The Blog

7 March 2006

Science fair

I'm so proud! My step-daughter won second place in the 5th grade science fair with her "Quarter Drop" project. She tested paper towels to determine the brand that's the strongest when wet. Of course, I have a whole bit of overanalysis to come, but for now the moment his hers! Way to go!


4 Feb 2006

It Really Ain't Easy Bein' Green

At our local health food store, I ran across a magazine called Plenty. Its subtitle is "It's Easy Being Green." This struck me as strange as I tend to disagree. It's not easy. I think it's a great idea for a magazine, and I'm all for consuming less, eating better, polluting less, and leaving a better world for our kids. It's just not easy.

One big push towards being green is to eat "organic." I don't want to get into the problems with the term itself or the USDA's involvement in codifying it over the last few years. I don't even want to go into whether it's better for you as an individual (vitamin-wise or whatever) or whether it's better for society or the environment in general. What I'd like to point out here is the simple fact that it's expensive. While there certainly is criticism of the industrial production of food in the West, there's really little debate as to the fact that it has greatly increased crop yields and—as a result—increased the availability of inexpensive food in most parts of the world.

When you go down to the local shop and pick up a jar of all-natural or even organic peanut butter, it can easily cost you two or three times what a cheap jar of store-brand peanut butter costs. Sure, you don't get the hydrogenated safflower, palm, and/or cottonseed oil, but if you're on a limited income, it's not easy being green. The reasons for its greater expense are varied and so are opinions on those reasons. Nonetheless, cost is a hindrance for being greener when you eat. Certainly, if you are dedicated you can do it on a limited budget. After all, if you are committed to leaving a smaller footprint on this Earth, then you can cut back your consumption in other areas of your life—say air conditioning—in order to save money for the greater expense of organic foods. However, my point here is not to say that cannot be done, just that it's not "easy."

When I first spotted Plenty on the rack, I was buying some organic coffee at $9.99/lb, a jug of organic body wash, and a couple of organic smoothie drinks at $4 for a 450ml bottle. None of that stuff was cheap. As a consumer, I certainly could have considered other alternatives to save money and still buy organic, or I could have chosen not to consume at all. However, to do so would mean a definite change in my consumption habits. What Plenty is selling here is a lifestyle of green consumerism. It is of course, a lifestyle that many middle-class Americans dabble in, some immerse themselves in, and some worship. For them it is and can be easy. If you're on a limited income, and your choice is between a $0.99 bag of white rice and some highfalutin' organic rice, I'm sure it doesn't take long to make a decision on how you're going to put food on the table for your kids.

I haven't stumbled on some secret here. Judging by the organic food web sites out there, expense seems to be a major complaint. Welfare economists might make the argument that there is more to costs in eating non-organic that are not included in the purchase price of non-organic foods. That is, there are negative externalities such as pollution of groundwater, contamination of food with pesticides, and long-term exposure to harmful chemicals which are borne by society rather than the purchaser—these costs simply are not passed on to you at the time of purchase. Organic seems more expensive as a result. Regardless of the total money cost and societal cost of industrial food production versus small-scale organic (or even large-scale organic) consumers make choices based on the price they see in the store—economists worry about externalities—the rest of us do not.

Food, however, is not the only thing that can be approached from a green direction. In addition to household goods, there are lifestyle choices such as how we get around in our world. Bicycle? Public transportation? I would to ride my bike all the time in Baton Rouge. I do not do it all now. I have a job that requires me to be at work at 8 AM, and it is about twelve miles away. By car, it takes me about 20-30 minutes to get there in traffic. Riding a bike would take me well over an hour and place me on several exceedingly dangerous roads. Taking public transportation here is worse. It would take at least one bus change, require about a mile walk to the closest bus route, and leave me with several miles to walk once I got near the office. From there, I would have to end up walking on one of the same exceedingly dangerous roads I mentioned above, and of course, there are no sidewalks. What about cars? The cover of Plenty I saw had a pop-art style cartoon about hybrids. Have you priced these things? Sure, over the life of the vehicle you just might save enough in gas money to pay for the extra expense. But as a consumer you may be better off buying a small, economical car. I could go on and on about how being green is not easy.

Another thing is not a secret here. As this article from the Globe and Mail points out, Plenty's target audience is "young, highly educated, affluent and passionately involved citizens who spend billions of dollars annually on sustainable goods and services." Well, that is just putting it all out there. They (we) are the ones who can afford to pay for these things, or at least dabble in it.

The problem with "going green" having any great impact on our world, unfortunately, is that for it to occur any time soon, it will require mass consumption, and when you consider that the majority of consumers in America are the Wal-Mart shoppers of America, and not the "young, highly educated, affluent" Plenty readers, it seems that the main way for that to happen is to reduce the price—not the cost, but the price. Realistically, for this to occur, we as an entire society have to recognize that this is what we must do for the future of our world—the recognition of an environmental or health imperative. That is going to require that we either address issues of justice, oppression, and domination in our society in order to address income differential so that everyone can afford it; or it is going to require massive public (government) investment in green technology for transportation, production, and agriculture to reduce prices. This would allow your everyday shopper to consider all alternatives when shopping, including green and non-green. Alternatively, government would have to intervene to charge for the negative externalities, thus raising the price of non-green options to their true societal cost. Finally, the other way "going green" would happen on a large scale would be a total reconstruction of our economic and social system towards a green-centered socialist system. This last one seems most unlikely.

Green is not easy. For individuals, it is not cheap in either money cost or in opportunity costs for those who choose it. For those of limited means, in particular, it is a choice to do something right not to do something easy. Plenty Magazine is targeted to those who can afford to chose the lifestyle. For their target audience, our (post)modern world offers immense diversity in terms of consumption options. Green is easy, because all consumer choices are generally easy for them. Until something changes dramatically— either an environmental crisis shakes the foundation of our society and economy or perhaps the gradual growth over time towards a more enlightened public—going green will be either just an easy choice among many for the affluent or a difficult choice for the less-well-off.


28 Jan 2006

Hugo The Boss

Political commentary
"This incident reveals that Robertson does not believe in democracy; he believes in theocracy. And he would like governments, including our own, to implement his theological agenda, perhaps legislate Leviticus, and 'take out' those who disagree."

—from Jim Wallis' commentary on Sojo.net entitled "Pat Robertson: An embarrassment to the church" (registration may be required).

[Photograph: Hugo Chávez September 25, 2005--Chavez standing with blue background] On the 'net, Chávez is portrayed either as a benevolent leftist, fighting the good fight against global powers or as a mad leftist dictator ready to destroy the United States. The truth about Chávez seems to lie somewhere in between. The problem is that he appears to be the darling of the American left, probably because he has defied the Bush Administration and "big oil." However, there are troubling accounts of his meddling in the affairs of other countries, such as his connections to and funding of cocaleros in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the newly elected president of Bolivia, reportedly calls Chávez "mi comandante"—an unsettling relationship between one national leader and another—can you imagine if Blair said the same of Bush or Clinton! He is reportedly arming and training Ecuador's underground leftist movement (according to El Comercio). Javier Corrales writes, "Chávez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power" (Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2006, p. 33-34). Corrales' criticism is that Chávez is establishing a new type of totalitarianism (dictatorship) by exploiting the democratic process. Is this really the type of person the American left wants on its side?

On the other hand, the American Right—characterized by Robertson—sees Chávez as the leader of an evil empire in cahoots with Fidel Castro, their hated enemy whose only goal is the overthrow of America and its institutions. It's as if they are still fighting the Cold War. Chávez seems to be the new Muammar Qaddafi—the kooky leader of some oil-rich nation that is a thorn in the side of U.S. policy-makers. To the Right's credit, most everyone quickly distanced themselves from Robertson's comments regarding assassination, but nonetheless, he's their current bugbear in Latin America.

Wallis is definitely right in criticizing Robertson in the article I cited above, and he is probably correct that Pat Robertson wasn't as critical of Latin American dictators who toed the American government's line; however, Wallis presents Chávez as though he were merely an irritant to the US government, not a complicated political character who may be more of a problem to Venezuela and the region than he is to the US. Here was a chance for Wallis to take Chávez to task as well.

It's time to name Robertson for what he is: an American fundamentalist whose theocratic views are not much different from the "Muslim extremists" he continually assails. It's time for conservative evangelical Christians in America, who are not like Islamic fundamentalists or Robertson, to distance themselves from his embarrassing and dangerous religion.

—Jim Wallis

In my opinion, now that's a statement that's certainly true!

Photo: © Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

Update: Since I wrote this a week or so ago, Chávez is back in the news. This time, it's Cindy Sheehan praising him. Her comments are relatively mild:

"I've always admired President Chavez for standing up to imperialism and the meddling of the American government in South America"

—Cindy Sheehan, Caracas, Venezuela, 24 January 2006

Once again, someone associated with the "American Left" is praising Chávez for standing up to Bush. While I too admire Chávez for standing up to Bush, close association with the "democratic dictator" cannot be good for the Left's image. It's like someone from the "Right" praising Mussolini for keeping the trains ontime.

See AFP article on Yahoo!, "US anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan hails Venezuela's Chavez".
Also See AP article on CBS, "Activists Rally in Caracas Against Iraq".


7 Jan 2006

Why I Like Our Local Pig

This week we overanalyze the grocery store

We live in a small city with two Piggly Wigglies. Piggly Wiggly was an innovator in grocery stores. Before Piggly Wiggly came on the scene, the local grocer would pull stock off the wall while the customer waited. Hardly very efficient. With Piggly Wiggly, customers would pull their own stock off the shelves and bring it to the cashier. Piggly Wiggly franchised their stores, and today there are some 600 independently-run stores in 16 states primarily in the Southeast, but also throughout the Midwest.

When I lived in Baton Rouge, there was a rather large Albertson's nearby, and a SuperFresh which has since closed. The Piggly Wigglies in Baton Rouge weren't close. They offered one thing, though, that made them worth driving to. They accepted BellSouth payments. I had a friend at the time who sometimes had her phone shut off for non-payment. She would have me drive with her up to Plank Road to the Piggly Wiggly there to keep it from getting shut off or get it back on again. I did some shopping there occasionally. I have to truly admit that it wasn't my first choice of places to shop. The goods just seemed shopworn. The meat and vegetables just didn't seem top-notch. It reminded me of shopping at the old Rice off McGregor in Houston...seemingly on its way down.

I like shopping at the nearby Piggly Wiggly in Denton. It reminds me a lot of the Bet-R Blue Ribbon store in Baton Rouge, although it's a tad bigger. The people are always friendly. The prices, if not great, are usually somewhat competitive. Frankly, though, the best thing is that it's just so darned convenient. Firstly, it's closer to me than anything else. But the best part is that you can get in and out in a few minutes. The smaller store means you can swing in and get a frozen pizza, a bottle of wine, and a can of turnip greens in a matter of seconds. You walk right up to the counter, and put your items on the belt, pay, and out you go.

Both of the two Kroger Signature stores in town are certainly larger. But the closest one is still a little bit further than the Piggly Wiggly. Plus, once you get to the Kroger, it's rather difficult to find a place to park. For the size of the store, the parking lot seems relatively small—Don't get me started on the lousy public transportation here. And the place is packed. I'm really surprised that this hasn't attracted more competitors, but it hasn't. You go in and it's tough to navigate the large store, and once you finish, get in line. There's always a line. Late at night, they close enough registers to ensure there's always a line. It seems the only time there isn't a line is early in the morning.

Everything isn't rosy for the Piggly Wiggly though. The store just doesn't seem as clean as Kroger. I think part of this is stock turnover. Things seem to fly off the shelf at Kroger. At Piggly Wiggly, stuff seems to sit on the shelf forever, until I pick it up and blow off the dust. I think management could run down the aisle with a feather duster and shape things up.

Sometime before I moved across Denton, making the Piggly Wiggly a bit easier to get to, they added a "dollar section." I think this is an attempt to compete with the Dollar Generals and Family Dollars of the world who seem to be stealing a little of the local independent grocers business (not that Kroger and Wal-Mart are not doing a fine job of that). The problem with this section is that it usually looks like poo. The items are frequently junk, as one can expect, but not only that, the items are picked over and frequently haphazardly arranged. It's a great place to pick up allergy tablets for $1, but it sure doesn't help the appeal of a store that already has a bit of an image problem on its hands.

Over all, a smaller store means less choice. While perhaps some may argue that we have too much choice. Consumerism has run amok in America—72 varieties of diet soda, not to mention pickles. But as a consumer, it's tough. I want my hairball formula Purina One cat food in the medium sized bag. You cannot get that at the local Piggly Wiggly. You can't get a lot of things. There's frequently only one or two brands to choose from on any particular item. Sometimes, you just can't find an item at all. Cilantro is a hit-or-miss thing. Forget any kinds of peppers other than bell peppers and maybe jalapeños. There simply isn't enough room in the store to carry all that stuff. But in the end Mr. Pig gets the bulk of my grocery dollars.

I hope others in town continue to support the store, too. If, like many smaller stores, these two go away, our choices will be severely limited—not because Piggly Wiggly has a wide variety of items, but because there will be only one other store that's even remotely convenient, and it's already a crazy madhouse to get in and out of.


16 Dec 2005

Yeah, everybody's doing it, so here I go. I'm starting up "blog" thing. You can expect a little bit of political commentary, pop culture reviews, and other ramblings.

It's been so difficult to start this thing. I always think that whatever I have to say simply won't be good enough...as if this is some sort of competition and others will be judging me. Of course this is rather silly. It's unlikely that anyone will even ever read what's written here. So, in the end, it makes sense just to start and go on from there. Once started, it should be relatively easy to keep going.

Another problem with getting started has always been that I think of several possible blog topics a day. I can't really type up about these several topics, so I think I'll just save them up and write about them later. Later never comes.

In a sense, now is later. I'm finally getting this blog underway, and hopefully things will keep on going. Maybe someone will read what's here.

So what's the topic for today?

Sailor Lynx


Ian McNabb's new single, "Let the young girl do what she wants to," is now available for download at Karmadownload as of 16 May. The album, Before All of This, is currently available in all of the usual places online.


protest records



Reminds me of my cat, Mofeta:

[Black and white cat]
Image courtesy grebo guru. Licensed through a Creative Commons Deed.


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Updated: 7 March 2006