Attention American conservatives: Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Another day, another conservative commentator ‘discovering’ that Wikipedia is a bastion of left-wing liberal thinking. In this case, Lawrence Solomon, a climate change denier with a tenuous grasp on reality, is getting all bent out of shape that his attempts to insert oil company propaganda into Wikipedia are being reverted. He reaches the very tired and predictable conclusion that Wikipedia is left-leaning and biased against conservatives.

In actuality, Solomon just isn’t using the right frame of reference. He’s making the rookie mistake of assuming that the English Wikipedia is the American Wikipedia. It’s not. The Wikipedias are grouped by language, not by nation. This is a huge distinction: for instance, the Portugese Wikipedia has more readers and editors in Brazil than in Portugal. The English Wikipedia thus primarily serves not only the residents of the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, etc., and is also widely read and edited by hundreds of millions of people in other nations where English is used and taught as a second language.

That’s right, the English Wikipedia is even heavily read and edited in countries where English is not the first language of the vast majority of the inhabitants. The reason? Simply put, the English Wikipedia is the best one. It has the most articles, the most editors, the most comprehensive coverage, by far the most readership, etc. The German Wikipedia ranks a distant second. So even if English is not your first language, so long as you have a decent level of literacy in English (which many people do), the English Wikipedia is more useful to you than the one in your native language.

The English Wikipedia thus reflects a global perspective rather than a purely American perspective. This is where all of the complaints of the American-centric conservatives who claim that the English Wikipedia is biased fall flat on their face. The United States is a very conservative nation relative to most other nations. What we consider liberal is considered moderate or even right-wing in other nations. What we consider conservative is considered unthinkable in many nations. For instance, just try to find another developed nation that lets thousands of its citizens die each year of treatable diseases because they treat health care as a privilege for the rich who can afford it rather than as a basic human right. The United States pretty much stands alone in that barbarism.

A lot of really stupid things that we have manufactured controversies over here in the United States, like climate change and evolution, aren’t controversial at all from a global perspective. The English Wikipedia simply reflects that. It’s not a case of censorship of conservative opinions, but a conscious rejection of extreme viewpoints that very few people on a global scale hold. If you can’t handle that, go back to your Fox News, where you’ll never hear anything you disagree with. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is going to be doing what it’s always done, offering up a neutral point of view, which emphatically does not mean an American point of view.

The upside of high petroleum prices

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

As much as I wince each time I have to fill up the gas tank (which I’m doing less and less these days, thanks to working from home more often), I do realize that higher petroleum prices are ultimately a good thing. And so does a writer for Market Watch. We’ve been able to maintain this addiction to oil for so long only because the lobbying might of the oil companies has overwhelmed the benefits of switching (and not because it wasn’t cost beneficial to switch from oil, because it already is). But as gas gets more and more expensive, alternative options like plug-in cars will look more and more attractive. Once a major shift is made, the negative externalities of petroleum production will be reduced by a good deal.

So the next time you’re wincing at how much it costs to fill up at the pump, console yourself with the knowledge that this is ultimately good for the future of mankind on this planet. Widespread petroleum use is environmentally unsustainable due to the particulate pollution and carbon dioxide emissions (and thus, global warming) it causes. The sooner we get away from it, the better. And the best way to get away from it, and indeed, perhaps the only way to get away from it in this political climate where the oil companies wield such great power, is to make it such that people simply cannot afford it.

Who’s with me on a countdown to $10/gallon gasoline?

Can we please nix the biofuels fetish?

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Many years ago, when biofuels first hit it big, most people thought they were an amazing idea. I was skeptical yet optimistic. But over time, as biofuels have reached increased prominence, it’s become very clear that they are an incredibly bad idea. So why do so many people still view them favorably?

Burning your food as fuel for your car is simply a dumb idea. In a world where over a billion people regularly go hungry, how can anyone justify burning an entire year’s worth of food to fill up your gas tank once? In the United States, biofuels have been subsidized in giant political vote-buying schemes. The subsidies are largely going towards growing corn for biofuel production, which is nonsensical, since other plants like switchgrass and sugarcane are many times more efficient. Meanwhile, corn prices have gone up a lot in just the past year, and it’s had a knock-on effect on other basic cereals because many farmers are switching to growing the more profitable corn.

But the real clincher is that biofuels aren’t even good for fighting global warming. Growing your fuel requires lots of land, and so in places like Brazil and Indonesia, vast swaths of forest are being cut down to provide more farm land. The forests that are being cut down contain so much carbon in them that it will take hundreds of years of growing biofuels on the land to make up for it. Burning petroleum from the ground still makes more sense than cutting down forests. Does anyone even think we’ll be using biofuels in 100 years’ time? We incur such a large carbon debt by cutting down forests, and we wouldn’t use biofuels for long enough to repay it. And never mind all of the petroleum products (especially fertilizer) you need to use in the production of biofuels.

So the next time you hear someone harping on about biofuels, be sure to educate them that biofuels aren’t a solution to carbon dioxide emissions, that they’re driving food prices up sharply, and that growing your carbon-emitting fuel isn’t any better than pumping it from the ground. Biofuels aren’t a transformative source of energy. For that, we need to look towards truly renewable ways of generating energy that do not lay waste to forests such as wind and solar. We would use this energy to power electric cars, which are already good enough to satisfy the needs of 90% of commuters (drive 30 miles each way, then charge up at night). There’s our real solution. Too bad we’re so focused on this stupid biofuels craze.

I want humanity to spread to the stars

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

I consider myself a futurist. I enjoy looking at not just the big picture, but also the long picture. I ask questions like, “Where will humanity be in another millennium?” I admit the chances of living to see any of it are slim (but not none!), but it fascinates me nonetheless. Just like others may love studying ancient history, I love imagining the possibilities of the future. It’s hard to say whether this is because I’ve read a lot of science fiction, or that I read a lot of science fiction because I am predisposed towards thinking about the future. I suspect there may be a feedback mechanism at work. But either way, that’s what I care about.

So you can imagine my chagrin when humanity does something really shortsighted, like creating false propaganda to confuse the issue of global warming so that corporations can save money while the planet dies, polluting space for a very temporary military propaganda boost, or cutting funding to vital Earth-facing satellite missions. So few people really think about the long term consequences of their actions. And of the ones who do, many aren’t moral enough to care about the consequences that will only become a serious problem after they are no longer around anymore.

My biggest concern, in the long view, is if humanity will develop technologically to the point where we can begin colonizing space. There are all sorts of obstacles in the way: those who don’t understand the ultimate importance of spreading our kind across the stars; global warming, which could destroy us (or at least cause us to focus all of our effort inwards) before we truly make it into space; catastrophic warfare (admittedly less likely since the end of the Cold War, but a potential political destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan could cause problems); and, of course, worldwide disaster.

The problem with only living on Earth is that we are putting all of our eggs in one basket. Just looking at the archaeological record, we can identify all sorts of massive extinction events — asteroid impacts, runaway global cooling, supervolcanoes — that we simply wouldn’t be able to survive. Yes, we have put a few humans into space, but that is but the first step. It only really counts when humanity is able to survive the total loss of the Earth. I’m placing my bets on a Lunar colony as the first to allow this fall-back scenario, but who knows, maybe Mars, despite its increased distance, will ultimately prove more suitable for large scale human habitation.

And then once humanity has colonized other worlds in this solar system, we would spread out to the stars. The technology for that doesn’t yet exist, but there’s nothing that makes it impossible. A large enough ship using a nuclear pulse drive for propulsion could make it to nearby star systems without having to break the speed of light barrier (something we not only do not currently know how to do, but most scientists think is forever impossible). And from then on, humanity would simply leapfrog amongst the stars, with each new colony sending out its own colony ships as soon as it develops enough to be able to construct and fill them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Have we just written off this planet?

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Blue Marble
I wonder why global warming isn’t the headline story of every newscast. It isn’t even talked about frequently, and when it is, it gets a one or two minute fluff piece before going on to the much more “important” missing white girl of the season story. This is despite the problem getting rapidly worse. It now seems that humanity is on for a collision course with an unavoidable 2 degree Celcius temperature increase, a figure that has generally considered by those in the scientific community as catastrophic. No, it won’t end all human life on Earth just yet, but it will kill many millions because of food shortages caused by drought. And don’t forget the millions of refugees that will be created when sea levels rise and flood out highly populated low altitude urban areas.

I know why global warming isn’t being addressed with the urgency that it should. It’s because of geographical luck. The “First World” won’t be suffering the same kind of fate as the rest of the world. The linked article gives the following consequences of a two degree Celcius increase for Africa:

Between 350 and 600 million people will suffer water shortages or increased competition for water. Yields from agriculture could fall by half by 2020 while arid areas will rise by up to 8 per cent. The number of sub-Saharan species at risk of extinction will rise by at least 10 per cent.

And what are the consequences for North America?

Crop yields will increase by up to 20 per cent due to warmer temperatures but economic damage from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina will continue increasing.

So, you see, it’s simply not getting “bad” enough yet for us Americans to worry about it. Many people will suffer, but hey, we can grow more crops! There are sadly far too few people like Al Gore who really get it. And frankly, I feel like he has an obligation to run for President in 2008, because humanity needs a singular focus on this issue and nobody else is giving it.

Anti-global warming party

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

My friend, who is very Catholic, went to an “anti-global warming party” over the weekend hosted by his ultraneoconservative zealot friends from the Catholic Student Union. My friend considers himself somewhat of an environmentalist. Obviously, judging by the type of party his friends hosted, they don’t. Not believing in global warming is one thing (that being ignoring all of the scientific evidence), but actively setting out to harm the Earth is quite another. That’s what these idiots at the party did.

The only cups used at the party were Styrofoam, and attendees made a point of throwing away cups frequently and using new ones on a per-drink basis. They ran the air conditioner at full blast and left all of the doors and windows open to the hot spring night. They even went so far as to buy a bunch of aerosol spray products (hairspray? who knows) and used them incessantly. I guess they’re so busy ignoring science that they missed the part about how it was CFCs that damaged the ozone layer, and that they’ve been highly restricted in the United States for decades (and certainly aren’t used in aerosol sprays).

But here’s the clincher. My friend went to the party with a large trash bag, intent on recycling all of the beer bottles to at least make some saving grace for Mother Earth. They had none of it. He got drunk, and as drunk people are wont to do, he lost track of things, including the bag full of bottles. So one of his “friends” threw it away just to spite him for the high crime of recycling.

To be honest, I didn’t even believe that such an idiotic event could take place upon first hearing about it, but yes, it did happen. These people are so in bed with the ultraneoconservative “global warming is a hoax” crock that they intentionally set out to destroy the environment on Earth Day. Granted, the impact of their juvenile actions was insignificant on a large scale. And I’m sure they’ll probably regret their insipid stunt after they see their electric bills.

Running the air conditioner into the outside air is one thing. Dumping barrels full of industrial waste lead into a local stream would be quite another. I wonder if any of them are so blinded by stupidity that they would do such a thing? Do they really have the guts to go through with causing serious destruction of the environment, or were they just protesting Earth Day in the lamest manner possible?

Honeybees: A science mystery

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Honeybees have been mysteriously dying off this past season. The phenomenon, which is being called Colony Collapse Disorder, isn’t merely limited to the United States: the whole world is experiencing it. How such a rapid onset of honeybee death could come up within a single season is a huge science mystery that nobody can yet explain. We have managed to rule out a lot of possibilities: for instance, it’s not typical poisoning, because if it were, dead honeybees would be showing up in the nests. Instead, they are simply vanishing (refusing to go to work?).

This mystery really has my interest piqued and I’m dying to hear the solution to it. If I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with climate change and global warming. And of course this is a huge problem, because a full one-third of the crops in the United States depend on honeybees for pollination. If all the honeybees disappear there will be serious consequences.

Oscars to launch Gore’s 2008 presidential campaign?

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Oh, how I wish this one to be true. CNN is speculating that if Al Gore were going to run for president in 2008, the Oscars would be the best time to announce. You can’t really deny that logic; the Oscars are watched by, what, a billion people? It really is the optimal place to announce a candidacy (or perhaps the Super Bowl …). Al Gore is the odds-on favorite to win best documentary for An Inconvenient Truth, so he presumably will be having some time at the podium.

Unfortunately, all of the signs I’ve seen point to Al Gore not running for president in 2008 (and I have some Democratic insider sources). If he really does announce this Sunday it will come as a surprise to everyone. I do think he’ll be making political statements regarding the topic of his movie, global warming, but I really don’t foresee political statements of a candidacy nature. I’d love to be wrong on this though.

Onward and outward at the expense of looking inward

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Due to the cost of the expected manned Moon and Mars missions, NASA is being forced to cut Earh-observing satellite missions. It’s so bad that, in just three years time, 40% of the current Earth-observing missions will expire and not be replaced. So maybe eventually we’ll make it to the Moon or Mars, but in the meantime, we’ll be a lot more blind about what’s actually happening on our own planet. This doesn’t sound too smart to me.

This can be traced to a combination of Bush’s emphasis on manned space exploration and lack of willingness to increase NASA’s budget. Bush really wants us to put a base on the Moon and visit Mars in person, but of course, these endeavors are very expensive. As a result, NASA is being forced to cut a large number of other science missions to come up with the necessary funds. We’re losing all sorts of missions: probes to other moons in the solar system, missions to Venus, and of course, lots of Earth-observing missions. It’s hard to really get across how absolutely necessary these Earth-observing missions are, but think of it this way: the ice sheets on Greenland are already starting to melt, crack, and break into the ocean. Knowing everything that is going on in regards to climate is absolutely essential; unfortunately, without the appropriate satellites, the data we need are impossible to get. One wonders if there isn’t a malicious motive involved in all of this: after all, if global warming is an inconvenient truth, why fund the missions to find out more about it anyway?

The real solution isn’t to cut some NASA missions to fund other ones, it’s to get the money from elsewhere. For instance, a certain occupation right now is costing us enough money to fully fund a dozen new Earth-observing missions per week. Don’t get me wrong, expanding beyond just the Earth is vital for the future survival of our species, and manned missions to the Moon and Mars are certainly part of that. But that is still a long time in the future, and in the meantime, we need to know everything we can about the Earth in order to survive in the short term.

Manufacturing global warming controveries

Friday, January 5th, 2007

If you bought into that silly notion that global warming wasn’t real, you’re just a pawn of the energy industry. Exxon Mobil alone spent $16 million on 43 “advocacy organizations” whose goal was to muddy the waters of intellectual discourse on the issue of global warming. Apparently the oil corporations are so evil that they don’t even care if this planet isn’t habitable in a few decades — they want their profits now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the motivations of the people who did this to us.

Michael Crichton is another one of the stooges of the oil industry. Nobody has demonstrated just yet how the money is flowing, but he’s already received accolades from the neocons for his vacuously inaccurate tirade against science in State of Fear. And you don’t even want to know how he “got back” at a critic in his latest novel Next. I think it’s pretty safe to say Michael Crichton is off the shopping list indefinitely. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t know about this and bought the book Next on tape for Christmas. Whoops.