Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sanity and Fear

National Mall October 30, 2010. Photo: Helmette

Photo from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear yesterday here in DC. Good spirits; over 200,000 people; not enough Mavis Staples; and a jam-packed and festive city.

The bad part? The syrupy double equivalence crap video towards the end of the event. Let's say it again... yes, there do exist distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse.

But figuring that out requires constant critical thinking and truly critical thought it hard. This knee-jerk moral equivalence - "we're all just the same," "let's agree to disagree," "they're all just as bad" - is a kind of red herring, however sweet it seems, to the arduous and endless but essential task of critical thought about what things are indeed good and right.

I'm pretty sure the Mall was full of fallible people who have their own moral shortcomings. I'm sure that someone somewhere said something nasty. But out of a parade of speakers and musicians and out of 200,000+ people, nothing I nor anyone else I know saw or heard anything close to the rhetoric of Ted Nugent (or x, or y, or z, or a, or b, or c...). I'm hesitant to draw this parallel, but the rhetoric of dehumanization, of vermin and cockroaches, whatever it is that need "fumigating," appears elsewhere (and here and here and here and here and here and here...) in not-so-distant history. In the US, it's difficult to gauge the degree to which there's real epistemic commitment behind it, but this rhetoric has gone mainstream in the mass media and trickled down to the saber-rattling classes. I've heard it repeated in my own elite-educated, right-wing family in destructive ways. I would be very very careful if I were a thoughtful and genuine political leader on the anti-Obama right.

(The right suggests that it's President Obama who uses violent rhetoric. Check it out, really. It's Sunday football day, after all.)

The division that concerns me isn't between different political and/or religious beliefs, even when expressed over-exuberantly. It's between a kind of sanity and insanity conceived as two poles between which are degrees to which a person or group of people dehumanizes the other: one's perceived political or theo-ideological foe or ethnic/racial not-like-me. Bound closer together by media and ICTs, difference and pluralism are simultaneously more apparent and more easily manipulable. The vast and fuzzy territory in the middle currently seems to be increasingly occupied by a lot of people - in the mass media, among certain politicians, and among those who are simply nuts (not mutually exclusive categories) - normalizing the manipulative rhetoric of dehumanization and encouraging people to give in and join the club. And today it's nearly all building on one side of the current US political landscape. It's not moral equivalence.

On that note... Happy Halloween!

Yes, This Is an Elitist Post

I see that this morning the New York Times has declared a war on elitism. It must be mentioned in at least four or five featured articles. Apparently the Gray Lady is allying herself with the masses in time for Tuesday's election.

Oh, and, in order to cover up that slip into partisanship, there's a large helping of false equivalency. The Tea Party is the same as Nothing to see here, just the larger movements of history as delineated by Times reporters, who decry elitism.

That article in particular bothered me.
What he saw there [in Poland], he will tell you, affected him deeply. In the economic detritus of Communism, some of the world’s most skilled craftsmen sat idle all day, with nothing to build. During one of his first few visits, before he bought the airplane factory and started making cars, the government laid off 20,000 workers, and Mr. Kirkham watched the men file out the door robotically, their faces ashen, their lives in shards. This is what happens, Mr. Kirkham thought, when the state controls the economy.


Then came the Republican-led bank bailouts in 2008, followed by President Obama’s first acts in office: more bailouts and the stimulus package. We are heading down the path of Poland, Mr. Kirkham thought. “He’s a socialist,” Mr. Kirkham said when I asked his opinion of the president. “There’s no question. He’s a statist.”
Every news article, of course, leaves out a lot. But I've been to Estonia, seen the economic detritus of Communism, and haven't been able to conclude from that that President Obama is a socialist. In fact, my elitist tendency to look at facts and definitions of words leads me to believe that Mr. Kirkham has left a lot out of his analysis.

Perhaps he didn't consider the tens of thousands of American automobile workers (men and women, btw, as it probably was in Poland) who would have been thrown out of work, their faces ashen, their lives in shards, if the automobile industry hadn't been bailed out. By his logic (or what was presented of it in the article), that would have signaled the failure of the free enterprise system. In that case, presumably he could have said of the current president who let the industry fail, "He's a free-marketer. There's no question. He's a capitalist." Or perhaps he would have said what he said anyway.

That thought-experiment suggests that Mr. Kirkham's words are place-holders for "I don't like what the President is doing" or perhaps "I don't like the President." So we learn nothing from Mr. Kirkham or Matt Bai's report on him. The rest of the article is similarly foggy: today's political movements may or may not last; they may or may not be like other political movements in American history. I think I knew that before I read the article.

But our "socialist" president referred to facts the other day, so that confirms Peter Baker's ideas about his elitism, which we are treated to one more time. I guess it would have been elitism for Matt Bai to have thought a bit about Poland's history and have asked Mr. Kirkham if he had talked to any of the Solidarity movement or to Polish entrepreneurs. Or considered that those people were laid off after the fall of Communism. Communism kept them working, although its economic model ultimately failed. Or even asked Mr. Kirkham how he concluded that President Obama is a socialist and how that connected to the history of Communism in Poland.

I guess that this is the best that the Times can do, lacking aluminum tubes that might be made into Ladas.

For false equivalency, we can look at an article examining the hostile relationship of "politicians" to the press. "Politicians are fighting mad, at the news media," we are told. But seven politicians are cited, and six are Republican. Charles Rangel merely didn't answer a reporter's question, but I guess that counts as "mad" if you have to show that you share the all-important even-handedness.

But the fact that Republican politicians are angry might have led to quite a different story. Are they trying to put one over on the media, and the media won't let them (some of the time, anyway)? The commentators enlisted for the article are Republican, too. Could it be that they are trying to put their best spin on this?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Four Questions for Voters

This deserves wide distribution. From Jed Lewison at Daily Kos.


1. What was the average monthly private sector job growth in 2008, the final year of the Bush presidency, and what has it been so far in 2010?

2. What was the Federal deficit for the last fiscal year of the Bush presidency, and what was it for the first full fiscal year of the Obama presidency?

3. What was the stock market at on the last day of the Bush presidency? What is it at today?

4. Which party's candidate for speaker will campaign this weekend with a Nazi reenactor who dressed up in a SS uniform?


1. In 2008, we lost an average of 317,250 private sector jobs per month. In 2010, we have gained an average of 95,888 private sector jobs per month. (Source) That's a difference of nearly five million jobs between Bush's last year in office and President Obama's second year.

2. In FY2009, which began on September 1, 2008 and represents the Bush Administration's final budget, the budget deficit was $1.416 trillion. In FY2010, the first budget of the Obama Administration, the budget deficit was $1.291 trillion, a decline of $125 billion. (Source) Yes, that means President Obama has cut the deficit -- there's a long way to go, but we're in better shape now than we were under Bush and the GOP.

3. On Bush's final day in office, the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 closed at 7,949, 1,440, and 805, respectively. Today, as of 10:15AM Pacific, they are at 11,108, 2,512, and 1,183. That means since President Obama took office, the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 have increased 40%, 74%, and 47%, respectively.

4. The Republican Party, whose candidate for speaker, John Boehner, will campaign with Nazi re-enactor Rich Iott this weekend. If you need an explanation why this is offensive, you are a lost cause.

Update: More reading for the election.
Freedom Is Not Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

The More Things Change

Bits and Pieces - October 29, 2010

How the elephant got his trunk: photos(!) and Just-So Story by Rudyard Kipling with line drawing. Update: Picture above from here. h/t to Adam.

The contorted mess of India's decision on liability for nuclear plant construction.

Complex behaviors are not the result of a single gene, sorry.

There was a bit of a flurry today about cargo planes carrying ink-jet cartridges made into bombs, or something that looked like bombs, or white powder, or something. It would help us all to know who identified the whatsits, why they were identified as bombs, and why the concern spread so quickly, before apparent confirmation. Of course, we will hear none of this, which might make us better-informed citizens, because it might give the terrorists some insight on something. Update: Now they're saying that the devices actually contained explosives, something that was denied earlier. We can all look forward to even more layers of screening at the airport.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Legislative Ethics and Other Permeable Frontiers

Some totally unsurprising news -- especially if you happen to be a longtime reader of Phronesisaical -- from NPR today. Unsurprising as it may be, however, the story is profoundly important, and NPR is the only agency with the courage to touch it; many thanks to Laura Sullivan and the team who researched this:
NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry.
Yeah. And,
[Corrections Corporation of America] declined requests for an interview. In a statement, a spokesman said the Corrections Corporation of America, "unequivocally has not at any time lobbied — nor have we had any outside consultants lobby – on immigration law."

At the state Capitol, campaign donations started to appear.

Read the whole thing and think, again, about how money is speech.


(Undomundo has a few tunes posted)

Weekend in DC

I thought that Jon Stewart's and Steven Colbert's rallies (now rally) were such a good idea that I was willing to pay money, brave the TSA, and get on a plane to DC, where I would stay with friends. But by the time I checked, the fares were above my budget.


It sounds like it will be fun, the weather looks like it's going to be good, and the Mall is a cool place to be.

Meanwhile, the commentary seems to be, in large part, clueless.

You can take Stewart's demonstration at face value: encouraging sanity just now seems like a very good idea indeed. I am developing a headache, so I think I'll leave all the reasons to your imagination. Earlier, I linked to a couple out of thousands of possible links in this category.

Colbert's demonstration, of course, is of a piece with his on-show persona and a perfect match to Stewart's. I understand there are people who believe that Colbert really is the character he presents on his show.

You can also take Stewart's demonstration ironically, in several directions. As a response to Glenn Beck. As a reminder of political action to those who are soo cool that they can't be bothered to vote. As a riposte to those liberals who feel that Obama has been captured by the Republican Party. As the antithesis of a political demonstration.

And I see that all those ironical meanings also have face value. Nice interweavings of levels of ontology there. I hope Helmut will correct me if I've used that word wrong.

But the commentators. Carlos Lozada made a plea (ironically?) that Stewart not do it, that he remain an uninvolved comedian. Except, since Stewart's material is the news and he does seem to have a political viewpoint (to say nothing of Colbert), he's hardly been uninvolved. And the weekend before Election Day? Oh yeah, that was just a coincidence, just like with Glenn Beck's choice of date. (See ironical meaning above.)

Jesse Singal says flatly it won't work, addressing only one of the face-value meanings. No humor there, perhaps proving Singal's point.

Alessandra Staley earnestly reviews the show, noticing that Stewart was somewhat deferential to the President. I suspect it's hard not to notice that, even if you're Jon Stewart. And hard to be harsh on someone as good-natured as his guest.

Adam Serwer gets a lot right. The Daily Show is not The Nightly News.

And I can't help but chuckle at the timing. Three days before the election. And the President on one of the run-up shows. When wingnuts are imploding and the polls for many Democratic candidates are improving.

Well done, guys.

Bits and Pieces - October 28, 2010

Following violent eviction in China on Google.

Pondering how tough to get with Iran. Marc Lynch says no war talk, please.

The sore winners.

BA getting tired of US airport security theater.
Now that they're rolling out the get nekkid machines, I'm wondering what they will do when the next bomb attempt involves something hidden in a body orifice.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Call It Patriotism

A bag of fish I bought this morning has a largeish American flag picture on it, and the words "The Great American Import Company."

A Couple of Political Observations

Headline in Los Angeles Times: For women, ideology trumps the gender card

Ah yes! Poor women, stuck with reflexive gender identity rather than thinking out hard stuff like ideology. And I recognize that there are kinder ways to interpret that headline. But let's look a little further. Is it possible that it is men, in this case, who are more influenced by, er, a candidate's boobs? Just asking.

And a couple more Times articles:
NPR should be defunded, not because it's liberal but because it's wrong for the federal government to be in the news business or to subsidize one set of views over another.
And It's diverse if you're liberal. The first is Jonah Goldberg predictably joining the Republican uproar about Juan Williams. The second refers to college campuses. Both share the assumption that there is something equal about today's liberalism and conservatism. But, sadly, there isn't.

NPR is a responsible news-gathering organization. Colleges and universities take their mission as the search for truth, or at least verifiable reality.

The conservative/Republican universe today is defined by the fantasies and propaganda of Fox News. There's no equality there, and therefore no reason why NPR and higher education should give that universe equal time.

Ugly, regressive, spiteful, stupid . . .

Or: political discourse in Kentucky.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I've been wanting to "bundle" my internet, telephone, and television services and have been (sort of) looking for a deal from one of the local services that keep sending me letters.

Going through my junk mail today, I realized why I haven't found that deal. The price would have to be less than I am currently paying for the individual services, of course. And the prices in the come-ons frequently are unclearly defined and always for a limited time. They don't say (unless it's in the fine print) what it will be after that time.

And I'm not so driven to change what I've got that I want to do the research it will take to uncover that eventual price, which, from the come-ons, looks like it will probably be at least what I'm paying now.

Saturday, October 23, 2010



But it was systematic sectarian cleansing that drove the killing to its most frenzied point, making December 2006 the worst month of the war, according to the reports, with about 3,800 civilians killed, roughly equal to the past seven years of murders in New York City. A total of about 1,300 police officers, insurgents and coalition soldiers were also killed in that month.

The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan...
The archive tells thousands of individual stories of loss whose consequences are still being felt in Iraqi families today. (NYT)
I just don't know what else to say at this point. Bogus invasion genocidal catalyzing civil war; 100,000+ civilian deaths; over 4000 US deaths; massive infrastructural destruction; a cost estimated to be in the range of $2.4-3 trillion+ to the US alone; and Iran ends up gifted a victory by the US in the end, if "victory" even makes any sense....

And note this lovely item at the end of the linked article:
Civilians have borne the brunt of modern warfare, with 10 civilians dying for every soldier in wars fought since the mid-20th century, compared with 9 soldiers killed for every civilian in World War I, according to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Smart bombs and counterinsurgency, my ass. I'd stress that these people are incompetent if it were possible to look past the basic evil of such a drastic rise in the deaths of non-combatants.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bits and Pieces - October 22, 2010

A message for Ginni Thomas's answering machine.

Can John Roberts rise above party affiliation?

98% of the money donated to Bibi Netanyahu for his 2007 Likud primary campaign came from abroad, mostly the US.

A story about one of my favorite people, Bob Bussard. Bob hired me when I was persona non grata with much of the Los Alamos management. "I'd rather have someone like you working for me rather than against me," he said.

The airborne laser still doesn't work.

Privatizing the National Parks

Laura Huggins of the Hoover Institution proposes that more privatization will help the national parks. She's not proposing full-up privatization, just a few market-based ideas:
expanding the Fee Demonstration Program, which ensures that revenue generated by fees at certain parks be kept in those parks rather than sent back to the federal Treasury; contracting out more concession services (which has a proven track record in some of California's state parks); and engaging in benefits-sharing agreements, in which national parks reap some of the profits from businesses that do research in the parks with an eye on commercial opportunities.
Her presentation seems almost diffident; perhaps she is aware of a larger initiative to privatize a national park that is failing.

When the Baca Ranch, which comprised a great deal of the Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, came up for sale in 2000, the US government bought it, but declined to place it in the National Park system. Rather, a special trust was formed to manage the property, to become profitable in 2015, as a good capitalist privatized government investment should.

It's becoming clear that that isn't going to happen, and the management of the property has been contentious from the start. Access to the public has been extremely limited, and none of the accouterments that the public has become accustomed to in national parks are present, like a Visitors Center.

So this year, both of New Mexico's senators introduced legislation to transfer the Valles Caldera Preserve to the National Park Service. The legislation seems to have joined so much other legislation in the Senatorial limbo, probably because both New Mexico senators are Democrats, so there must be something Fascist-Socialist about this plot.

Perhaps Huggins's more modest suggestions would have some effect. The privately-operated Valles Grande website is much more informative about the area than the website of the (sort of) privately-run trust. Although I doubt that either comes up to the gold standard of making money. So this part of my evidence is not definitive.

Or perhaps we could see the national parks as a good for the nation: the protection of a part of the continent as it once was, the maintenance of ecosystems, the availability of outdoor recreation for those who use it and those who may use it in the future. Sounds like one of those collective goods that taxes support.

It Gets Better

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have now contributed videos to Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign.

Good going, Dan! They're up to ten million video views now. We won't ever know the number of lives saved, but I'm betting it's a significant number.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just Wondering

Kevin Drum is wondering why the media pays so much attention to Christine O'Donnell.

Could it be that they can't find anything better to do, as usual?

And could it be that it's because she's kind of cute and it gives them an excuse to look at her boobs?

A scientific answer to that second question would require counting how many of the stories are by men. Or, I guess, lesbians.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bits and Pieces - October 19, 2010

Roger Cohen gets it right: The Return of ‘Los 33’
The real Chilean “miracle” was man-made. It lay in the redemptive solidarity displayed — below ground, by rescuers at the site and on a global level — at a time of shrieking polarization in the United States, rampant self-obsession and persistent division.
I thought about writing a post along those lines. Cohen gets a bit woo-woo in the beginning of the op-ed, but his finish is just right. The miners and the rescuers were able to focus on the immense problem facing them and worked singlemindedly toward a solution. We've got enough problems just now that one might think our country could do the same.

The biggest US nuclear weapons have been taken out of the stockpile and are being dismantled.

The Iran Primer. In keeping with this week's overwork, I haven't read any of this yet, but the author list is impressive. Looks like a good reference.

Russia and the United States present a resolution supporting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the United Nations. Let's see if we can do better than India.

Breaking: Republican tells the truth!

India Makes Nice Before Obama's Visit

The German foreign minister thinks that India is showing signs of being willing to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Well, good luck with that. India frequently makes nice noises on such issues, or individuals within the government politely allow the rest of the world to believe such things, but then the Indian Parliament actually votes, and the result is something else.

Dan Yurman gives a good summary of India's other recent nuclear activities. Thanks, Dan, my busy week continues.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Notes Toward a Post To Be Written

One of the things I'd like to write about is our changing concepts of secrecy. Here's today's post that reminded me of that. It's only one.

There's much wringing of hands about what we're giving away at FaceBook, and what Mark Zukerberg would like to do with it. The latest flap seems to be that playing Farmville and Mafia Wars open you up to having your personal information sold. Well, duh! I've clicked on any number of things that friends posted that looked like fun, and the first thing I've hit is a box that says something like "You must agree to make all your information available to anyone we choose." So I've missed all those surveys.

And I have removed all notifications about Farmville and Mafia Wars from my news stream. I do get the occasional chuckle from rants like "I have killed all your animals and burnt all your crops." Shades of the Mongol invasions of Europe.

But the real questions about secrecy go much deeper. The Bob Woodward syndrome, which Emptywheel cites in that post I've linked, is a start. Those in power can leak what they want, but others in government can't. We're moving toward a more egalitarian society, and some of the younger people coming into government are going to see this as inappropriate. Heck, I see it as inappropriate. There are (or, perhaps, were) good reasons for keeping some things secret. Then bureaucrats and politicians alike started using classification more and more to hide their mistakes or to put barriers in the way of their rivals. All of which degrades motivation to keep things secret and, more fundamentally, muddies up thinking on what really, truly needs to be secret.

And the younger generation just sees a lot of this differently. A younger relative tweeted me an apology for not linking to a post recently, for everyone to see. Probably fewer photos of drunken parties are being posted lately, but even the prohibition against such things is going to weaken, just as the prohibition against politicians' marijuana use has weakened, as more of those realistic young people come into public life.

So what does that mean for the "real" secrets? And they do exist. Detailed instructions for building nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Bits and pieces are on the internet, but I doubt that it's all there. Maybe that is just a matter of time. Diplomatic negotiations and war plans. Both subject to time constraints, so perhaps their secrecy can last long enough for them to be effective. Less important to a broad public are industrial secrets - how to make various things work, the formula for Coca-Cola, stuff like that. And on down the hierarchy is personal stuff. People are still going to be doing things that they don't want others to know about.

I'm mostly interested in the strategic things. I'm convinced that we could use more transparency than we've got now, but there are some things I'd really rather not see on the internet.

This is just a preliminary set of thoughts. It's an awfully busy week this week, but I've been thinking about this for a long time.

Quote of the Day

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything from the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the bbest, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods...If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Those Old Diacritical Marks

The stylebook of the New York Times seems to advise against using diacritical marks, even when they're part of someone's name. But it would be hard to write an article about Arvo Pärt without that ä. However, as part of the article, the conductor Neemi Järvi and the composer Erkki-Sven Tüür rate only an a and us.

Unlike the Germans, who refer to those two dots as an umlaut and see them as modifying the (literally) underlying letter, the Estonians (at least the ones I've talked to about this) see ä as a different letter from a, and therefore don't seem to have a name for those two dots. "(pronounced PAIRT)" - well, not too bad, NYT, but you have to roll that r just a bit, and the P is aspirated less than we Americans do.

It's a pretty good article, although marred by the usual US overbroad characterizations of the countries that once were part of the Soviet Union and the reporter's failure to recognize the wealth of musical composition that Estonia offers.

Plus the Times has done some wonderfully self-referential thing that makes it awfully hard to copy from its articles. Maybe those responsible thought that an article about a composer from such a strange country with such a strange name needed a lot more information from the Times. Or maybe they are defacing all their articles this way in an effort to incorporate the wonders of the Web.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Quote of the Day

Serious Republicans led us into Iraq. Serious Republicans made the Citizens United ruling. Serious Republicans along with serious Democrats oversaw the financial meltdown. If Republicans succeed in destroying our society, they will do it with seriousness, not with anti-masturbation campaigns and reality tv shows.
DougJ at Balloon Juice


Friday, October 15, 2010

Quote of the Day

Eugene Robinson:
Okay, I want to make sure I understand. Two years ago, with the nation facing a host of complex and difficult problems, voters put a bunch of thoughtful, well-educated people in charge of the government. Now many of those same voters, unhappy and impatient, have decided that things will get better if some crazy, ignorant people are running the show? Seriously?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of J.P. Morgan Chase:
On the J.P. Morgan Chase earnings call, Dimon promised that there was “almost no chance we made a mistake” with foreclosures.
I'm looking forward to seeing that quote in a new context some months down the road.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Miners Are Free

A very, very good day.

Here's the Los Angeles Times story. As I post this, they haven't quite caught up.

What Journalists Don't Tell Us

Mostly, what they don't have the wit to ask. Here's an example.

I thought I wrote something about this New York Times article on a possible explanation for colony collapse disorder, which is killing bees. But apparently I didn't.

A group of scientists led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula, along with some Army scientists, found both a fungus and a virus in dead bees, leading to the suspicion that the combination of the two is the cause of colony collapse. The article is a bit better than the average science article of this type, because it does qualify the finding a bit, although someone skimming the article might well conclude that the cause of colony collapse disorder had been found.

But it turns out that Bromenshenk has a grant from Bayer AG, the manufacturer of pesticides that might be associated with colony collapse disorder. And that funding just happened to come at a time when Bromenshenk had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer. Bromenshenk also has a company of his own that might profit from finding that disease, not pesticides, are the cause of colony collapse disorder. The Times reporter, Kirk Johnson, appears to have expected Bromenshenk to have told him these things.

Scientists can be horrendously naive about conflicts of interest. To some degree, their naivete is justified: they manage to do good work anyway, and Bromenshenk's findings may well stand up.

In an ideal world, the funding would come from sources that don't have something to prove. That would mainly be the government. But some long time ago, we became convinced as a society that funding from private companies, and assigning intellectual property to them, would be a good thing for the universities. So situations like Bromenshenk's become more likely. Yes, the university's administration should be watching for conflicts of interest, and so should the scientists. But, as I say, scientists are famously naive about such things, and, unfortunately, the prospect of funding tends to blind the administration.

And, um, reporters are supposed to be watchdogs, too, but I guess they may well have bought into the idea that the conflicts of interest involved in industry funding of research are purely illusory. Not even worth thinking about.

Mirror, Mirror

India has not joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because, well...

From early on in the development of the treaty, India objected to the two-tier nature of it: five acceptable nuclear states, who just happen to be the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and no nukes for anyone else. There are at least two ways to look at that disparity: stopping the spread of nuclear weapons where it was in the early 1960s, when the treaty was being developed, or that if some have the right to nuclear weapons, all must have the right to them.

Indian rhetoric slides from one to the other, as does the rhetoric of some who claim to be for no nukes. Indian reality is that it has a fully functioning nuclear weapons industry that has turned out something in the vicinity of a hundred nuclear weapons.

India has some of the geographical characteristics of an island: protective ocean to the south and protective mountains to the north, but unfriendly Pakistan to the west and needy Bangladesh to the east. This is somewhat like the United States: protective oceans to the east and west, and reasonably friendly Canada and Mexico at the other borders.

India has been unhappy with being excluded from nuclear trade by its choice to remain outside the NPT, and the Bush adminstration decided that India was a valuable enough trade partner (for jet aircraft and other military appurtenances, anyway) that it would lift that exclusion. Its rhetoric slid from encouraging India in its nonproliferation duties to improving the economics of the US nuclear industry. The reality of the agreement reached was very little additional safeguarding of India's nuclear establishment and opening up India's nuclear trade to all.

India's internal politics almost scuttled the deal the first time around; nationalistic elements wanted less scrutiny and more control over trade than might reasonably be expected. Now internal politics have again triumphed over the realities of international trade. India's parliament has passed a bill requiring that foreign firms working in India assume higher levels of liability than most companies are willing to.

That parliamentary concern arises from India's experience with Union Carbide's chemical disaster at Bhopal in 1984.

There are other issues, too, that India would like settled to its preferences while offering nothing in return. A Newsweek article summarizes them in advance of President Obama's visit to India in November.

We might consider, in that other almost-island nation, the overreactions to the events of September 11, 2001, and how the congress of that nation continues to work its internal concerns, ignoring how their actions may look to the rest of the world or how they may affect relations with others.

The tone of the Newsweek article partly echoes that insularity of the nation for which it is primarily written: India must pull up its socks!

The difference between the two nations, of course, is money and power. India has been steadfast in its views for quite some time.

Miners Links

News Stories: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post.

The New York Times has a couple of interactive features: posting the men's photos as they emerge, and how the rescue works.

Probably the most important: the men's unity and cooperation. I hope to write more about this later.

Update (12:50 pm EDT): Looks like they are checking out the door on the capsule. One of the things I am impressed with on this operation is that they are pretty good on the safety and procedural aspects. You can quibble about hard hats falling off the relatives, but overall my sense is that they have procedures for the capsule that they are conscientiously following. This accounts for the seeming delays on getting the men into and out of the capsule: straps and connectors are fastened and unfastened and stuff is double-checked. So they found something not quite in order about how the door fastens and are fixing it.

Update (1:40 EDT): They've got it going again, with another miner on his way to the top.

Chilean Miners Day

By some sort of arbitrarily selected power vested in me, I do hereby declare today, October 13th, to be Chilean Miners Day at Phronesisaical.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010


X-ism's Critical Illiteracy

This discussion at Non Sequitur strikes me as a basic summary of the pattern of current policy discussions in the US (to the extent there are any genuine policy discussions at all). At its most insidious, it's framed in the rhetoric of opinion, I think, as I was discussing in this post on "Untrying" a few weeks ago. In general, any time there's a discussion where X-isms like "conservative"or "liberal"or "Christian" are used freely it's probably a good idea to be wary of the ways in which they serve as heuristic black boxes. I don't think we can take for granted any more that this is just a matter of shorthand efficiency in policy discussions.
When addressed with the question whether X or Y is better, any reasonable person answering the question should be capable of two speech acts: (1) a determination of X or Y, and (2) producing a reason why that choice is a good one. Often we just allow folks to just to perform (1), and we let them keep their reasons for themselves. But its in the reasons that we find all sorts of interesting things, and we may, ourselves, learn something about X or Y. Importantly, those reasons should be about X or Y, what properties they have, maybe their history, what about X or Y appeals to you.

Here's a kind of reason that fails that requirement: I'm the kind of person who always chooses X. Or, I was brought up choosing X. Or, if X was good enough for my parents, X is good enough for me. Now, those reasons are pretty weak — they amount to the concession that X and Y aren't objectively any better than one another, but because of the contingencies of history, I've ended up an X-ist. Since it's just trouble to end up changing, I'll stay one. Again, that's a reason, but a very weak one. And one that, again, concedes that there's not much relevant difference between the two. Ad populum arguments and those from tradition need not be fallacious, but even in their non-fallacious forms, they still aren't very good. They, really, aren't answers to the question. The question was which was better, not which you choose.

Afghanistan Partition?

“Why does Afghanistan exist?” The country contains about a dozen ethnic groups, whose distribution is shown here in simplified form. There is no coast to attract people and trade. One should also bear in mind Afghanistan’s tribal divisions, particularly within the Pashtun ethnic group, which is split into numerous clans and smaller descent groups. These are too complex for a cartographer to suggest...

If, as seems likely, President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy comes unstuck over the coming months, more voices are likely to be raised in favour of partition. This is what Robert D. Blackwill, a deputy national security adviser during the presidency of George W. Bush, proposed this summer, and he repeated his message when he addressed the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London on September 13. Blackwill’s idea is that an unruly south may be quarantined from the north, where, as he observes, “locals are largely sympathetic to US efforts,” and that a deal needs to be made with the Taliban “in which neither side seeks to enlarge its territory.”

Among other pitfalls, Blackwill anticipates “pockets” of “fifth column” Pashtuns in the north and west. In fact, as our map shows, Pashtuns are found in quite big swathes outside their southern heartland; to relocate them would require ethnic cleansing. Blackwill also assumes that resistance to the US is confined to Pashtuns, when all the evidence suggests that anti-Americanism is now widespread among all ethnic groups. The effect of partition would not be to isolate the most unstable parts of the country, but to unite Afghans of different backgrounds around the goal of re-unification.
From NYRBlog.

American University, Iraq

A tale of the establishment of American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniya. Funny, sad, and fascinating.
AUIS bloomed in the Northern Iraqi desert, a very artificial growth sustained hydroponically with US tax dollars. One night, at a very boozy faculty party, some veteran AUIS teachers told us the secret story of how the place was created. They claimed that AUIS was born when John Agresto, a right-wing academic and vassal of the Cheney clan, drove over the Turkish border with $500,000 cash taped to his body. There was something grotesque about this legend, because Agresto is a notably fat man, and once you’d heard the legend of his cash-strapped trip across the border, you couldn’t help imagining him bulging with cash on top of his other bulges, like a wombat infested with botfly larvae...

There was an even bigger problem with fulfilling our messianic mission: the faculty. We were not an impressive bunch. There were good teachers at AUIS — I won’t name them, because praise from me might get them fired–but they survived by lying low; being bright and a good teacher made you suspect in a place where center stage was firmly occupied by a clique of loud, provincial rightwing nuts. In this sense, AUIS was an excellent microcosm of the American polity that had produced it: the best lacked all conviction, while the worst (with apologies to Yeats) raked in the cash and talked nonsense...

There was a clear, simple formula for success at AUIS: be a Southern white male Republican with a talent for flattery, an undistinguished academic record, and very little experience in university-level teaching...

The man Agresto hired to teach American History makes a perfect Exhibit A in any list of what’s wrong with AUIS. The first sign that he was not exactly committed to intellectual integrity was his choice of textbook for the course: an abominable book called America: The Last Best Hope, by William Bennett. Yes, THE William Bennett, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, the buffoon who sermonized on virtue until his gambling losses added up so high that they drowned out his pomposities, the man who once scolded a child in public for wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt.

Bennett’s title sums up the thesis of his textbook clearly: America is literally, simply, the last and best hope for the human species. Tough luck, China — or Burma, or Ecuador, or any other nation on the planet — because we R it, the alpha and omega. It’s a classic reactionary thesis: “I can’t imagine any nation ever being as great as America; therefore no nation ever will be.” Argument by lack of imagination — a favorite among opponents of evolution, biological or historical.

The Tragedy of Denial

Ron Brownstein pointed out, over the weekend, that the Republican party is almost unique among major political parties across the world in its overwhelming skepticism of the science of global warming...

We’re not talking about a nuanced, Jim Manzi-argument in favor of a recognition of the science but inaction on the policy. If that were the median GOP position, a bill much tougher than any placed on the table would have flown through Congress. No, it’s far worse than that. No GOP leader of consequence is able to make and sustain the argument that climate change is occurring as the scientists say it is. That’s remarkable! Imagine the world’s major powers sitting down in the early 20th century to negotiate a treaty on the law of the sea, only to have one of America’s major political parties vow to defeat any settlement, on the grounds that the world is in fact flat.

This is an immense tragedy, for America, but especially for the rest of the world. I recognize that Democrats are no angels on this subject. Politics is politics, and no one is going to line up to accept painful sacrifices. I accept that in a world in which Republicans do believe in global warming, it would still be nearly impossible to pass a carbon price sufficient to slow and eventually halt warming. But that’s not the only option out there. It could still be possible to price carbon sufficiently to cut off the possibility of extreme tail events (some of them anyway). It would still be possible to invest in some new green technologies and some crucial adaptation plans. It would still be possible to strike a meaningful international deal on emissions, general mitigation strategies, and contingent plans for extreme weather events. We can’t even debate these options, because half of the people who matter in Washington are committed to denial of the basic facts.

We are sowing the seeds of catastrophe. I keep thinking that at some point, a conservative of conscience will take a stand and force the GOP to do some soul searching on this issue. There are hundreds of millions of lives depending on the decisions the American government makes. Surely some Republican of some importance values those lives over short-term political gain!
The Bellows (via).

Update note: I had added what I thought was an editorial correction (the "not" in brackets) to the above sentence: "No GOP leader of consequence is able to make and sustain the argument that climate change is [not] occurring as the scientists say it is." But rereading the sentence, I think the edit was probably incorrect, so I've returned it to the original sentence. Implicit in the original sentence is the thought that there are Republicans who would make the case for tackling climate change, if only their party would allow it, but they are instead cowed into silence. Lindsey Graham is the prime example. My correction had changed the meaning of the sentence to something along the lines of no Republicans being able to make a strong case against the existence of climate change but denying it anyway. Avent's sentence is more generous.

Monday, October 11, 2010

It Must Be the Cupholders

From Barking up the Wrong Tree, the question, "What kind of car is most likely to get broken into by a hungry bear?":
Black bears (Ursus americanus) forage selectively in natural environments. To determine if bears also forage selectively for anthropogenic resources we analyzed data on vehicles broken into by bears from Yosemite National Park, California. We classified vehicles into 9 categories based on their make and model and collected data on use (2001–2007) and availability (2004–2005). From 2001 to 2007 bears broke into 908 vehicles at the following rates: minivan (26.0%), sport–utility vehicle (22.5%), small car (17.1%), sedan (13.7%), truck (11.9%), van (4.2%), sports car (1.7%), coupe (1.7%), and station wagon (1.4%). Only use of minivans (29%) during 2004–2005 was significantly higher than expected (7%). We discuss several competing hypotheses about why bears selected minivans.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bits and Pieces - Not in the News Edition

Or at least, not enough in the news.

If the Republicans take Congress, look for a war on science.

A judge has ruled that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate (the requirement for people to buy health insurance) is constitutional. And Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon questions the sincerity of the challenges. Don't expect that to slow down the Republicans.

Germany has only just this week finished paying reparations for World War I. It was those reparations that Hitler used as reasons for Germany to try to take over Europe. As John Quiggin notes, we seem to be progressing slightly in our thinking on such things.

The cause of honeybee colony collapse may have been found.

It's a New Day

We've been having some lovely sunrises this week. This is Tuesday's:

Today's was similar, not as good with the clouds, but a double rainbow to the west.

The Sludge Reaches the Danube

and it turns out, once again, that dilution is the solution to pollution, as I said yesterday.

I'm not endorsing that idea as a policy for waste management, just pointing out that it does work if you're not overloading the system.

One of the things that seems to be understood poorly by the media and many others is that concentration matters. For the caustic qualities of that sludge in particular, dilution helps.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Why I Don't Write About Bob Woodward

Mark Ambinder explains by example.

And if that's not enough for you, there are more links and commentary here.

I mean, how many times can someone come up with that business about Hillary Clinton replacing Joe Biden as Vice President in 2012?

More on That Hungarian Sludge

The Armchair Generalist has more about what's in the sludge than I've seen elsewhere.

The New York Times confirmed something I suspected: the ponds date from Soviet times. The Soviet disregard for the environment even exceeds that of capitalists, which proves the wisdom of the proverb, "Choose your enemies wisely, for you shall become like them."

The sludge is approaching the Danube River. The good thing is that as it gets into the rivers, dilution makes it less dangerous, although it's going to take a lot of dilution, and the heavy metals will add to the load already in the Danube and its tributaries.

Quote of the Day

The Armchair Generalist:
I personally hope that Venezuela and Burma continue to pour millions into nuclear weapons research. That will mean much less money will be invested in more effective and useful conventional military weapons as they waste time and money into a capability that they will never be able to develop.
I've said the same thing about laser isotope separation in particular.

Unfortunately, the money will also come from accounts that could finance civilian infrastructure, education, and other good things. But the search for the unattainable will still occupy a country's scientists and divert them from other weapons.

Speaking of which, we might consider the neocon penchant for missile defense and the nonexistent electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat and what they are doing to divert US funds that are needed elsewhere.


Discovery in Itself

From The .Plan (originally here):
... I have to say, though, that I’m always very skeptical about applications. When someone asks about applications in my talks, I usually tell a story about how I was on a boat one day watching dolphins, and they were jumping out of the water, allowing people to nearly touch them. Everyone was mesmerized by these magnificent creatures. It was an extraordinary romantic moment—well, until a little boy shouted out, "Mom, can we eat them?" It's a similar matter here—as in, okay, we just found this extraordinary material, so we're enjoying this romantic moment, and now people are asking if we can eat it or not. Probably we can, but you have to step back and enjoy the moment first.
--2010 physics Nobel laureate Andre Geim, in a 2008 ScienceWatch interview, on preserving the romance of discovery.

Civil Society and the Expert Class

Peter Levine mulls over the professionalization of governance concentrated in a segment of the population and its effects on democratic voice.
Theda Skocpol notes that traditional fraternal associations like the Lions and the Elks, which once gathered people at the local level who were diverse in terms of class and occupation (although segregated by race and gender), have lost their college-educated members. But non-college-educated or working class people remain just as likely to join these groups. It is not so much that working-class people have left civic groups, but that professionals have left them--moving from economically diverse local associations to specialized organizations for their own professions and industries.

The proportion of all Americans who are professionals or managers has roughly doubled since the 1950s. That is a benign shift in our workforce, reflecting better education and more interesting jobs. It largely explains why highly educated specialists have become more numerous in meetings. They bring sophistication and expertise to community affairs. Still, two thirds of people do not classify themselves as professional or managers, and it important for their values and interests to be represented. The steep decline in traditional civil society leaves them poorly represented, to their cost and to the detriment of public deliberation.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Sam Zell Culture

This article has been bothering me all day. It's the story of how Sam Zell tried to change the culture at the Tribune Company, parent company of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers, after he bought it.

Apparently he felt that installing a juvenile and sexist bunch of executives would solve the daunting problems that newspapers are facing. It's hard not to wonder what he was thinking.

Perhaps it was something like this: just unleash those red-blooded men, and they'll fix all that stuff. To which one has to wonder what he expected they'd do, beyond trying to bribe waitresses to show their boobs.

The Times article has a photo of the executives, all men of a certain age, which Mr. Zell exceeds. They live in a world that is gone forever.
“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”
This executive must be younger if he has never seen anything like it.

I'm just back from one of my periodic forays into the college world. I love it that the students are showing so many characteristics that some of us dreamed of when I was in college. In particular, they expect that people will be treated equally and don't understand why gender and skin color and speaking with an accent might be a basis for anything else.

Sam Zell and his executives are of a generation in which gender and skin color and speaking with an accent are markers for derision and a way to cause explosive laughter in one's peers (white males, of course), particularly while drinking or developing pranks to undermine those carrying the unfortunate markers. So there must have been horror and disbelief when the employee handbook told them that, hey, they just needed to be able to take a joke!
“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”
Of course, there is an implied division between the "you" who doesn't consider the joke funny and those who revel in a "loose, fun [that word again], nonlinear atmosphere." And the implication is that "your" point of view doesn't count. Obvious now, not so much to the Mad Men.

What puzzles me, though, is how anyone thought that this sort of behavior, which might be called juvenile except that our current-day juveniles probably wouldn't find it all that much fun past middle school, would improve things. Or what the plan was to deal with the real problems that newspapers face. An open atmosphere for the old white guys would boost their creativity and they'd find the answers? After their track record of bringing newspapers to where they are today?
“Anybody can make money when you are not servicing the debt and cutting people. Zell and the people he brought in had no idea what they were doing.”
Well, yeah. Sounds like some of the bright ideas that our financial wizards had that brought down the economy, although less sophisticated.

So was it a rich guy and his friends just having a little fun, fiddling while Rome burned, or did Zell and his crew really believe this was going to improve things?

Quote of the Day

Ezra Klein:
You don't need good ideas to win. But you do need them to govern.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Bits and Pieces - October 5, 2010

Something happening in North Korea.

After all that hoo-ha about Stuxnet being an Israeli/US creation designed to take down Iranian nuclear sites, we really don't know any of that or much about its origin.

A scary and dangerous mess in Hungary. It's what could have happened in Sillamäe, although the mess would have spilled into the Baltic Sea, not the town. Fortunately, the Estonians stabilized that horribly engineered (probably not engineered at all) dam and constructed an engineered cover over the tailings. Now it's a port. One of the things I'm proud to have participated in. (h/t to Plutonium Page) Update: photos from Hungary.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Bits and Pieces - October 4, 2010

Teh Stupid Division: We did such a great job on our inadvertent experiment of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, let's see what else we can f*** up. Update: Russia's thinking big too.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. I don't understand what the people who issued the terror alert for Europe hope to accomplish if they won't say what the danger is.

Today's news not in the MSM: China's lunar mission.

Not so much in the MSM: terror trial in New York. Odd juxtaposition (or nonjuxtaposition) with the encouragement to be very afraid.

Student Brutality Division: The American West and Gin and Tacos on Tyler Clementi's suicide and potential punishment of his harassers.

Watch as the Supreme Court makes the law disappear.

Good News Division (yes, there is some!): Ptolemy's map of Germania deciphered.

Americans don't want to go to war with Iran.

Evolution among the trilobites.
The take-home message isn't that trilobites are cool (they are), but that this brings out a very important point about evolution, and a good refutation of the old creationist canard, "if evolution is true where are the half-way transitionals? The half reptile-half bird?"

What these results show, is that evolution doesn't happen to all features at the same time, or at the same rate, producing a neat half-and-half transitional form. Some features change relatively rapidly (the expansion of the frontal glabella), some features change relatively slowly (head width to length ratio), and some don't change at all (the distance from the back of the eye to axial furrow distance as a ratio of head length). So there isn't a transitional which has all features exactly half way between the ancestral and descendant forms. What we find are transitionals with a mix of features depending on the rates at which those features are changing. We should not expect to find exact half-and-half transitionals. Evolution doesn't work that way.
The Russians continue to be willing to talk about joint missile defense.

Too good not to embed:

I have a confession and apology to make. I get some of the "Bits and Pieces" links from my friends on Twitter and Facebook, as well as from their blogs. But all that is beginning to run together, so I'm not as conscientious about giving credit as I used to be. And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I'm @cherylrofer.

Libertarianism in Action

[I]n Obion County, Tennessee..., Gene Cranick’s home caught on fire. As the Cranicks fled their home, their neighbors alerted the county’s firefighters, who soon arrived at the scene. Yet when the firefighters arrived, they refused to put out the fire, saying that the family failed to pay the annual subscription fee to the fire department. Because the county’s fire services for rural residences is based on household subscription fees, the firefighters, fully equipped to help the Cranicks, stood by and watched as the home burned to the ground[.]
This, of course, is one of the examples liberals give (and Benjamin Franklin recognized) of why some services should be provided by government and paid for by the community. But I guess those folks in Tennessee prefer their libertarianism straight.

Quote of the Day

Paul Krugman:
So the Ministry of Propaganda has, in effect, seized control of the Politburo.

Good Food

Some of you might be interested in this Nobel conference coming up on October 5th and 6th. The Nobel 46 event focuses on the question of what makes food good via "ethical, agroecological, physiological, economic, and aesthetic conceptions of 'good'." The conference can be followed live on the website. If you have limited time, try at least to follow Paul Thompson's talk.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Peach Palm Fruit

Bits & Pieces - Helmut Edition

The Ig Nobels. My favorites:
Physics: Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, "for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes." (Paper: "Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention," New Zealand Medical Journal, July 3, 2009.)

Public health: Manuel S. Barbeito, Charles T. Mathews, and Larry A. Taylor of the Industrial Health and Safety Office, Fort Detrick, Md., "for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists." (Paper: "Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men," Applied Microbiology, July 1967.)

Ben Franklin's tips for nonprofit development and fundraising.

Monkey guards on patrol at the Commonwealth Games.

Snow White is 200 years old. (via)