have just barely enough income to afford overpriced health insurance from an HMO might choose to use the federal aid instead, thus depriving his favorite industry of some well-deserved income. After all, the Health Management industry makes money by keeping patients away from doctors, denying medicines and treatments and charging premiums for it that often run up to thousands of dollars per month per person. The insurance companies often limit how much a doctor can charge, so it isn’t even the medical professionals or hospitals that benefit.

Bush did not say if his veto had anything to do with Big Tobacco, who couldn’t have been happy that the federal tax on cigarettes would be tripled to $1US ($0.99C) per pack in order to pay for this program. Certainly, as the Republican party’s most loyal contributor, the tobacco lobby had their say in the matter.

But perhaps in the end, the veto did more damage to Bush and his fellow Republicans by demonstrating where their real priorities are. If the bill had passed, both sides could have claimed credit for it. But the Republicans know that political memory lasts only six months. By election time next year, everyone will have forgotten about health care and moved on to some contentious non-issue like gay marriage or immigration.