Archive for July 29th, 2008
Bombing civilians for some reason makes them turn against you. ThinkProgress:
According to statistics provided in a new report from the United States Institute of Peace, the use of air power in Afghanistan by U.S. and NATO allies has increased from 5,000 pounds of munitions per month in 2005 to 168,000 pounds in December, 2007. The result is that “civilian casualties increased by 62 [percent] in 2008, compared to figures from the first six months of 2007.” The report says the increase in air power is a result of a shortage of troops and suggests that the resulting increase in casualties is “a key reason for the Taliban comeback”:
Stabilizing Afghanistan requires the support of the Afghan people. This presents a fundamental dilemma in that stability requires security, and security requires targeting insurgents, which, in turn invariably leads to civilian deaths. These civilian casualties have led to the erosion of civilian support for the counter-insurgency.
Troop levels in Afghanistan have been insufficient given the geographic and demographic scope of the challenge, resulting in increased reliance on air power as a substitute for ground forces.
Very interesting article by Michael Dorf. It begins:
Last week, California became the first State in the Union to ban trans fats in foods sold in restaurants. With the ban, which is set to go into effect in 2010, California joins New York City and a handful of other jurisdictions that forbid trans fats.
Critics of the ban will no doubt decry it as one more example of “nanny state” excesses. Proponents, by contrast, will point to the positive health effects for the millions of people—including minors, who cannot be expected to make responsible nutrition choices—in the nation’s most populous state.
In this column, however, I will put to one side the question of whether the trans fat ban is wise social policy, in order to consider a broader phenomenon that the ban represents: the impossibility of following the Framers’ original vision of federalism in a highly-integrated national economy.
American Federalism, From Thomas Jefferson to Clarence Thomas
To understand how California’s trans fat ban challenges traditional notions of federalism, we must begin with those traditional notions. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution enumerates most of the powers of Congress, while the Tenth Amendment reserves to the States those powers not enumerated. This division of labor has sometimes been called “dual sovereignty” to express the idea that, depending on the subject matter, sovereignty will reside either in the national government, or the state governments.
Yet from the very earliest days of the Republic, federal power threatened to swallow that of the States. President George Washington asked two of his ministers, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, to prepare competing memoranda on the constitutionality of a proposed Bank of the United States. Hamilton, an ardent nationalist, thought that the power to create the Bank could be inferred from the powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8, even though no express power to create a national Bank was included in the Constitution. Jefferson, in contrast, thought the Bank was unconstitutional. He foresaw that permitting implied powers in the way that Hamilton favored would logically lead to a virtually omnipotent federal government.
Hamilton won the argument in the Washington Administration and, ultimately, in the Supreme Court. When the issue finally reached the Court in 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall repeated most of Hamilton’s analysis en route to upholding the Second Bank of the United States in McCulloch v. Maryland.
Yet Jefferson’s anxieties were never fully expurgated. …
There’s a group of people who consistently deny that secondhand smoke is harmful, regardless of any studies to the contrary. Here’s another study they’ll have to deny, reported by Kelli Miller Stacy in WebMD:
Nonsmokers who are married to someone who smokes have a greatly increased risk for stroke, a finding that further underscores the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Researchers reporting in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine say the risk varies depending on whether the nonsmoking spouse has smoked in the past.
Secondhand smoke makes a person more likely to develop heart disease, but until now, few studies have linked such exposure to stroke risk. One trial suggested that a husband’s smoking increased a wife’s chances for a stroke, but only if the woman also smoked.
For the current study, M. Maria Glymour, ScD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues looked at the smoking habits of the spouses of more than 16,000 stroke-free married adults aged 50 and older who were enrolled in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).
The study only evaluated cigarette use, not cigars or pipe tobacco. Researchers followed the participants for about nine years to document the occurrence of first stroke. During the study period, there were 1,130 first strokes reported.
Being married to a current smoker increased the risk of a first stroke by 42% among those who never smoked.
The risk of stroke was higher for former smokers who were married to current smokers. Former smokers who had a smoking spouse had a 72% increased risk for stroke compared with those who were married to a never-smoker.
The good news, researchers say, is the risk can be cut if the spouse kicks the habit. Participants who had never smoked and who were married to a former smoker had nearly the same stroke risk as never-smokers married to never-smokers.
“These findings indicate that spousal smoking increases stroke risk among nonsmokers and former smokers. The health benefits of quitting smoking likely extend beyond individual smokers to affect their spouses, potentially multiplying the benefits of smoking cessation,” Glymour writes in the journal article.
Businesses and professional arbitraters like it, but no one else does. David Arkush, Taylor Lincoln, and Peter Gosselar on The Watchdog Blog:
Last November, Public Citizen released “The Arbitration Trap,” a scathing report exposing the one-sided nature of “justice” for consumers trapped by the National Arbitration Forum. The report inspired a lawsuit against the NAF by the city of San Francisco (WSJ[$], Watchdog Blog) and an in-depth examination of the practice by BusinessWeek (previous Watchdog Blog coverage here, Watchdog Blog’s analysis of NAF’s response to the article here).
“The Arbitration Trap” also prompted the Chamber of Commerce to commission a Catholic University law professor, Peter B. Rutledge, to write an official response. The Chamber also gave Rutledge financial support for a law review article in which he reviews empirical evidence on arbitration. These papers claimed that the broad sweep of serious academic research shows that our report was just plain wrong – “both on the facts and in its ultimate conclusions.”
We decided to check up on these academic papers. And – guess what? – it turns out that Rutledge and Co. don’t quite have the goods to back up their talk. In fact, their own sources don’t support their claims. Not a single comparative study Rutledge cites showed that individuals received larger average awards in arbitration than court. On other measures, the studies favored court overwhelmingly.
On alleged arbitrator bias, secrecy, confidentiality, appeal mechanisms, arbitrators’ adherence to the law and their own rules, and the ability of claimants to research arbitrators’ backgrounds, Rutledge offered assurances that our complaints were conjured out of thin air.
We decided to check up on Rutledge’s claims – starting with a thorough reading of Rutledge’s own past scholarship. And behold. On alleged arbitrator bias, secrecy, confidentiality, appeal mechanisms, arbitrators’ adherence to the law, arbitrators’ adherence to their own rules, and the ability of claimants to research arbitrators’ backgrounds, we found a new star witness: Rutledge himself voiced many of our concerns in his previous writings.
Yes, Rutledge recently said it was a myth that arbitrators have incentives to favor businesses. But before conceding the argument, we opened up a paper Rutledge wrote in 2004. The words poured out, “[arbitrators] who may seek to develop reputations for being friendly to particular parties or particular industries may actually have incentives that cut against independence.”
Maybe. Take a look. The post at the link begins:
On July 20th, Julianna’s (delayed) Delta flight landed in Atlanta at 7:30pm, with a connecting flight scheduled for 8:05pm. Julianna, who has muscular dystrophy, missed the connecting flight because nobody came with a wheelchair until 8:05—the same time the connecting flight took off. To make matters worse, the plane crew told Julianna she might make the flight anyway if she stopped waiting for help and got off the plane right now, so she crawled down the stairs on her own. When the wheelchair came she was “wheeled into a back room and advised” that her plane had taken off. But that was just the first half of her ordeal, and the next eight hours only got worse.
Read the whole story at the link.
In part, because some people do not like reason. The New Scientist has a special section this time:
Seven reasons why people hate reason
Special Report from New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
Linguist Noam Chomsky talks about reason and exaggerated claims. Watch the full-size video
Penrose talks about when we need to sidestep reason. Watch the full-size video
Bioethicist Tom Shakespeare talks about why reason doesn’t tell a good story. Watch the full-size video
From religious fundamentalism to pseudoscience, it seems that forces are attacking the Enlightenment world view – characterised by rational, scientific thinking – from all sides. The debate seems black and white: you’re either with reason, or you’re against it. But is it so simple? In a series of special essays, our contributors look more carefully at some of the most provocative charges against reason. The results suggest that for all the Enlightenment has achieved, we still have a lot of work to do.
How humans dared to know
The 21st-century passion for “Enlightenment values” owes a lot to the 18th century. Philosopher A. C. Grayling discusses where those values come from and what they mean today
1: Reason stands against values and morals
Shaping a moral and humane world requires more than reason, says Archbishop Rowan Williams
3: I hear “reason”, I see lies
Science is routinely co-opted by governments and corporations to subvert people’s ability to make their own decisions, say sociologist David Miller and linguist Noam Chomsky. Watch a related video.
7: Reason is just another faith
Unconditional reliance on a single authority is never sensible, says philosopher Mary Midgley.
Interesting post at Mind Hacks:
A new study just published in PLoS One reports that learning to juggle alters the structure of motion detection areas in the brain within as little as 7 days.
Led by neuroscientist Joenna Driemeyer, the study builds on a previous research that also found juggling could alter brain structure, although this previous study waited three months before the brain was checked for alterations using high resolution structural MRI scans.
This new study also took 20 non-jugglers and asked them to learn to juggle, but scanned them after 7, 14 and 35 days.
After only 7 days, a motion specialised part of the occipital lobe known as V5 had increased in density. In both studies, the changes were maintained over the subsequent weeks of practice, but these areas returned to their pre-learning state after several weeks without juggling.
This is an interesting example of rapid ‘neuroplasticity‘, the ability of the brain to adapt structurally to new situations.
However, the authors are careful to note that they can’t tell whether the brains of the participants had generated more neurons, or whether existing cells grew in size, or additional glial cells were developed, or maybe there were just changes in how much blood or other brain fluids packed the area.
Also, the fact that changes seemed to occur at the beginning of the learning cycle but that further practice maintained but didn’t cause additional changes led the researchers to speculate that learning a variety of new things, rather than simply practising old skills, may be most effective in terms of brain structure alterations.
See full article at Treehugger. From it:
… Lithium iron phosphate batteries have many benefits over the lithium cobalt oxide used in current li-ion batteries; iron costs much less than cobalt, they can deliver large bursts of power (useful in hybrids and electric cars), and they are safer (they are used in the One Laptop Per Child project, for example).
But, it’s not all rainbows and puppies. The manufacturing process of iron phosphate batteries is complex and expensive, requiring hours and temperatures as high as 700 °C. That’s where the breakthrough comes in…
Arumugam Manthiram, a professor of materials engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, has shown that a new technique that uses microwaves can reduce both the amount of time it takes, and the temperatures required to make li-iron phosphate batteries.
One of the hallmarks of the Bush Administration has been the simple refusal to comply with requests and to follow procedures, not to mention laws. The attitude goes throughout the Administration: refusal to appear when called, refusal to answer questions when asked, refusal to debate issues openly, and so on. And it continues. Suemedha Sood reports in the Washington Independent:
It comes as little surprise to reporters that the EPA warns its staff against talking to the press. But now there’s some evidence that the agency is also discouraging employees from talking to congressional investigators and even its own inspector general.
A June 16th email, leaked to the non-partisan group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), instructs managers to send friendly reminder to staffers to “not respond to questions or make any statements” to investigators or reporters and to instead direct inquiries to certain designated officials. (PEER is a national alliance of local, state and federal professionals “dedicated to upholding environmental laws.”)
Interestingly, the EPA press secretary, Jonathan Shradar, told me in an interview earlier this year, that the EPA has an “unwritten policy” that employees are free to talk to the media about their work, as long as they make the press office aware of such communication. “Anyone can talk to the media,” he told me. “That is fine.” (I didn’t ask about congressional investigators, though.)
Here’s the text of the June 16th email, which was sent by Robbi Farrell, head of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the agency:
06/16/2008 11:22 AM
Subject PLEASE REMIND STAFF re: RESPONDING TO GAO, IG AND PRESS
Please remind your staff at your next staff meeting of the following policies and procedures.
1. If you are contacted by a reporter, please forward the call or email to Laura Gentile and Roxanne Smith, cc Robbi. Please do not respond to questions or make any statements.
2. If you are contacted directly by the IG’s office or GAO requesting information of any kind, please forward their call or email to Gwen Spriggs, cc Robbi. Please do
not respond to questions or make any statements.
Thanks very much for your continued attention to these important procedures.
And here’s the EPA’s response. It is a statement from spokeswoman Roxanne Smith, one of the press officers referred to in the email.
“The enforcement office issued a memo that established standard operating procedures within that office to efficiently respond to requests from GAO and EPA’s Inspector General. This procedure was developed in part to
respond to a recent IG report, “EPA can Improve its Oversight of Audit Followup,” and to ensure consistency and coordination among those responding to IG and GAO reports. There is nothing in the standard operating procedures that restricts conversation between OECA staff and the IG. In fact, the IG reviewed OECA’s procedures and signed off on them. The procedures simply ensure timely responses and assist in tracking and record keeping obligations.”
Ah. So the officials who are allowed to talk to investigators can get their stories straight first. That’s what “consistency and coordination” means, right?
Interesting that the staff are forbidden to answer any questions posed by the Inspector General—sort of kills the entire idea of an Inspector General, doesn’t it? At least that’s clearly the intent: “No oversight wanted!”
Balter’s Blog has a good post on how important it is to bring the left and the right together in the sense of recognizing common goals and discussing differences with an open mind and willingness to listen. It is indeed important, though difficult.
Cool idea from Marisa McClellan at Slashfood.
Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar has some good frugality tactics he’s discovered.
Mary Kane of the Washington Independent notes another sign of hard times a-coming:
Even more affluent consumers are failing to pay their mortgages and credit card bills on time, the Financial Times reports. JPMorganChase chief executive Jamie Dimon told Wall Street that the outlook for prime mortgages was “terrible,” and American Express said its safest and most profitable borrowers are paying late, the Times said. Second-quarter results for banks and financial institutions show losses from once-dependable customers hit by rising gas costs, falling house prices and the slowing economy.
Both firms, along with other banks and lenders, are tightening credit across the board as a result. From the FT:
The crisis is just starting to spread beyond the middle class,” said Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. “Even folks with good credit-ratings scores are no longer immune from adverse actions from their card issuers.”
The tightening to consumers mirrors what is happening on the commercial side, the New York Times said. Banks taking big losses on commercial real estate are cutting back on lending overall, even to businesses with solid bottom lines. That means banks are withholding credit from companies that need capital to expand, which can begin to cripple the economy.
This is the classic pattern of a credit crunch. Banks and lenders get stung by defaults on loans to risky customers, so they curtail lending to everyone. It’s the worst-case scenario of the credit crisis becoming a reality. As Calculated Risk likes to say, we’re all subprime now.
The tendency toward obesity is directly related to the brain system that is involved in food reward and addictive behaviors, according to a new study. Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) and colleagues have demonstrated a link between a predisposition to obesity and defective dopamine signaling in the mesolimbic system in rats. Their report appears in the August 2008 issue of The FASEB Journal. The mesolimbic system is a system of neurons in the brain that secretes dopamine, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger, which mediates emotion and pleasure. The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the mesolimbic system is traditionally associated with euphoria and considered to be the major neurochemical signature of drug addiction.
“Baseline dopamine levels were 50 percent lower and stimulated dopamine release was significantly attenuated in the brain reward systems of obesity-prone rats, compared with obesity-resistant rats. Defects in brain dopamine synthesis and release were evident in rats immediately after birth,” said Emmanuel Pothos, PhD, assistant professor in the department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at TUSM and member of the neuroscience program faculty of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.”
Glenn Greenwald has a good summary of the extreme, radical, and … well, insane views of the Political Establishment—the Beltway Pundits and friends. Well worth reading to see how calcified and worthless that group has become.
Sounds like just the ticket for Saturday night. Now to find a good movie…
Lamb With Peaches
Yield 4 servings Time About 90 minutes, largely unattended
A hint of cinnamon gives the dish a great aroma as it cooks and a slightly mysterious flavor; I don’t think you’d want more than that. An even smaller amount of allspice, maybe an eighth of a teaspoon, would also work. A pinch of cayenne or other red pepper makes a nice addition, and an onion cooked along with the meat provides just a little more complexity.
- 2 pounds boned shoulder of lamb, trimmed of fat and gristle and cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces [or just buy two pounds of lamb stew meat - LG]
- 1 cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 medium to large onion, cut in half
- 1/2 cup port, red wine or water
- 4 medium to large ripe peaches, washed
- Juice of 1 lemon or 1 lime
- 1 cup roughly chopped parsley (for use with lemon) or cilantro (to go with lime)
1. Place lamb in a 12-inch skillet, and turn heat to medium-high. Season with salt, and add cinnamon, cayenne, onion and wine or water. Bring to a boil, cover and adjust heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook 1 to 1 1/2 hours, checking and stirring every 15 minutes or so, adding a little more liquid in the unlikely event that the mixture cooks dry. (This probably means the heat is too high; turn it down a bit.)
2. When the meat feels tender when poked with a small sharp knife, remove the onion and cinnamon stick, then turn the heat to medium-high, and cook off any remaining liquid, allowing the lamb to brown a little. Cut the peaches in half and remove their pits, then cut each of them into 12 or 16 wedges. Stir in the peaches, and continue to cook, gently tossing or stirring the mixture, until the peaches are glazed and quite soft but still intact, about 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the lemon or lime juice and most of the parsley or cilantro. Taste, and adjust seasoning. Garnish with what’s left of your chosen herb, and serve.
Earlier this month, during the fiery debate over how to preserve payments to Medicare doctors, scores of Republicans did the unthinkable: Bucking the White House, the insurance industry and even party ideology, they joined the thin Democratic majority to scale back funding for private plans operating under the federal health-care program.
To health-policy observers, the move was a stunner. Congressional conservatives have long sought to curtail government’s role in delivering health care by shifting more responsibility to the private sector. The GOP defections, which allowed Democrats their first major health policy-win in a decade, caused many commentators to suggest that Democrats’ plans for broader health reform might find unexpected legs in 2009.
“If the Democrats can win victories like this now,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on July 11, “they should be able to put a definitive end to the privatization of Medicare next year, when they’re virtually certain to have a larger congressional majority and will probably hold the White House.”
A host of health policy-experts, however, have another message: Not so fast. Trimming some Medicare payments for the sake of preserving the program, they argue, is far easier to accomplish than the sweeping expansions of federal coverage that many Democrats have proposed.
“Medicare naturally makes for strange bedfellows,” Jacob Hacker, a political science professor a the University of California-Berkeley and the author of “The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream,” wrote in an email. “Both conservatives and liberals have an interest in keeping the program’s costs in line. The divisions are much deeper when it comes to expanding the role of government in health care — and the political fight will be that much fiercer.”
Others noted that the Democrats owe much to the looming elections for their Medicare victory. Faced with an enormous lobbying campaign from seniors and physician groups, they note, many Republicans voted largely to preserve their seats. This should not be mistaken for a change of heart on privatization, these experts say; rather, the Republicans’ support was simply a political calculation. With that in mind, the experts predict, the same partisan battle will likely resurface next year — making the Democrats’ major health-reform successes highly uncertain.
At issue is the five-year old Medicare Advantage program, which delivers Medicare services through private insurance companies. In recent years, it has become a leading symbol of the ideological differences between each party’s approach to health care. Republicans and other supporters argue that the private companies provide choice, treatments and efficiencies that Medicare cannot, while most Democrats and patient advocates say that removing the middle man would save Medicare much-needed resources.
The Congressional Budget Office has found that MA plans cost taxpayers roughly 12 percent more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare. For one particularly popular type of MA plan, called private fee for service, the divide is closer to 18 percent.
Some advice reported by Miranda Hitti in WebMD:
Staying close to family and friends, keeping your mind active, and having a sense of humor are keys to healthy aging, centenarians say in a new poll.
The poll, conducted by phone, included 100 U.S. centenarians. Here are their top 10 tips for healthy aging — along with the percentage of how many said the tip is “very important” (they could call more than one tip “very important”):
- * Stay close to your family and friends: 90%
- Keep your mind active: 89%
- Laugh and have a sense of humor: 88%
- Stay in touch with your spirituality: 84%
- Continue looking forward to each new day: 83%
- Keep moving and exercising: 82%
- Maintain a sense of independence: 81%
- Eat right: 80%
- Keep up with news and current events: 63%
- Keep making new friends: 63%
“If I could leave any message, never stop learning. Period,” centenarian Maurice Eisman says in the poll report.
“I think the worst thing is stress, and you can avoid a lot of it by the way you manage your life,” adds 102-year-old Marianne Crowder of Palo Alto, Calif.
Some of the centenarians — who were actually as young as 99 — have picked up some modern ways: 19% use cell phones, 12% have used the Internet, 3% say they’ve dated someone they met online, and 45% could identify 2005 American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.
When asked to pick a favorite celebrity to invite to a “fantasy dinner party,” Bill Cosby was their top pick, followed by Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfrey. Britney Spears and Howard Stern were their least favorite choices; most knew who Spears and Stern are.
GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media polled the centenarians by phone in April and May for Evercare, a health care coordination program for the elderly and people with long-term or advanced illnesses or disabilities. Because the poll only included centenarians in good health, the results may not apply to everyone in that age range.
Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, the longest serving U.S. Republican senator ever, was indicted on Tuesday on seven counts of making false statements, according to a federal grand jury indictment.
The U.S. Justice Department has scheduled a news conference for 1:20 p.m. to make an announcement “regarding a significant criminal matter.”
A federal law enforcement official said the news conference would discuss the criminal charges against Stevens. The 28-page indictment outlining the charges against Stevens was released by the Justice Department right before the news conference.
There will be updates. The entire Alaska delegation, representatives and Senators, are totally corrupt. About time some cleanup was done.