Part of my job is to ensure that the company I work for is in compliance with all state and federal environmental regulations. As such, I receive updates to and letters of clarification on existing laws. Today I received an email that states that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has introduced a bill co-sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NY) to reauthorize and amend the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). The bill is called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA).
The newly proposed legislation basically boils down to the following points:
1. The EPA must make science-based decisions regarding regulation of chemical substances on the weight of the “best available science.”
2. The EPA’s safety evaluation of chemical substances needs to be streamlined and functional.
3. The EPA’s determinations based on these safety evaluations will trump all determinations or actions by state or local governments.
4. Trade secrets, intellectual property and other confidential business information will be protected with upfront substantiation.
5. The EPA’s decision-making process must be completely transparent.
What does this all mean? Let me give you some background:
Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976
TSCA provided the EPA with the authority to require companies to report chemical substances produced or incorporated at their facilities, keep records of chemical inventory paying special attention to substances considered to be extremely hazardous, conduct testing where required, and impose restrictions upon the use, production or distribution on chemical substances and mixtures.
With the passing of TSCA in 1976, it charged the EPA with the responsibility to protect the public from “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” and gave the agency the authority to regulate the production and sale of chemical substances. Certain substances are exempted from coverage under TSCA, including food, drugs, pesticides and cosmetics.
At the time this original legislation took effect, most existing chemicals were grandfathered, and despite the “Toxic Substances” part of its name, the act does not separate chemical substances into categories of “toxic” and “non-toxic.” In general, the act requires that chemical manufacturers or other companies provide the EPA with notification before making or importing any chemical substance that is not already listed. There are a few huge exceptions to this requirement:
- Research and development
- Substances that are supposed to be regulated under other regulations, like the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
After receiving these notifications, the EPA reviews the information provided by the manufacturer or user and decides what kinds of restrictions, if any, to put on the use of this new chemical substance or mixture.
Because the chemicals existing at the time this act took effect were grandfathered, there are some 62,000 listed chemical substances that have not been subject to any testing or evaluation by the EPA, because they had not been deemed an “unreasonable risk.”
Despite claims from certain political camps, the EPA has only managed to severely restrict the use of five chemical substances since the agency’s creation in 1970:
- Polychlorinated biphenyl products (PCBs)
- Asbestos (the ban on which was overturned in 1991)
- Hexavalent chromium
Major criticisms of TSCA, particularly by environmental groups and even officials within the agency itself, is that the act is relatively toothless. An internal report even characterized the EPA’s processing of new TSCA cases as “predisposed to protect industry information rather than to provide public access to health and safety studies,” and identified trade secrets as an obstacle to effective testing and evaluation.
I won’t really have a good analysis of the new legislation until I read them both side-by-side, but so far CSIA looks like a good improvement, although it’s always a good policy to read newly-proposed legislation with an eye to new and controversial technologies – in particular the practice of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking (EPA study here), and the existing and proposed pipelines for the oil and gas industry. There was a spill of crude in Arkansas in March of this year – which came as a huge surprise to the residents, most of whom weren’t even aware they were living close to a pipeline. And the same pipeline ruptured again at the beginning of this month, this time in Missouri. And of course, one should also keep in mind recent industrial disasters, to understand how compliance with these proposed rules might have mitigated the event.
Anyway, let me know if any of you are interested to read further analysis regarding this new legislation.
I find myself in a unique position on this fine Caturday. I have written about all of the extant recognized wild cat species (36 in total). I could write about some more of the subspecies, but I’d largely be repeating myself. So today, at least, I’ve chosen to focus on a species of cat I’m glad I’m not sharing the planet with anymore, as amazing as it would be to see it alive.
Smilodon is often called the saber-toothed cat or (incorrectly) the saber-toothed tiger, which was found in the Americas during the Pleistocene epoch (approximately 10,000 years ago). It’s an extinct genus of the sub-family Machairodontinae.
The common name of “saber-tooth” of course refers to those giant motherfucking maxillary canines (11 inches!). The reason that “saber-toothed tiger” is a misnomer is because Smilodon is not closely related to tigers at all – Tigers are descended from the sub-family Pantherinae. So if you’re an insufferable know-it-all, like me, you can now proceed to correct people who don’t care.
Smilodon was first described in Brazil, 1842 by a Danish paleontologist called Peter Wilhelm Lund. There are a number of Smilodon species that have also been described, but in general only three are currently recognized:
- Smilodon populator, which was the species discovered by Lund. It existed between 1 million to 10,000 years ago, was found primarily in the eastern part of South America and was larger than the North American species.
- Smilodon gracilis, which existed between 2.5 million and 500,000 years ago. It was the oldest and smallest of the Smilodon species. The other Smilodon species probably descended from this one.
- Smilodon fatalis, which replaced Smilodon gracilis in North America and existed between 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago. It’s believed that Smilodon fatalis weighed up to 620 pounds and had a shoulder height of 39 inches. Smilodon californicus and Smilodon floridanus are two species that are sometimes considered to be subspecies of fatalis, and sometimes considered interchangeable names for californicus and floridanus.
Smilodon are among the largest felids ever to have existed. Smilodon populator, the largest of the recognized species, probably weighed about 880 – 1,000 pounds. Their build was comparable to that of the modern bear, in that they were hugely muscular in the shoulders and had shorter hind limbs compared to that of modern cats.
Though Smilodon existed at the same time as prehistoric humans, it’s likely that its diet consisted of the ancestors of tapirs, camels, deers, bison, and probably extinct ground sloths and juvenile mammoths. A great place to see complete Smilodon skeletons is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, as many of the cats were trapped and preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits.
It’s an unfortunate truth that most of the animals who have traveled beyond Earth’s atmosphere have not done so willingly. One of the first animals sent into space was Laika, who was a stray dog taken in by the Soviet space program and chosen to “dog” Sputnik II. At this time the technology to support life in the vacuum of space was still being developed, and there was no expectation that Laika would survive. In fact, she died of overheating mere hours after launch. Emboldened by the success of Sputnik and keen to keep up the perception of Soviet might in these early years of the Space Race, Nikita Krushchev wanted a launch that would coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (November 7).
The satellite that had been under construction was sophisticated in design but nowhere near ready to launch by that deadline (it would later be launched as Sputnik III) – Soviet scientists were forced to do a four-week rush job on the vessel that would convey Laika to orbit.
It’s possible that this pressure to work quickly is what resulted in the malfunction that prevented the Block A core from jettisoning correctly from the nose cone, which interfered with the thermal control system’s operations. Some of the insulation was torn loose during the malfunction, raising the temperature inside the capsule to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Soviet scientists had attempted to provide Laika with seven days’ worth of food and oxygen, planning to euthanize her with a poisoned dose of food toward the end of the journey. Laika’s biological telemetry indicated that she had eaten some food, but five to seven hours into the flight the scientists received no further sign of life.
Because of the growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, which largely took the form of the gigantic pissing contest we know today as the Space Race, the ethical question of this kind of animal experimentation was largely ignored. The Soviets wanted Laika’s flight to seem like an amazing and ground-breaking success – moreso than it already was, anyway – so they reported that Laika had either been euthanized via the dose of poisoned food or had died from lack of oxygen very late into the seven-day flight. It wasn’t until 2002, after rumors had surfaced of the true cause and timing of Laika’s death, that Dimitri Malashenkov (one of the scientists who had worked on the Sputnik II mission) confirmed the truth. He said at the time, due to technological and time constraints, there was no way for them to have designed a thermal control system that would have sustained a living animal for up to seven days.
On April 11, 2008, Russia dedicated a monument to Laika near the military research facility that had prepared her for the mission. Romania had issued a stamp in Laika’s honor in 1959.
The U.S. press had dubbed Laika “Muttnik” after learning of the Soviets’ (sort of) successful mission. Laika had a lot of names, most of which were given to her by her trainers at the research facility. Kudryavka, which means Little Curly. Zhuchka, which means Little Bug. And Limonchik, which means Little Lemon. Her most popular name was Curly, and the scientists that worked with her described her as a quiet, friendly little dog.
But Laika is not the subject of this post – it wasn’t her idea to go into space. And I’m not sure it’s fair to say that this next animal went into space willingly, but at least he had more of an option.
On March 16, 2009, STS-119 was scheduled to launch. The mission was to deliver and assemble Integrated Truss Segment 6 at the International Space Station, as well as a set of solar arrays and batteries. This mission was thought to be fairly routine, until the countdown started.
It was at this point that this little bat was noticed clinging to the side of the external tank of the shuttle stack. It was thought that the bat would simply fly away as the shuttle started to launch, but this did not end up being the case.
This is a free-tailed bat, also called “mastiff bat”, of the family Molossidae of the order Chiroptera. While they are not generally known for space flight, they are found on every continent except for Antarctica. They’re called “free-tailed” because their tails project beyond the membrane that connects the base of their tail to their legs.
An expert on bats viewed the pictures of the bat after the launch, and theorized that perhaps one of Space Bat’s wings were broken, which would have prevented it from making an easy escape. It’s likely that the bat was shaken off during the first few seconds of flight and incinerated by the engines.
This could indeed be true. But I like to believe that Space Bat made it all the way. One small cling for Space Bat, one giant flight for Bat-kind.
The Tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest living felid and the third largest carnivore in the world – coming in behind the polar bear and the brown bear. A large male Tiger can grow up to eleven feet from nose to the base of the tail and weigh 670 pounds. The Tiger’s canine teeth are the longest of any cat’s, recorded in lengths of up to 3.5 inches.
There are nine recognized subspecies of the Tiger:
- Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), which can be found in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. A favorite target of poachers due to the illegal demand for body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), which can be found in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Smaller than Bengal Tigers and with slightly darker coats. Approximately only 350 members of this subspecies exist in the wild, and are under extreme threat from poaching and loss of habitat.
- Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), which can be found only on the southern part of the Malay Peninsula. Wild population surveys put the number of individuals at about 500. Again, poaching is a significant threat to their survival.
- Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), which can be found on the island of Sumatra. It is the smallest in size of the tigris subspecies and is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Studies conducted of Sumatran Tigers have revealed that it has very unique genetic characteristics, and may evolve into a completely separate species (instead of being considered a subspecies) if it does not go extinct.
- Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as the Amur Tiger, can be found in far-eastern Siberia. It is among the largest felids ever to have existed. It has a thick coat to help it survive in such a cold climate.
- South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), also known as the Amoy Tiger or Xiamen Tiger, can be found in China. It is Critically Endangered, one of the most at-risk subspecies in the world. Sightings in the wild are extremely scarce, and though there are 59 individuals in captivity, they have all descended from only six, leaving them with a low amount of genetic diversity.
- Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica), once found in Bali. Was the smallest subspecies of tigris, due to the limited amount of prey and habitat, which is part of island life. What is believed to have been the last Bali Tiger, a female, was killed in 1937.
- Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), also known as the Hyrcanian Tiger or Turan Tiger, once found in the forest habitat around the Caspian Sea. Individuals of this subspecies had been recorded up until the early 1970s. It was most closely related to the Siberian/Amur Tiger.
- Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), once found on the island of Java, became extinct in the mid-1970s. After 1979, there were no more credible sightings of the Javan Tiger, and subsequent searches has yielded nothing substantive.
White Tigers are not a subspecies, but rather individuals born with a specific allele that produces a white-coat effect, which is called Chinchilla albinism. White Tigers are rare in the wild, but popular in zoos – and therefore tigers are bred to produce that effect for cats that are part of zoo exhibits. Too much of this inbreeding can lead to a low genetic pool that causes genetic defects, like cleft palates, scoliosis and strabismus (crossed eyes).
Over the past century, Tigers have lost 93% of their historic range, which has severely impacted the overall population and driven several subspecies to extinction. Habitat destruction, fragmentation and poaching have taken their toll in this remarkable megafauna, and even coordinated actions taken by the countries that make up their remaining range may have come too late to ultimately save it from extinction.
Because I work in occupational and environmental health and safety, I pay particular attention to industrial disasters – even though this week has been chock-full of terrible, big news, I find myself drawn to the plant explosion in Texas because of its relevance to workplace safety, something which I have some capacity to understand better than horrific acts of terrorism.
Although the specific causes of the fire and resulting explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company are as yet unknown, what we do know is that this company stored and distributed large amounts of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate as agricultural products.
What Is Ammonia?
Ammonia (NH3) is a colorless gas with a particularly pungent odor, and is widely used to serve the nutritional and pharmaceutical needs of terrestrial life – about 80% of ammonia is used (either as salts or solutions) as fertilizer for crops or as an antimicrobial agent in food products. Its basic property allows it to combine with acids to form salts – with hydrochloric acid, it forms ammonium chloride. With nitric acid, it forms ammonium nitrate.
Ammonia has an exothermic reaction when exposed to water and nitrogen, which means that it releases a significant amount of energy in a short period of time, usually in the form of heat, light and sound. In other words, it’s potentially explosive.
Anhydrous ammonia is a commercial term that emphasizes the lack of water in the material. Having a boiling point of -33.34 degrees Celsius (-28.012 degrees Fahrenheit) at a pressure of 1 atmosphere, it must be stored under high pressure or at an extremely low temperature.
Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) exists as a white crystalline solid. Its property as an oxidizer is why it’s used in explosive devices as well as fertilizer. The safety guidelines for storage of ammonium nitrate require that it be segregated from urea and acetic acid, and fire fighting measures require the use of flooding quantities of water rather than jets of water – remember ammonia’s exothermic properties? On a scale from 0 to 4, the NFPA rating for the reactivity of ammonium nitrate is 3.
On April 16, 1947 (the third week of April seems to be historically significantly hazardous) the SS Grandcamp was docked in the Port of Texas City. Along with some small arms ammunition and machinery, it carried about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp had diverted to the Port of Texas City after being denied berth in Houston, where the port authority had prohibited the loading/un-loading of ammonium nitrate.
At approximately 8:00 AM that morning, smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the SS Grandcamp, possibly started as a result of a crewman flicking his lit cigarette away (extinguish your butts, people!). The crew of the ship unsuccessfully fought the fire for about an hour – every attempt to douse it or control it failed, and a red glow reappeared each time.
By 9:00 AM, spectators had started to gather in the harbor, noting that the water around the ship had started to boil. They watched as the captain of the ship ordered his crew to try to extinguish the flames by piping steam into the cargo hold, increasing the internal pressure of the cargo hold so much that the sides of the ship began to bulge.
The vessel detonated at 9:12 AM. The spectators who had gathered to watch the fire, believing they were a safe distance away, were obliterated. The blast was so huge that it caused a 15-foot wave that traveled nearly 100 miles away from the coast of Texas.
Death and Destruction on a Massive Scale
In Galveston, 10 miles away, people were knocked off their feet from the force of the blast. In Louisiana, 100 miles away, people felt the shock of the explosion. Airplanes flying nearby were ripped apart. The detonation of the SS Grandcamp is considered to be one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions, and is the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.
The official casualty count was 567, including all of the crew of the SS Grandcamp, but this may well be inaccurate (on the low side) as many of the victims were burned to ashes or blown to tiny bits. A single member of the Texas City volunteer fire department survived. Fire departments from nearby areas were unable to approach the site of the explosion because of the intensity of the resulting fires. About 5,000 people were injured, mostly by shrapnel.
The first explosion of the SS Grandcamp ignited the SS High Flyer, which was moored nearby and also carried 961 tons of ammonium nitrate. 15 hours after the initial explosion, the SS High Flyer also detonated, killing at least two more people.
The Texas City Disaster resulted in the first class-action lawsuit filed against the United States government on behalf of 8,485 victims. Industrial re-construction costs incurred as a result of the disaster eventually reached an amount of $100 million (in 1947 dollars – the equivalent cost today would be about $1.03 billion).
Occupational Health and Safety
Although OSHA is a federal agency, many states have their own Occupational Safety and Health agencies, which have adopted the federal regulations and may impose stricter state regulations if they deem it necessary. They may not, however, remove any of the federal regulations.
Texas is not an agreement state, so federal OSHA has jurisdiction over all of the regulated workplaces there. Many news organizations have noted that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company had not undergone an OSHA inspection since 1985.
This does not surprise me, for several reasons:
OSHA cannot perform planned or regular inspections for every workplace under its jurisdiction – it doesn’t have the time or the manpower to do so. Instead, OSHA’s inspection priorities fall in this order:
- Imminent Danger Situations: Workplace hazards that could immediately cause serious injury or death get top priority. Compliance officers will ask employers to remove potentially affected employees and correct the hazard.
- Fatalities and Catastrophes: Incidents that involve a death or the hospitalization of three or more employees will trigger an inspection. This is the type of inspection that OSHA will conduct regarding the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company. I’ll be reading that report when it’s released, believe me – but high-profile and high-casualty inspections take a long time to complete. I estimate that this one may take up to a year.
- Complaints: Allegations of hazards or violations, which may be filed by employees anonymously. (I’ve dealt with this type of inspection myself – it took three months to resolve.)
- Referrals: Information regarding hazards that come from sources outside the company, such as the media, other regulatory agencies or other companies.
- Follow-ups: Personal verification of abatement for hazards identified in previous inspections.
- Planned or Programmed: These inspections target high-hazard industries, or companies that experienced a high rate of work-related injuries or illnesses.
So you can see that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company, not belonging to a specifically high-hazard industry may well escape the attention of OSHA for a long period of time, especially if they’ve had otherwise good or fair safety records.
Another aspect that must be considered in the case of this plant explosion is the company’s relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency. Like OSHA, the EPA is a federal agency but may not have direct jurisdiction in every state. My state, for example, is an agreement state with the EPA as well. The guidelines here are similar – states with individual environmental agencies must adopt all of the federal regulations and may impose additional regulations if necessary.
Outside of the state-run agencies, however, the EPA requires companies to provide notification when those companies exceed certain thresholds of hazardous substances. This information is vital, because the EPA disseminates the information to the state and local emergency response organizations. This is how first responders are made aware of the hazards of any given workplace, should they need to respond to an emergency.
According to this article in the NY Times, West Chemical and Fertilizer company had reported quantities of 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anydrous ammonia to the EPA. So, my previous question about whether or not West Chemical had reported over-the-threshold quantities of the ammonium compounds has been answered in the affirmative. However, the article states that the reporting was done late last year, which is concerning. If this reporting is the type I’m thinking of, the numbers should have been submitted by March 1st of last year and of this year – so at face value, it looks like the company wasn’t quite on top of it.
It also seems as though the plant was so old that it was grandfathered into regulations back in 1962, and should have completed a re-authorization process in 2004. It didn’t.
It’s too early to know whether or not the firefighters of West were aware of the hazards associated with the plant – it’s very possible that the explosion was unavoidable, the conditions being set after a certain point because of the initial fire. And of course, it’s too early to know exactly what caused the fire in the first place.
The SS Grandcamp was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. West Chemical last reported 270 tons.
Multiply this explosion by 8.5, and you might have some idea of the size of the Texas City Disaster:
I had the opportunity on Friday to see Jurassic Park in a way I’d never been able to before – no, not in 3D, although I did see it in 3D. I never got to see the film in theaters when it was first released in 1993. I was only eight years old at the time, but after my dad purchased it on VHS it quickly became a favorite among my brothers and me. So when I first heard that Jurassic Park was being released in theaters again for it’s 20th anniversary, I couldn’t pass it up.
I was happy, actually, that it’s been several years since I’ve last seen it, because it allowed me to come as close as possible to seeing for the first time. And I was pleasantly surprised to remember what a great film it is.
We’ve all been there – re-watching a movie that was one of your favorites as a kid and then realizing that it’s not actually very good. But Jurassic Park holds up. It’s still amazing, still scary, and still a great amount of fun! More after the jump.
Good Friday indeed! I took advantage of my long weekend to go on another adventure with Muffin (you remember him – he figured prominently in the trip to Area 51), this time to Sedona, Arizona. We went armed with snacks and beverages, but alas! I forgot my camera, so none of the images you’ll see in this post are mine.
Why Sedona, you ask? That’s a good question. I’d never really heard much about it, only having a passing familiarity with the name. But Muffin told me that Sedona is home to some extremely beautiful scenery and some things called vortexes. Apparently vortexes are “energy vents”, places where the earth vents positive, negative and neutral energy. These are huge in Sedona – whole tours are arranged around the vortexes. They’re even included on the maps you can get for free at the Sedona Chamber of Commerce.
Muffin and I were determined to find one. I got distracted by the scenery, though. Who needs positive spiritual earth energy when you get to look at things like this?
If you ever happen to go, I urge you to budget more than just one afternoon – there are all kinds of things to see there, and that’s outside of invisible energy vortexes.
There’s Montezuma Castle:
And Cathedral Rock, home to one of the vortexes (this one apparently strengthens the Feminine).
The vortex that Muffin and I actually reached was the Airport Vortex. The Sedona Airport sits atop a bluff that gives you a great view of the city and the surrounding rock formations. The Airport Vortex, apparently, strengthens the Masculine. I asked Muffin if he felt strengthened – or at least different – and he said no. Me neither.
But as amazing as Sedona is, and as far as we had to drive to get there, this post isn’t really about Sedona. This post goes much further than that – all the way to the edge of our solar system.
Intrigued? Then follow me after the jump.
This really started on Friday night, when my boyfriend finally got his hands on a reasonably-priced copy of the film Paul and insisted that we watch it together. Now, I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I’ve enjoyed every thing I’ve seen them in, especially when they’re in it together. Conversely, I loathe Seth Rogen. Usually that’s fine – I can loathe people from a distance, and forget all about them. But once Seth Rogen was deemed by Hollywood to be A Thing, everyone wanted a piece of him, and he was in EVERYTHING. Nine films in 2011, and five in 2012. That’s a lot of films, and unfortunately some of those films fell into my area of nerdy interest. So, I passed on Paul.
Boy, do I love being proven wrong in situations like this. I actually found the film to be incredibly fun, nerd-affirming, hilarious (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost always deliver) and I resolve to own it myself as soon as humanly possible. Seth Rogen was quite tolerable in this film. He does “rude alien” very well.
For those of you who have not seen it, the part of the film relevant to this post is that Pegg and Frost are nerds from the U.K. who attend Comic Con in San Diego, and then rent a recreational vehicle to do a UFO-tour of the south western part of the United States. On the way, they pick up a stray alien during their visit to Area 51.
And that’s when my boyfriend suggested we take a trip there ourselves. If you sheeple don’t want your comfortable little world to be ROCKED, then I suggest that you do not proceed after the jump.
(Yes, I know. This movie review is not at all unexpected, and zillions of lousy film critics have no doubt used the same joke. So sue me.)
(Note to lousy film critics: Please don’t sue me.)
I had the pleasure of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last Thursday at midnight-thirty, with two of my best friends in the world. These were my comrades-in-arms, who had braved Middle-Earth with me in years past (full disclosure: 17 times for The Fellowship of the Ring, 15 times for The Two Towers, and 16 times for Return of the King, not counting subsequent DVD and Extended Edition releases). This was back in the dark days of yore, before the welcome innovation of buying tickets with assigned seats. My merry band of Tolkien fans waited for hours in line for each of the LOTR films, so that we could get the best seats possible (and be able to sit together. I’m looking at you, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
Let me be clear, here: I have been waiting for this movie a long, long time. No, not since 2001, when Fellowship was released. Not since 2002, when The Two Towers was released. Not even since 2003, when Return of the King was released (and finally won the Oscar for Best Picture, thankyouverymuchHollywoodelitists). No, I’ve been waiting for this movie since 1994, when, as a lonely and awkward ten-year-old trying desperately to survive the move to a new school in a new state, was given The Hobbit to read by my step-dad (who was not here to see this movie, although I hope that if anything of the human spirit survives death, he was able to sit in on as many showings as he liked, without having to shell out for criminally-priced movie tickets).
And then my life changed.
Don’t get me wrong: my life didn’t change all that much at the time. I had just fallen in love with a new author, and was eagerly devouring the LOTR trilogy (in my ten-year-old opinion, it needed more Bilbo. Wait, that’s my adult opinion, too!). But it did set me on the path toward becoming a nerd who embraces nerdery, openly and without shame (most of the time). And it was during that time that my wait for a movie adaptation worthy of the material began.
You can see how I potentially set myself up for a HUGE disappointment, here. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants.
Now, 18 years later, I finally got 1/3 of my wish. And as you can already see, my feelings about it are too complex (or I am too wordy) to fit into a single FB status update – let alone a Tweet! Be aware that SPOILERS are present from this point forward.
Earlier this week, CNN decided that this was newsworthy enough to post. In it, Mr. Joe Peacock was generous enough to explain to geekdom the metrics by which someone could be considered a “real” geek. Well, not quite. He spent quite a lot of time explaining how some people – okay, women – were not “real” geeks. If you haven’t already read John Scalzi’s rebuttal, then I highly recommend that you do so. It’s pretty ironic that for someone who is complaining about people dressing up in costume and infiltrating geek holy ground just for male attention prefaces his little rant with this:
“When he’s not teaching the Internet how to fist-fight, why being weird is awesome or how to self-publish your own books, Joe Peacock tours the world, showing his extensive “Akira” art collection. He also cosplays as a six-foot-two-inch, 310lb Powerpuff Girl to fill the hollow pit that is his need for the wrong kinds of attention.“
Emphasis mine. This could be seen as perhaps a playful tongue-in-cheek self-blurb considering the content of the post, but also considering the content of the post, I’m not inclined to cut him that much slack. Peacock comes out of the gate with both guns blazing, and his targets are “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Right off the bat, it’s clear that Peacock’s beef is not with poseurs. He’s not irritated by just anyone co-opting geek culture for attention or exploitation – he’s only irritated when women do it.
This is frustrating, because the title of the article would initially lead me to believe that Peacock was actually tackling a subject about which I would agree with him: Booth Babes. For any of you who have never been to any kind of convention (or see any kind of advertising, frankly), let me explain to you what Booth Babes are. Booth Babes are attractive women who are paid to stand next to booths at convention expo floors. They’re also typically told to wear skimpy clothing and flirt with the convention-goers (targeting men, obviously) in order to get them interested in whatever the booth vendor has to sell them. The idea is that sex sells, therefore sexy women sell product. Olivia Munn, whom Peacock references in his post, is an example of a more advanced form of Booth Babe. If Peacock were going to write a reasoned, thoughtful article about why using Booth Babes is insulting, both to convention-goers and to women in general, then I would be right there with him, cheering him on.
What’s the problem with the idea that “sex sells”? I can tell that you’re asking yourself that right now, unaware that I can look through the Internet into the depths of your very soul. Well, dear reader, I shall tell you:
1. It illustrates a vendor’s lack of confidence in their product. “Sex sells” is the go-to advertising method, if only that it’s so very, very easy. Not necessarily effective, mind you, but easy. If you are desperate enough to hire women to stand around your booth because you’re not confident that people will be interested enough otherwise, then you’ve got more problems than a bunch of pretty women in bikinis can solve.
2. It likely alienates half your potential market. Not all conventions have attendance that ends up being roughly 50/50 male/female, and of course I’m not accounting for variance in sexual orientation, but when you’ve got Booth Babes on board to try to interest people in your product, then you’ve already told all the women on the expo floor that “We’re not bothering to try to sell this to you. We don’t need you, or your money.” Is that really the message that you want to send?
3. It makes it harder for female sales representatives to do their jobs. There is a difference between the job of “Booth Babe” and the job of “Sales Rep”, or any other person a vendor might choose to mind their booth. There is a difference between a Booth Babe and a Sales Rep who just happens to be female. Booth Babes are generally there only to attract attention – they’re not paid to know anything about the product they’ve been hired to sell. This creates the perception that NO women know anything about the booth they’re working at, no matter what their job title or work attire is.
4. It reinforces the stereotype that geeks are unattractive virgin losers who haven’t left their mothers’ basements in the last 40 years. I hear male geeks rail against this perception all the time, and yet when vendors decide to pander to that perception, those same male geeks are strangely silent. The vendors think that their potential customers are not smart enough to see through this, and intend to capitalize on a hurtful stereotype.
5. It encourages exactly the same perception that Joe Peacock has fallen prey to in his little rant. Namely, the idea that there is no difference between women who pander because they are paid to, and women who dress up in sexy costumes because it’s something they want to do.
See that? There are several attractive women in that picture, and their costumes are revealing and sexy. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of cosplayers, as many as there are characters to cosplay as. If you’re at all acquainted with the ways that female comic, anime, video game characters etc. are usually attired, then you’ll know that the amount of revealing, sexy costumes is practically infinite. I’m not familiar enough with the cosplay subculture to speak definitively about it, but what I do know is that it takes a hell of a lot of work, and the hardcore players take it pretty seriously. Does that sound like the kind of people who are doing this because they love to “poach” on geek culture to feed their egos? Maybe in the very rarest, individual cases, but definitely not enough to claim that there’s some kind of widespread problem.
Here, John Peacock gets down to specifics:
“I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.
I call these girls “6 of 9″. They have a superpower: In the real world, they’re beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work.”
Setting aside the fact that in order to know anyone’s motivation for committing the grievous crime of Attending Geeky Events While Conventionally Attractive one would need to employ mind-reading technology or magical powers, Peacock has now come up with what he no doubt thinks is an incredibly clever term for women he deems “not attractive enough to be a Booth Babe, but more attractive than your average female geek”. If that wasn’t his intention, then he has a responsibility to improve his communication skills. Assigning women numbers based on subjective judgments about their appearance is bad enough, but Peacock is showing his ass all over the place here.
You know what this says to me? It says that some members of the geek culture believe that there should be more to being a geek than just having enthusiastic passion for niche interests. It says that some geeks believe that fellow geeks should be able to pass some nebulous, ill-defined litmus test to be considered part of the culture. And on top of that, it says that some geeks believe that anyone who hasn’t had their same experience as a geek isn’t a “real” geek.
What I mean by this is that I think that some geeks have a wee bit of a persecution complex. It’s true that a lot of people who might self-identify as geeks or nerds experienced some ostracism from their peers while they were growing up. Peacock’s phrasing particularly leads me to believe that there are some heterosexual male geeks who have never gotten over the fact that they didn’t get enough female attention in high school. Or at least, not enough positive female attention. I have no doubt that there are girls that bully other kids who are “too smart” or who just don’t fit in well enough, just as there are boys that bully for the same reasons. I should know – I experienced bullying from both boys and girls. Maybe these guys went through junior high and high school without ever having gone on a date – I know that I only went on two. And only one of those was a date on which the guy asked me.
But do you know what might be slightly different between the experiences those guys had, and the experiences that I had? I was also bullied by male geeks. I got negative attention from two fronts: from inside the culture and outside the culture. I’ve been interrogated about my nerdy interests – not because the guy was interested in me, but because he was bent on proving that I’m not a real geek. I’ve been told that my nerdy interests are stupid, or that I’m only interested “because it has hot guys in it.” Yes, exactly. I saw The Fellowship of the Ring seventeen times in theaters and bought both the theatrical releases and the extended versions on DVD because I was obsessed with hot guys, not because I’ve been reading Tolkien since I was ten years old and was blown away by Peter Jackson’s films.
Peacock is right when he says that geek culture has been predominately male. I’m happy that he’s glad that more women are making their presence known, and are being more open about their interests and enthusiasm. But really – how DARE he presume to judge a whole group of people based on the actions of a few? Why limit his criticism to female poseurs instead of paying attention to male poseurs as well? And the way that he characterizes these “poachers” and “imposters” is really sexist, and speaks more to his bitterness about what he perceives to be other people’s experiences being somehow less meaningful than his own (again with the mind-reading, Peacock! Unless you’ve interviewed every potential “6 of 9″ to discover the sinister motivation behind her attendance at a Geeky Event, I find your willingness to make grand generalizations disturbing).
So now I’d like to make a general, all-purpose request about geek culture: Stop being exclusive. If you’re really that hung up on how you were never able to truly “fit in” when you were younger, shouldn’t you be actively avoiding doing the same thing to others? Don’t let your past define your future. Be happy that it’s becoming more socially acceptable to openly like things that are awesome! This means that the young nerdlings that are discovering their interests now might not be subjected to the same amount of bullying you were, and that is a good thing. Take pride in your knowledge and enthusiasm, and be willing to share it with others. Geeks are people, so there will always be as many different kinds of geeks as there are different kinds of people. Avoid the ones that annoy you, as long as they’re not causing you or anyone else any harm. Be inclusive.