Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bits and Pieces - November 28, 2012

What is our reporters learning? Not very much when they've got what they consider a good story, it seems. They thought that NASA had a big discovery on Mars, but it appears they heard wrong and didn't bother to check. Or they get handed a hot document by the usual suspects in Vienna and present it as solid evidence of Iran's nuclear program, apparently without checking.

Ezra Klein interviews Chrystia Freeland, who has been talking to the plutocrats. Apparently they really do believe that what is good for them is good for the country.

The mysterious X-37B Spaceplane.

It shoulda been the Canadians who invaded in "Red Dawn."

A trowel made of uranium? NRC solves the mystery, part I and part II.

Good News
Increasing numbers of children in the UK are receiving MMR vaccine.

 American heterosexual white male of middle-class status recognizes that that status confers privilege, suggests that his peers get over it. On a politically conservative blog.

Tallinn's Christmas market. With video that doesn't seem to be embeddable.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia – 200 Years

I’m late to this party, but it just occurred to me that it is 200 years since Russia defeated Napoleon. The Battle of Borodino was the turning point of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

But I haven’t totally missed the anniversary. The last of the Grande Armée straggled out of Russia on December 14, according to Wikipedia. The Battle of Borodino was in September.

The Russian commemorations seem to have been little reported elsewhere. Here’s a selection from Google:

From Ria Novosti, a re-enactment in September of the Battle of Borodino.

More from Ria Novosti. Short from RT. RT documentary on the preparations for the re-enactment.

I’m wondering why we haven’t heard more from Russia. The ill-fated Tsar Nicholas led the centennial celebrations in 1912, and of course it was an earlier Tsar’s army who beat Napoleon in 1812, so perhaps the desire to minimize that governance in Russia’s history might have been part of it. The Russians are also extremely sensitive about land invasions, precisely because of Napoleon for one, and might not have wanted to play it up.

Although Napoleon and the Grande Armée eventually had to retreat ignominiously from Russia, they had something of a victory at Borodino and went on to burn Moscow. But their supply lines were too long, they had taken many casualties at Borodino, and winter set in. Like many military operations, the victories were ambiguous.

Tchaikowsky wrote the 1812 Overture to commemorate the event. Here’s the London Symphony, with appropriate works of art.

For those who like the ending with cannons, just the ending, from where the Russian national anthem overcomes the French.

Cross-posted at The Agonist and Nuclear Diner.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today’s Thanksgiving is an American holiday. But other countries have their Thanksgivings and harvest festivals. I think there’s something we all can give thanks for: that we humans seem to be improving ourselves.

Yes, I’ve been following the news of Israel and Gaza and the probably cynical calculations behind the deaths. We’re improving, and we’ve still got some way to go.

But I think that Steven Pinker is right in The Better Angels of Our Nature: deaths by violence are many fewer than they were, or than we expected them to be, even a century ago. And I’m thankful for that.

I’ve seen big changes in my lifetime. Just yesterday I received a copy of the March 29, 1954, Life Magazine. It has a story about the Japanese fishermen caught up in the fallout of a US H-bomb test. The headline reads “First Casualties of the H-Bomb.” First. We expected that there would be more casualties.

The photo up top is a house I lived in, a long time ago. There were fewer houses around it, more trees and a creek. It’s good to recall where we came from.

If you haven’t read Pinker’s book, here’s a nice short (half-hour) summary, with some of the questions I had after reading it.

In a more American vein, Stephen Walt offers up ten reasons to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers – wherever you may be!


Greetings also posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bits and Pieces - November 21, 2012

It seems to me that there are some deep psychological roots to survivalism. We all live with a variety of uncertainties, ranging from death to whether our car will start to finding we're out of cereal. And that's just on the personal side. Outside factors include storms and wars. Focusing on survival from whatever externalizes the anxiety on all these fronts and, perhaps, makes it easier to manage. It's a recurring theme in religion, from the Bible's Revelations to the anticipation of the supposedly Maya-predicted end next month. But those ends take matters out of our hands; again, it can be easier to prepare for - well, what? If society really does break down, or an asteroid hits, will this really keep you safe?

And, speaking of uncertainty, tomorrow, in addition to being Thanksgiving, is also the 49th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Your password won't protect you, either.

Nor the Washington foreign policy establishment.

But here's some good news: the US and Mexico are going to sign an agreement on Colorado River water. And it looks like it's both realistic and fair.

And some wonderful color photos of America in the early 1940s.

Added later: Culture shock on returning to the US from Estonia.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bits and Pieces - November 19, 2012

If you read only one thing on the situation between Israel and Gaza, read Dahlia Lithwick's article in Slate.

Something easier - using computer translation algorithms to crack an 18th century secret society code.

Steven Pinker summarizes nicely his argument from The Better Angels of Our Nature, and commenters ask some of the questions I had about the book.

President Obama's speech at University of Yangon.

My analysis of evidence that some have concluded means that Myanmar has been working toward nuclear weapons.

Beautiful photos from Turkmenistan. 

Added later: Is it Myanmar or Burma?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bits and Pieces - November 17, 2012

How Mean Girls explains the Petraeus scandal. Read past the first two paragraphs. Intelligent and ambitious women still have to get ahead by sleeping with men. People without power are always petty toward one another.

And yeah, if you have responsibility at some level for the nuclear codes, you're not supposed to mess around.

Combine not enough funding to the State Department with the penchant for contract muscle and you've got the potential for trouble beyond Benghazi.

Has Petraeus been a stumbling block in moving toward an agreement with Iran?

The speech JFK would have given if he had ordered an airstrike on Cuba.

Does Senator Tom Coburn sound incoherent in this interview? Now that most of the Teabaggers have been voted out of Congress, is it time to look at some of the other loonies?

Genetic blending between Asia and Europe in the Altai Mountains.

Finnish underwater ice fishing. Watch the video before you read the explanation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Election Mindsets

Beloit College publishes, every year, a sketch of the mindset the newest college students bring to their colleges. Abby, who became famous when she expressed some impatience with the presidential election but now is fine, and her class of 2030 will know that American presidents can be African-American and, very likely, women. That will appear in the 2026 Mindset List, or possibly before.

The Obama girls were lovely on election night. Their mindset lists will will be different from Abby’s. And they will be voting in the next presidential election, or the one after that. So will a lot of other young people for whom segregated water fountains have never existed and the Soviet Union has always been in the past; for whom gay marriage is a possibility and women, some of whom are veterans, are taking a larger place in Congress.

The world keeps changing. It shocked me when the Mindset List said that Elvis has always been dead, he who was so alive for my adolescence. Dial phones, tape recorders, cameras that produce photos you can’t see immediately – all long gone! And not just gone, but are no part whatsoever of many citizens’ existence.

John Cassidy gives a partial accounting from the election:

For now, let’s take the measure of what has happened, which is historic enough. For the fifth time in the past six Presidential elections, the Democrats have won the popular vote. For the second time in succession, Americans have elected a black man as President. Throughout the country, Republican extremists like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have been repudiated. Residents of Maryland and Maine (and probably Washington state, too) have voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

More women in Congress. An openly gay Senator. A Buddhist Representative. The acceptance of sexualities different from missionary-position white men.

Cassidy again:

The exit polls largely told the story. In the nineteen-to-twenty-nine age group, Obama won sixty per cent of the vote. He got ninety-three per cent of the black vote, seventy per cent of the Hispanic vote, and seventy-five per cent of the Asian vote. Fifty-six per cent of women voted for him, as did sixty-three per cent of unmarried people, two-thirds of secular voters, and about four-fifths of gays and lesbians. Romney carried fifty-nine per cent of white voters (male and female), a majority of all Americans aged forty-five or over, and fifty-seven per cent of married people. In ideological terms, Obama forged a liberal-moderate course to victory. Despite his post-Convention lurch to the center, Romney couldn’t win over enough self-identified moderates. In that group, Obama took fifty-seven per cent of the vote.

So this Congress will be more diverse, which will make that diversity seem more normal to children growing up, and as they become voters, they are likely to vote for that kind of diversity and more. They won’t even see it as diversity, just the way things are.

I keep wondering how it is to have grown up in a world so different from the one I grew up in. The Soviet Union was a big part of my childhood, but some of the social things were normalized for me early. Lud and Bill, living in the big old Victorian house on the corner, were our neighbors – and everyone was fine with that. In Sunday School, we sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and this picture was up on the wall (source – autoplay music). I really believed that when I sang. Yes, the words and picture are a bit stereotyped. But Google also gives us this.

So I think I can share a little of the younger mindsets, although Elvis will be alive forever for me.

So Malia and Sasha and Abby will pocket many things that seemed unachievable to us in the fifties and sixties. That will give them room to think about what else could be better. Some of those things are already obvious: income equity, infrastructure to suit an advanced country, normalizing relations with a number of countries, ending Guantanamo and some of the other mistakes from overreaction to 9/11. And they will see others. There is the tiniest bit of beginning to think that war isn’t worth it.

All that, of course, could be derailed by any number of things, but the record of the last half-century and the last decade is pretty good. One of the things we’ll have to do is to make sure we bring along those who are having a hard time adapting to this pace of change.

And I’m sure that Malia and Sasha and Abby, and their brothers and friends and cousins, will be up to it.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bits and Pieces - Post-Election Edition

Many ways to map the election. Here are two more that might not be included; the second appears to be of changes from the 2008 election to the 2012 election; that was not clear to me from the text.

I am intrigued by the swath of blue across the Deep South that nobody seems to have said much about. Cities? Concentrations of African-Americans?

Lots of rightwing ideas are now being debunked. Ronald Reagan was maybe not such a nice guy.

One of the better things I've read on what the Republican Party now needs to do, from Zenpundit.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

At the Polls Today

via @BuzzFeedAndrew

Whatever Happens Today

It's looking like we can expect an Obama victory.

But even if Romney wins, we've had a good four years, and the campaign has brought out some good things.

Bloggers, as usual, were ahead of the curve, but the New York Times and the Washington Post excoriated Romney's lies and refusal to release his income tax returns. Our two newspapers of record only brought themselves to a principled editorial stand during this last week of the campaign, but we can hope that something of that sticks.

News coverage in general has slowly moved away from "both sides do it" to a recognition that one of our political parties has gone off the rails and has been willing to damage the United States if its leaders think that will help their party's electoral prospects. That party has also been willing to back the most misogynistic and science-misinformed of its members in the hopes of getting an "R" on one more House or Senate seat. Again, the news profession has moved only slightly toward reporting the real world, but we applaud them and hope they will continue.

That political party is in the throes of belief that it can order the universe to its preferences, back to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when men were men, America was tops, and, well, we won't point out that the top marginal tax rate in the 1950s, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was 94%. Politics does not have the same capability as science for jerking out the illusion rug from under one's feet, but we can hope that a ringing defeat today will supply another incremental change.

I've said before that President Obama has been using community organizing techniques to move the country toward the realization that we all are responsible for how we're governed, and there have been gains there too. It's subjective, but I think I'm seeing a change in people's willingness to take responsibility in those areas.

Yes, I hope that Nate Silver and the other quantitative predictors are right. But if they're wrong, I hope that movement continues in these directions.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Bits and Pieces - November 2, 2012

Pretty much all political today.

Matt Romney, Mitt's son, goes to Russia to make money and to deliver a message to President Putin that his father would be more flexible after the election, if he's elected.

Was voting for Romney rigged in the primaries? If these analyses are correct, something funny was going on.

Two big, and rather good, articles from CNN. They do suffer from the compulsive journalistic need to cite both sides.
Parallels to country's racist past haunt age of Obama
The Gospel according to Obama

The second of those has problems going beyond the headline. It's entirely possible that reporters born in or after the sixties have no knowledge of the theological ferment of that time. Liberal and liberation theology, Pope John XXIII, biblical criticism. The intellectual and philosophical arguments of that age seem to have been swept aside by megachurches and born-againness, the latter quoted in the article as if they had some standing in those areas. Note to religion reporters: Barack Obama's references to Reinhold Neibuhr mean something. Read up on that person and some of those who extended his work. The fifties and sixties are the time to look at. Other keywords for search are in this paragraph.

What God has to say about it.

The long con: Mail-order conservatism.

Another of those free-market things that hasn't worked out so well: The Valles Caldera National Preserve.