Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Right Kind of Monster

Hello. My name is Eric, and I'm a metalhead. Yes, when my peers were listening to Morrisey and the Cure, I was attending Van Halen concerts and buying Iron Maiden tapes. As a consequence, my reactions have been very mixed watching what's happened to Metallica in recent years. Sure, Lars Ulrich has had a reputation as a whiny bitch for a while, but while his crusade against Napster, as he put it, made him "the most hated man in rock and roll", there is a more nuanced position to see there-- if you don't overlook, as many did, Metallica's explicit policy for over a decade now of allowing, even encouraging, fans to bootleg their live shows. The irony there, of course, is that for most bands that aren't Metallica, the live shows are the ones that make them money, and the CDs are usually a net loss.

But I'm not talking about the causes and effects of piracy on content producers and middlement, I'm talking about Metallica. The band that played music to make your ears bleed by. The band that kicked so much ass in the '80s that they were practically synonymous with hardcore metal (Poison fans can go sit in the corner-- they were early '90s anyway). After "Metallica" (a.k.a. the Black Album), a lot of people, myself included, felt they'd lost their edge; they were heading in a more bluesy, melodic direction. James Hetfield was singing on this album! WTF!

Since that watershed album, they released Load and Reload, two albums that definitely continued the trend, going even further outside Metallica's traditional territory. None of this was bad, mind you, and I applaud them for daring to be experimental, but it wasn't the Metallica we all grew up with, the one that was badder-than-thou to, well, pretty much everybody. This was a kinder, gentler Metallica. They then came out with Garage, Inc., a mixed collection of covers "Stone Cold Crazy" rocked, and even "Whiskey in the Jar" wasn't bad-- but Metallica covering an Irish drinking song?!? WTF?!?), and S&M was an interesting take on a Greatest Hits album, recorded with the San Francisco Symphony. The only sad part was that given their direction, it wasn't anywhere nearly as surprising as it might have been had it followed "And Justice for All", or even "Metallica".

But now we have "St. Anger", and hot damn, Metallica is BACK, motherfucker! This is the album I've been waiting for all these years, and it's why I loved Metallica in the first place. Though it's sadly devoid of ultra-bitchin' guitar solos from Kirk Hammett, this is the hardest disc I've heard in a LONG time. There are a few missteps-- the lyrics for "The Unnamed Feeling" just sounds like they're trying too hard-- but songs like "Shoot Me Again", "Some Kind of Monster", "Dirty Window" and my favourite, the lead-off song "Frantic", hit me right where I live.

This is a Metallica that's angry again. But they're not teenagers anymore either-- they're not just angry, lashing out indiscriminately. James Hetfield went into rehab shortly after starting this album, and came out with a clearer vision, I think, than he's ever had as a lyricist. This is a healthy anger that isn't directed at himself, nor even the world in general, but specifically at the parts that get in the way of what he wants. It's hard to put into words, but if there's any Metallica fans out there that haven't got this album, do. You'll see what I mean.

Monday, April 18, 2005

You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can regulate it anyway...

I recently read an article about the dichotomy between how we act and the entertainment we like to consume. The author, David Brooks, points out that though our entertainment choices are becoming increasingly more coarse, our actions have gone the opposite way-- fewer teenagers are having sex, and from those that are, fewer are getting pregnant.

Even Eminem, once you strip down the bluster and look past the foul language, is really complaining about having come from a broken home, and is just trying to find a chunk of suburban paradise to raise his daughter in.

If this doesn't encourage us to look past the simplistic associations of "violent movies make violent kids", then I'll eat Grape-Nuts for breakfast tomorrow. Because, unfortunately, opportunities for government intervention like that are rarely given up for such inconveniences as fact.

Friday, April 15, 2005

It's Alive, I Tell You, It's ALIVE!!!

I just finished reading Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown. I have to say, entering into this book, I had a vague idea, like most Americans, I think, that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were a sort of necessary evil, but if you had the money, organic food was the way to go. Now, I'm not only seriously considering boycotting organic food, I'm also thinking about agitating for mandatory GMO labeling, so I'll be able to buy them preferentially.

Why the change of heart? For one thing, Federoff and Brown go into some technical detail (perhaps too much for a popular science book, but the detail is itself reassuring) on how exactly crops are naturally (and unnaturally) bred. Now that I know how they do it, it just doesn't seem bad when I hear about genes being added to corn or wheat. It's a very specific and targeted effort-- it's not like you just grab some random shit from a whale and blend it with some swiss chard and see what happens, like, for kicks, man. It's not a simple process, by any means, but it's also not a complete mystery either.

Another thing the authors point out is that it's not as if GMOs exist in a vacuum-- artificial foods of one kind or another have existed for most of the past century. Hybrid corn, for instance, is an artificially-created organism, and it comprises over 90% of current US corn production. And it's not as if we can somehow magically not need them. The main reason Paul Erlich and his thematic ancestor, Thomas Malthus were wrong (well, okay, one of many) is that they didn't account for the dramatically increased crop yield we've enjoyed since the "Green Revolution" started in the 1960s. This yield is the direct result of messing with our food's genes by hybridizing it with sometimes surprising combinations. We certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it if we had stuck to techniques and crops of pre-1961.

Organic farming isn't a solution either. The authors cite an economist, Indur Goklany, who estimates that if we reverted to the mostly-organic methods of pre-1961 farming, we'd need to use approximately 82 percent of the earth's land surface for farming, instead of our current 38 percent. When Sir Albert Howard essentially invented the organic farming movement in 1940, he was operating in an environment that even then was rapidly becoming obsolete. In the world Howard grew up in, the US population increased some 40 percent between 1870 and 1920, while the total arable land grew by 75 percent. In an environment like that, where no concern was given for environmental factors or preserving species habitats, organic farming is not an unreasonable approach. But the organic approach to agriculture requires, when considered as a whole system, at least twice as much land overall compared to conventional farming. That simply isn't an option in the world we live in today. When considered in terms of wildlife habitat preserved, organic farming does the earth far more harm than good. Unless you don't mind destroying the habitat of the Asian Elephant to grow more rice, that is. Personally, I can't stand the inscrutable bastards, but I must respect other people's opinions, even when they're wrong.

One detail that I didn't know before is how far the limit to which you can artificially tweak plants with no oversight whatsoever-- apparently, you can generate new organisms by irradiating them with gamma- or x-rays, or expose them to mutagenic chemicals to get the specific mutation you want (there are a number of behaviours you can't get this way, but play along for now), in addition to unknown others that may be neutral, or possibly harmful, and sell the stuff tomorrow. You can even sell them as organic foods, if you are an unethical bastard. But if you were to splice in one specific gene that generated the precise protein you wanted (and this is do-able; the hard part is knowing whether or not that protein will work the way you want it to), with every other gene in the plant being otherwise normal, you might be lucky to get it on the market within three years. So, the one that has completely unknown properties we can sell, but the one with known properties has to pass a complex array of tests and certifications that vary depending on which of the FDA, USDA, and/or EPA decide your crop falls under their jurisdiction. Yeah, that makes sense.

Allergies are certainly still a problem-- we still don't know everything about how they work, and why, but we are learning. Some research is going on now to reduce the effects of allergens, as well as to understand more about how they work, and more importantly, how they don't. So it's definitely still important, I think to let people know if their foods contain genes from commonly allergenic plants or animals. Even so, GMOs are a net win, I think.

The book covers a large number of other topics, including biodiversity, food safety concerns, the real meaning of sustainable agriculture and more that I don't have the room (or right now, the energy) to discuss. At the end of the day, though, my conclusion is that organic farming, while it feels good to be kind to Mother Earth and all, is harming her more than it helps, by requiring more land to support it than mainstream agricultural processes, and also by giving its consumers (wittingly or no) the impression that what they're eating is worth paying more for. At some point, and we've already hit this point in many third-world countries right now, we're going to have to realize that we either start eating GMOs, we start killing off even more wildlife, or we stop eating at all. Of the three options, well, I like eating, and I like birds. So pass the Roundup-ready corn, and don't forget to grill it with artificially-generated canola oil!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A little hypocrisy is a healthy thing

I hate to admit it, but "One in a Million" is a great rock and roll song. It's also racist, xenophobic, and fairly nasty. I've been struggling to reconcile this, but I've come to the ultimate conclusion that I can't. It's a great song, and it's a nasty, disgusting one at the same time. Sometimes consistency must sacrifice truth to remain intact, and given the choice, I'll ditch consistency in favour of truth.

I'm sick and tired of idealogues who, having nothing concrete to say against their opponents' arguments, attack them on the basis of hypocrisy, as if that were tantamount to proving them wrong. It's the worst sort of ad-hominem attack, if you ask me-- it in effect concedes the argument, or at best avoids it in favour of pointing out how bad the person making it is.

And the worst is that the accuser isn't even doing that, oh no! Why, that would be absolutist, and wrong. It is, after all, just as morally valid to mutilate women's genitalia as it is to educate women and raise them to be independent, critical thinkers. No, we're just pointing out how our opponent is being inconsistent.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by
little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

- R.W. Emerson

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes

- W. Whitman

Little minds are consistent amongst foolish hobgoblins

- My Favourite Misquote of Emerson

Things I Wish I Could Believe

Don't ask what you are not doing,
Because your voice cannot command;
You see, in time we will move mountains,
And it will come
Through your hands.

John Hiatt, "Through Your Hands", Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan

Monday, April 04, 2005

Old Calendars

There's something melancholy about throwing out an old calendar. While it does make room for new calendars, and the fun quotes from Get Fuzzy and all, throwing out an old calendar is a clear and definite step that acknowledges that the old year is gone. All those plans, hopes, and dreams for that year are gone-- you'll never get the chance to climb Pikes' Peak in 2004. Maybe 2005 is your year, maybe '06, but 2004 is shot. You blew that chance, bucko.