Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 2nd, 2010

Interesting development re: Israel

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Andrew Sullivan:

The times they are a-changin’. From France:

A new leftist European Jewish group, JCall, has written a letter to be delivered Sunday to the European Parliament calling for a cessation of what it calls systematic support for Israeli government decisions.

JCall, which describes itself as "the European J Street" and is to be officially launched Sunday with the presentation of the letter, has raised a storm with its call to stop construction in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.

The letter is signed by some 3,000 Jewish intellectuals, among them philosophers Bernard Henri-Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, considered some of Israel’s strongest defenders among French intellectuals. Signatories also include Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the student protests in the 1960s and now a member of the European Parliament, as well as other Jewish members of the European Parliament. The letter calls occupation and settlements "morally and politically wrong," noting that they "feed the unacceptable delegitimization process that Israel currently faces abroad."

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 5:52 pm

Decades of neglect

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John Cole at Balloon Juice:

Good grief:

Federal officials speaking about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Sunday morning appeared to be steeling the Louisiana coast – and the nation – for consequences that could be “catastrophic.”

The officials, who run the agencies charged with mitigating the impact of the spill on America’s Gulf coast, used unusually stark words to describe the situation and the difficulties of the remedy.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it was the federal government’s job to “keep the boot on the neck of BP,” which is running the cleanup effort.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen called the bid to shut down a wellhead spewing at least 210,000 gallons of oil a day from nearly a mile beneath the ocean surface “one of the most complex things we’ve every done.”

He went on to say that, in a worst-case scenario, the well could vent 4.2 million gallons of oil into the Gulf daily. Currently, a crumpled “riser” pipe is preventing the full flow of oil – like a kinked garden hose – though reports suggest it is gradually deteriorating.

Four million gallons a day for ninety days would be equal to roughly 45 Exxon Valdez spills. I fail to see how BP continues to exist as a corporation. And they should be destroyed:

BP, the company that owned the Louisiana oil rig that exploded last week, spent years battling federal regulators over how many layers of safeguards would be needed to prevent a deepwater well from this type of accident.


But according to aides to Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has followed offshore drilling issues for years, the industry aggressively lobbied against an additional layer of protection known as an “acoustic system,” saying it was too costly. In a March 2003 report, the agency reversed course, and said that layer of protection was no longer needed.

“There was a big debate under the Bush administration whether or not to require additional oil drilling safeguards but [federal regulators] decided not to require any additional mandatory safeguards, believing the industry would be motivated to do it themselves,” Carl Pope, Chairman of the Sierra Club told ABC News.

Is anyone else noticing a trend here? Decades of onslaught by Republicans (and many Democrats, as well) and business-friendly interests have led to the complete inability or unwillingness of government to regulate our food safety, our water, our financial markets, our mines, and now, tragically, our offshore drilling programs. And in every case, defanging the regulators has led to expensive disasters. All so a select few can make more and more money.

And still there are those who say that we simply should trust businesses to do the right thing, and if they do wrong, the free market will take care of any problems. It will be interesting to see how the free market tackles this oil spill, right?

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 5:19 pm

“I Challenge Marc Thiessen”–Six Questions for Malcolm Nance

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Very interesting post by Scott Horton:

An Arabic-speaking counterterrorism expert and a combat veteran with twenty-eight years of operational experience in the Middle East, Malcolm Nance has now published a sweeping new strategic proposal for engaging Al Qaeda. I put six questions to him about his book and the continuing debate about waterboarding propelled by former Vice President Cheney and his staffers.

1. Peter Bergen, among others, has made the case that the tide has turned in the battle against Al Qaeda. He says the organization misplayed its hand with radical tactics that cost the lives of large numbers of Muslim civilians. Is he too optimistic?

I believe Peter Bergen is a little too optimistic but generally on mark. Yes, Al Qaeda has suffered massive losses in Iraq and some significant degradation worldwide. In Iraq their one-time sponsors, the ex-Baathist insurgents, found them in the end to be ideologically dangerous and turned on them. Initially, the Iraqi insurgents loved the effect that the Al Qaeda suicide operations had on the Americans. Once the Sunni insurgents realized that Bin Laden’s reinterpretation of Islam would undermine the existing Iraqi tribal structures, and that Al Qaeda would engage in the mass murder of Muslims, they turned against Al Qaeda and helped us gain the upper hand. Militarily, Al Qaeda is boxed into Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen–but their cult-like ideology could infect the youth of the Muslim world. The risk remains that they will achieve a generational success by transforming Islam. That would make our recent military campaigns into pyrrhic victories.

2. You suggest that the key to defeating Al Qaeda lies in “counter-ideological warfare.” What do you mean by this?

Bin Laden’s dream, which will likely survive his death, is not just to radicalize Islam but to transform it into a global virus that destroys the tradition of tolerance and puts in its place perpetual jihad and suicide martyrdom. His ideology feeds off hatred of the West. He wants to harness Muslim popular anger at Western missteps to root out the tradition of tolerance in Islam. If he has to massacre innocent Muslims to do that, he won’t hesitate to do so.

Al Qaeda’s ideology has little to do with traditional Islam. Some call it al-Qaedaism; I call it Bin Ladenism. This fanatical ideology, not a command-and-control structure of a traditional sort, is the organization’s center of gravity. It must therefore be fought with the tools of counter-ideological warfare. That means that we recognize, attack, and neutralize their central belief system using all political, diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic tools. The starting point is therefore to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and Islam. The Muslim world needs to understand that Al Qaeda’s ideology has nothing to do with the pillars of Islam. When Al Qaeda is isolated and recognized as a radical cult, it will lose the ability to generate new recruits.

3. You dedicated your book to Mohammad Salman Hamadani. Who is he and why did you choose to honor him this way?

“Sal” was an American of Pakistani descent who went missing on 9/11. There was an investigation and speculation that he was involved in the plot. In fact, he was a New York City police cadet and paramedic who had raced to the scene and who died trying to save lives. Several months later his body was found at the WTC site. He is the truest face of both American and Islamic heroism.

4. You say that the United States needs to target Al Qaeda with a public-diplomacy campaign that you call circuit breaker. Explain your proposal and why you think Bush-era public diplomacy fell short.

The entire eight-year effort under Bush targeted Americans, not the world or Al Qaeda supporters. Bin Laden benefitted immensely from massive policy errors such as the invasion of Iraq. circuit breaker is designed to reverse these losses and break Al Qaeda’s global base of support. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, noted that losing the Muslim world’s support would utterly destroy Al Qaeda. This strategy, which would cost only a fraction of the hundreds of billions spent on military operations, would attack Al Qaeda in the realm of public opinion in the Islamic world and would reposition America and Americans as partners rather than an opponents.

5. You previously served as a master instructor in the SERE program, in which pilots were prepared, among other things, to endure waterboarding. The SERE training program, we later learned, was reverse engineered to produce “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the CIA. Recently a White House speechwriter named Marc Thiessen has played a vocal role in the campaign that the Cheneys have launched to justify the use of waterboarding. He insists that it absolutely is not torture, and he insists that it’s different from the technique used by the Khmer Rouge. Does Thiessen know what he’s talking about?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 4:28 pm

20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

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Climate Progress:

There are, and will continue to be, heroic efforts by a wide variety of individuals, including members of the Coast Guard, NOAA, and state, local, and volunteer organizations.  I wish them the best of luck, and wish I could be back in uniform helping out.  But with a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.  The Obama administration has clearly mobilized all of the Federal government’s capabilities.  But time and time again, we have learned that our efforts will not measure up to the task at hand.

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University.  I’ve interviewed him many times, and so Climate Progress readers mainly know him as Professor of Sociology & Environmental Science and Affiliate Professor of Public Health, Drexel University.

But before that second career, he was a Commissioned Officer in the Coast Guard for two decades.  Indeed, he has a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Marine Engineering.

So when he talks about the BP-Halliburton oil disaster, people should listen.  Here’s his entire post:

As I watch the slow unfolding of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I am reminded of the children’s poem:

Humpty Dumpty Sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses, And all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

This time, it is our technology that has had a great fall, and while the efforts to put it right may be valiant and well intentioned, we won’t be able to put it back together again.

I haven’t felt this level of despair since Katrina descended over New Orleans.  But this time, it is a slower process that will unfold over weeks, or worse, months.  This is not the first time this has happened, but hopefully, it will be the last.  We first learned about massive oil spills when an oil well blowout occurred in Santa Barbara in 1969.  The second-largest oil spill of all time occurred between June 1979 and March 1980, when the Ixtoc I well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico.  This spill ran for eight months and released around 140 million gallons of oil.  By comparison, the Exxon Valdez (only!) released 10.8 million gallons.

The impacts of extensive oil spills can last for decades.  In the coming days, television news will figure out that there is still oil under the rocks in Prince William Sound, and that the fisheries are still recovering.  The costs to the fishing and recreation industries across the Gulf could turn out to be substantial.  I hope that some miracle technofix can stop the flow of oil quickly, and that we luck out with the winds.  But this is something that we cannot control.

There are, and will continue to be, heroic efforts by a wide variety of individuals, including members of the Coast Guard, NOAA, and state, local, and volunteer organizations.  I wish them the best of luck, and wish I could be back in uniform helping out.  But with a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.  The Obama administration has clearly mobilized all of the Federal government’s capabilities.  But time and time again, we have learned that our efforts will not measure up to the task at hand.

Oil spill responses have a very large component of symbolic reassurance to them.  For example, no doubt we will see oily ducks being washed in the coming days. However, the mortality rate of such ducks is extremely high.  So while these salves may make us feel better, they do little to actually deal with the situation.  Focusing on the spill response may be interesting news, but it doesn’t get to the core of the issue of managing risky technologies and the role of government regulation of industrial activities.

There will be considerable ecological and economic damage, and there is basically nothing that can be done to effectively stop that from happening.  A well-coordinated spill response and a lot of good luck can help minimize the worst.  But it appears that, as in the past with the Exxon Valdez, our capabilities will be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the spill.  Ultimately, the most effective way to deal with oil spills is not to have them.

Prevention is the best policy.  But that involves regulations to prevent corporations from taking calculated risks by shaving safety margins to decrease production costs. Rather than striving to achieve the highest levels of safety and pollution prevention, BP continued to resist regulations designed to prevent an accident of this sort.  Specifically, on September 14, 2009, BP wrote:

“While BP is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risk, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule.  We believe industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs implemented since the adoption of API RP 75 [a voluntary industry standard] have been and continue to be very successful.

Very successful? NOT! History has obviously proved wrong their belief in the adequacy of the voluntary standard.

Where was the Minerals Management Service (the regulatory agency governing offshore drilling)?  Remember, this is an agency of the Department of the Interior.  This department was managed in the Bush Administration by Gale Norton, the protégé of James Watt, the notorious anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan.  During the Republican administration, the only distinguishing accomplishment of this agency was to get caught in a bribery, sex, and drugs scandal involving collection of oil and gas royalty payments.  We are now tasting the bitter fruit of the past eight years of lax enforcement and allowing industry to set its own “voluntary” standards.  We need a solid investigation of the Minerals Management Service to find out what the agency did and did not do to prevent this spill from happening, and the imposition of strictly enforced regulations to prevent this sort of incident in the future.

No doubt, the industry apologists will go on about how rare these events are, and how they have a good safety record.  But with enormous risks, “good” isn’t good enough.  We cannot afford to jeopardize the entire Gulf ecosystem.  But apparently, that is what we have already done.  We need to get over our technological hubris and stop taking enormous risks with our global ecosystems.

So now what?  I had hoped that we were beyond this sort of event.  But evidently we aren’t.

In the face of global climate change, and now massive catastrophic oil spills, why can’t we figure out that the fossil fuel era needs to come to an end, for our survival, and for the survival of the rest of the species with which we share this planet?  That we have much better alternatives than to continuing to “drill baby drill” – which has now turned into “spill baby spill.”  That we cannot drill our way to energy independence, and that every gallon of gas we burn brings the prospect of further ecological calamities from global warming closer.

We need a real commitment to renewable energy, and to stop investing in the polluting fuels of the past.  The sooner we get on with it, the less chance our children will have to face future disasters.

– Robert J. Brulle

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 3:51 pm

High-fructose corn syrup

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Good news: people are avoiding it. Bad news: companies are still pushing it. Melanie Warner in the NY Times:

In January, there were studies showing that samples of the sweetener contained the toxic metal mercury. Then came a popular Facebook page that was critical of the syrup. By year-end, there were about a dozen spoofs on YouTube mocking efforts by makers of high-fructose corn syrup to show that science is on their side.

But it was pleading comments like this one, from a devoted ConAgra customer, that finally persuaded Mr. Locascio, president of the meal enhancers category at ConAgra, to take action: “Hunt’s is by far the best ketchup ever, but please start making a variety without the high-fructose corn syrup,” wrote Jennifer from New Hampshire.

Early this year, she got her wish when ConAgra decided to reformulate one of its biggest brands, replacing the high-fructose corn syrup in Hunt’s ketchup with old-fashioned sugar. This month, new bottles featuring a banner proclaiming “No high fructose corn syrup” arrive in stores.

Hunt’s ketchup is among the latest in a string of major-brand products that have replaced the vilified sweetener. Gatorade, several Kraft salad dressings, Wheat Thins, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback and the baked goods at Starbucks, to name a few, are all now made with regular sugar.

What started as a narrow movement by proponents of natural and organic foods has morphed into a swell of mainstream opposition, thanks in large part to tools of modern activism like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and movies like “Food, Inc.” and “King Corn.”

As a result, sales of the ingredient have fallen in the United States. Charlie Mills, an analyst at Credit Suisse, says that the combined United States sales of high-fructose corn syrup for Archer Daniels Midland, Tate & Lyle and Corn Products International were down 9 percent in 2009, compared with 2007. A further decline is expected this year, he says.

This is happening even though many scientists say that high-fructose corn syrup is no worse for people than sugar, which costs some 40 percent more.

“Manufacturers are tired of hearing about the e-mails, the 800-number calls and the letters,” says Phil Lempert, editor of the Lempert Report, which focuses on supermarket trends. “People don’t want it, so why fight them?”

The Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of the syrup like A.D.M., Cargill and Corn Products International, has spent the last six years trying to convince Americans that high-fructose corn syrup is a natural ingredient — made from corn! — that’s really no different from sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup is singled out because it is still one of the biggest sources of calories in our diet and because it is made from corn — a lavishly subsidized crop that appears, in one way or another, in so much of our food.

According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, more than half of all Americans — 53 percent — now say they are concerned that high-fructose corn syrup may pose a health hazard, up from 40 percent in 2004…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food

Learning the appropriate lesson

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Steve Benen:

We know a few things for sure about the still-unfolding BP Oil Spill disaster in the Gulf. For example, we know it was initially considered a limited accident, but BP’s original assessment was wrong. We know the media appears anxious to blame the White House, for no apparent reason. And we also know the ecological, environmental, and even economic consequences of this disaster are likely to be pretty devastating for the Gulf region.

Jonathan Alter, meanwhile, is looking ahead — after the spill reaches the shore, after the inevitable clean-up, and after all the finger-pointing — and pointing to a truth that we should also know.

After the immediate crisis passes and the cleanup is well underway, we should look to the larger cause of this disaster as well as the recent coal-mine explosion in West Virginia: our dependence on fossil fuels.

This sounds like a platitude amid human and environmental fiascoes, but there’s no reason that over the course of this century we should have either coal mines or oil rigs. To begin to move toward a clean energy future — the best hope, by the way, for the global economy — we need a new energy policy.

So the question is whether the disaster might give new life to efforts to pass comprehensive energy legislation. Such a bill wouldn’t have prevented the gulf spill, but it would put us on a path toward moving away from fossil fuels over the next few decades. Lindsey Graham’s announcement that he wanted to shelve the energy bill because the Democrats had the temerity to raise immigration issues is looking a bit petty.

Obama now has an argument on both energy and immigration: these long-festering problems, exploding before our eyes, must be dealt with in a "comprehensive" fashion…. The Arizona immigration bill and the coal-mine and oil-spill disasters are examples of what happens when we don’t move away from old ways of doing things that do nothing to solve long-term problems.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the BP Oil Spill disaster has put the climate/energy bill’s future in further doubt, in large part because expanding drilling opportunities was considered a prerequisite to getting even marginal Republican support. With new offshore drilling leases on hold for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to know what Dems can put in the bill to generate bipartisan support. Indeed, many Republicans are still saying "drill, baby, drill," even this morning.

But that’s what makes Alter’s point all the more compelling — the disaster in the Gulf shouldn’t make stall climate/energy efforts on the Hill, it should strengthen those efforts. The ongoing spill should give advocates more momentum, not less.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 2:07 pm

Fungal Disease Spreads Through Pacific Northwest

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I blogged this earlier and now Richard Knox has a report on NPR (and at the link audio, photos, etc.):


A rare and dangerous fungal infection named Cryptococcus gattii has been quietly spreading from British Columbia southward to the U.S. Pacific Northwest. And it’s changing as it goes.

Researchers have discovered that a unique strain of the bug has emerged recently in Oregon and already spread widely there, sickening humans and animals.

So far, over the past 11 years there have been about 220 cases reported in British Columbia. Since 2004, doctors in Washington and Oregon have reported about 50 cases. Among the total 270 cases, 40 people have died from overwhelming infections of the lungs and brain.

Public health officials aren’t calling it a public health emergency. The fungus can’t be spread from person to person, and there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of an explosive epidemic. But they do want doctors to be on the lookout for cases, because early diagnosis and proper treatment is vital to prevent deaths.

The most striking thing about this fungus is that it’s popping up and establishing itself far afield from its usual range — possibly because of climate change.

"The disease was almost exclusively seen in tropical and subtropical areas of the world," says Dr. Julie Harris, a specialist in fungal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The hot spots were Australia and Papua New Guinea, along with Egypt and parts of South America.

"So it was really surprising in 1999 to find that in this temperate climate of Vancouver Island, people were getting sick with Cryptococcus gattii," says Harris.

It’s a cousin of another fungus that is all too familiar to doctors who treat people with AIDS and organ transplants. This other bug, called Cryptococcus neoformans, causes a hard-to-treat brain infection in people with weakened immune systems. Globally it infects almost a million people a year and kills more than 620,000.

Next to that, Cryptococcus gattii is a rare bird. Researchers don’t know why people and animals in the Pacific Northwest are getting infected with this tropical fungus, and why only a few who get exposed to it get sick from it.

"This is an airborne infection," Harris says. "These spores are really, really small, and they can be carried in the air. And so hypothetically anyone can inhale them."

The fungus likes to hang out in forests — on trees and in the surrounding soil. Many of those who have gotten sick have worked in jobs like forestry or construction. But many others haven’t had such obvious exposures to lots of Cryptococcus gattii spores.

One of the first Vancouver Island cases, back in 2001, was a 45-year-old woman who had gone kayaking in a provincial park on the island’s eastern shore. Over a period of months, her symptoms progressed from headaches and night sweats to a fulminant brain infection. By the time she died, in early 2002, she was blind and couldn’t walk or speak.

Others have had only casual exposure to the woods — or none at all. Cases have occurred among city dwellers and suburbanites as well as those who live in forested areas.

Researchers say most cases so far have had one risk factor or another. They have lived near a wooded area or been involved in activities that disturb the soil. They have had underlying diseases of the lung, or cancer. Forty-two percent have been taking a drug that suppresses immunity, such as corticosteroids. But more than one-quarter have had no identifiable risk factor.

So far nearly all cases have been in people ranging in age from 15 to 95. Very few children have gotten the fungus infection.

One of the problems in tracking cases is that the incubation period of a Cryptococcus gattii infection averages six months…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 2:05 pm

Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children

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Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

A review by Ethan Remmel

Does praise undermine a child’s confidence? Can gifted children be reliably identified in preschool? Why do siblings fight, and how can they be discouraged from doing so? Are popular children more aggressive? Do videos like those in the Baby Einstein series help infants learn language?
NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children addresses such questions, examining how recent research in developmental psychology challenges conventional wisdom about parenting and schooling. Aimed at laypeople rather than academics, the book made the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list last year and was listed as one of the year’s best by Barnes and Noble, Discover Magazine, Library Journal and others.

The authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, are not researchers themselves. Bronson has written several books on other topics, including the bestselling What Should I Do with My Life?, about career choices. Together, Bronson and Merryman have written about parenting and social science in online columns for Time and Newsweek and in articles for New York magazine. Three chapters in NurtureShock are adapted from their New York articles.

The title evokes Alvin Toffler‘s 1970 book Future Shock. But Bronson and Merryman explain in the introduction that they are using the term nurture shock to refer to "the panic — common among new parents — that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in." And they warn that the information in the book will deliver a shock, by revealing that "our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on." Somewhat confusingly, the authors also assert that what the subtitle calls "new thinking about children" is actually a "restoration of common sense."

Each of the 10 chapters focuses on a different topic: praise, sleep, racial attitudes, lying, intelligence testing, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control, aggression and language development. Bronson and Merryman did their homework, talking to many researchers and attending academic conferences. The book’s endnotes include citations for many of the empirical statements in the text, and the list of selected sources and references is extensive. The coverage is somewhat skewed toward the work of the researchers who were interviewed, but Bronson and Merryman talked to leading experts on every topic.

In some places additional information could have been helpful. For example, in the chapter on self-control, the authors focus on a preschool program called "Tools of the Mind," which successfully teaches self-regulation. However, they don’t explain the theoretical work that inspired the program, that of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Nor do the authors mention research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman showing that self-discipline predicts academic achievement better than IQ does. As far as I know, though, nowhere in the book have they neglected evidence that would undermine their arguments.

Bronson and Merryman make child development research accessible and even exciting; NurtureShock is an easy and enjoyable read. By academic standards, the writing style may be a bit melodramatic in some places, but I would recommend the book to any parent. All of the advice has empirical support, and readers will almost certainly emerge thinking differently about some aspect of parenting. Some sections do seem geared toward American parents of middle to high socioeconomic status. For example, cognitive testing for competitive admission to prestigious private preschools is an issue in only a few urban areas of the United States; it’s unheard of elsewhere…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 1:16 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

A Life Without Fear

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Alix Spiegel at NPR (with audio version at the link):

The drama class had just gotten out, and everybody was standing around talking when Jessica noticed her 9-year-old, Isabelle, making her way over to an elderly woman Jessica had never seen. The woman was neatly dressed, most likely just a well-meaning suburban grandmother who had come to retrieve a grandchild on behalf of an over-extended parent, most likely a perfectly harmless person.

Isabelle, as she usually did, exchanged hellos and struck up a conversation. It was the usual post-drama-class conversation until about two minutes in. Then Isabelle dropped the bomb.

"Will you take me? Can I go home with you?" Jessica heard Isabelle plead.

Jessica’s daughter, Isabelle, has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. Children with Williams are often physically small and frequently have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust.

This means that it is essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust. (NPR is not using full names in this story for privacy and safety reasons.)

"They don’t have that kind of evolutionary thing that other kids have, that little twinge of anxiety like, ‘Who is this person? What should I do here?’ " Jessica explains. "They just don’t have it. She just doesn’t have that … early-warning system."

For Jessica, there are good and bad things about parenting a child with this kind of personality.

For instance, when Isabelle was younger, she was chronically happy. She smiled at anything. She loved everyone: family, friends, strangers. She reached for them all, and, in return, everyone loved her. Strangers would stop Jessica to tell about how adorably loving Isabelle was.

In those days, Jessica says, she and her family were more or less tolerant of Isabelle’s trusting and loving nature. "We would try to restrain her, but it was somewhat half-heartedly, because we didn’t want to embarrass her by calling her on the carpet about how open she was," Jessica says.

But as Isabelle got older, the negative side of her trusting nature began to play a larger role. A typical example happened a couple of years ago, when Jessica and her family were spending the day at the beach. Isabelle had been begging Jessica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jessica had been putting her off. Then Isabelle overheard a lady just down the beach.

"She was telling her kids, ‘OK, let’s go to the Dairy Queen,’ " Jessica says. "And so Isabelle went over and got into the lady’s van, got in the back seat, buckled up and was waiting to be taken to Dairy Queen with that family."

Jessica had no idea what had happened to Isabelle and was frantically searching for her when the driver of the van approached her and explained that she had been starting her car when she looked up and saw Isabelle’s face in the rearview mirror.

The woman, Jessica says, was incredibly angry.

"She said, ‘I am a stranger, you know!’ " Jessica says. Essentially, the woman blamed Jessica for not keeping closer watch on her daughter — for neglecting to teach her the importance of not getting into a car with someone she didn’t know. But the reality could not be more different. "It’s like, ‘My friend, you have no idea,’ " Jessica says…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 1:07 pm

The trillion-dollar fraud

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John Talbott in Salon:

Commercial banks, by law, have to hold a certain percentage of their deposits as cash at the Federal Reserve. From January 1959 until August 2008, the total of these reserves held by the commercial banks at the Fed grew from $11.1 billion to $46.2 billion. At no time during this almost 50-year period did the total bank reserves held at the Fed exceed the minimum required by law by more than $2 billion.

But since August 2008, these bank reserves held at the Fed have exploded to more than $1.2 trillion (as of March 2010), even though only $65.6 billion was required to be deposited by law.

This increase in excess reserves resulted directly from the Fed’s policy of dramatically increasing the quantity (and lowering the quality threshold) of assets it bought in the marketplace. During the past 20 months, the Fed has tripled the size of its balance sheet by acquiring more than $1.5 trillion of new assets, more than $1 trillion of which are mortgage-backed securities.

What is going on here? Why would commercial banks hold $1 trillion more than they legally had to in reserves at the Fed, earning only 0.25 percent interest per year, and why would the Fed buy more than $1 trillion of mortgage securities of undisclosed quality in the marketplace?

If you recall, back in 2008, Hank Paulson, our treasury secretary at the time, convinced Congress over a weekend that he needed $700 billion of TARP funds to get the toxic assets off our commercial banks’ books. Amazingly, within weeks of being given the funds by Congress, Paulson decided not to proceed with the purchase of toxic assets from the banks, instead giving away hundreds of billions of dollars to the commercial and investment banks and funding a series of bailouts — giving money to Chrysler, General Motors and AIG (some of which immediately found its way back to the commercial and investment banking community).

At the time, nobody explained what happened to the toxic assets on the banks’ books whose purchase was the original stated purpose of TARP. We now know that the financial crisis was not caused solely by a liquidity crunch or an irrational loss of confidence, but rather by the fact that the marketplace realized that the commercial banks held more than a trillion dollars of very poor-quality assets, mostly mortgage securities such as collateralized debt obligations, or CDO’s, and that these bad assets were sizable enough to bankrupt even our biggest banks. How bad? Even the AAA tranche of the typical CDO is facing a mortgage default rate of approximately 93 percent today.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 1:04 pm

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

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The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

by Leonard Mlodinow

A review by Doug Brown

Most people have the wrong idea about randomness. In flipping a coin, for instance, people assume random means that in any string of flips there will be an even number of heads and tails. However, truly random data has strings of all heads and all tails. Furthermore, most people think if you’ve got four heads in a row you are likelier to get tails on the next flip – that a tails is due (this cognitive error is so common it has a name: the Gambler’s Fallacy). However, in truly random flips, the odds of getting tails is always 50%. Even if you’ve gotten 10 heads in a row or 10 tails in a row, the odds of getting a tails on the next flip is 50/50. This and many other dimensions of randomness are the topic of The Drunkard’s Walk.

Throughout the book, Mlodinow traces the history of probability and statistics as mathematical studies. Predictably, the impetus was often gambling; some lord or gentleman would ask his smart friend if particular outcomes were likelier, and the smart friend would come up with a concept that later became part of statistical analysis. Early contributors included names such as Cicero, Galileo, Pascal, and Fermat. Interspersed with these historical vignettes are modern-day examples where these methods and ideas were used (or where the lesson clearly hasn’t been learned).

In the 1700s a reverend named Bayes noted that the odds of A occurring if B occurs are not dependent on the relationship between A and B so much as the likelihood of A and B overall. For instance, the probability of having a disease (A) given a positive test result (B) is not determined by the effectiveness of the test, but by the frequency of the illness compared against the effectiveness of the test. Mlodinow gives an example where he was told the odds were 999 out of 1,000 that he would be dead in 10 years. The reason was an HIV test had yielded a positive result, and the test returns a false positive only 1 out of 1,000 times. However, this is not the correct analysis; he was being told B, not A. Mlodinow looked instead at the frequency of HIV among his social group — white, heterosexual, non-drug-using American males — which, according to CDC statistics, is 1 in 10,000. If 10,000 men from this group are given the test, on average there will be 11 positive results — one from the person who actually has HIV, and the other 10 who are false positives. Thus, the true odds that Mlodinow had HIV were 1 in 11, not 999 in 1000. And sure enough, he’s still here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Books, Science

Debt: The first five thousand years

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Very interesting (and lengthy) post written by anthropologist David Graeber at The Long Now Blog:

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt’s potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.

What follows is a fragment of a much larger project of research on debt and debt money in human history. The first and overwhelming conclusion of this project is that in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call “the economy”. What’s more, origins matter. The violence may be invisible, but it remains inscribed in the very logic of our economic common sense, in the apparently self-evident nature of institutions that simply would never and could never exist outside of the monopoly of violence – but also, the systematic threat of violence – maintained by the contemporary state.
Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.

This sort of logic has at least two very interesting consequences, though they might be said to pull in rather contrary directions. First of all, as we all know, it is another typical – perhaps defining – feature of slavery that slaves can be bought or sold. In this case, absolute debt becomes (in another context, that of the market) no longer absolute. In fact, it can be precisely quantified. There is good reason to believe that it was just this operation that made it possible to create something like our contemporary form of money to begin with, since what anthropologists used to refer to as “primitive money”, the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum), was mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities. For instance, if slavery is debt, then debt can lead to slavery. A Babylonian peasant might have paid a handy sum in silver to his wife’s parents to officialise the marriage, but he in no sense owned her. He certainly couldn’t buy or sell the mother of his children. But all that would change if he took out a loan. Were he to default, his creditors could first remove his sheep and furniture, then his house, fields and orchards, and finally take his wife, children, and even himself as debt peons until the matter was settled (which, as his resources vanished, of course became increasingly difficult to do). Debt was the hinge that made it possible to imagine money in anything like the modern sense, and therefore, also, to produce what we like to call the market: an arena where anything can be bought and sold, because all objects are (like slaves) disembedded from their former social relations and exist only in relation to money.

But at the same time the logic of debt as conquest can, as I mentioned, pull another way…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 8:33 am

The View From Gaza Under Siege

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This video of an interview with a native Gazan is well worth the time. As stated at the link:

A gripping, enlightening, taboo-breaking dialogue on the Israel-Palestine question on Bloggingheads. Worth watching in full. Seriously. This is what the web is for: expanding the boundaries of permissible debate on often emotive matters. And reality. Yes: reality.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 8:30 am

Digby on the spill and the press

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 8:28 am

Another difference between America and Europe

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It’s not just that Europe offers better healthcare, but they also do a better job with offshore drilling requirements. Mistermix at Balloon Juice:

The Wall Street Journal reports that regulators in other countries require an additional remote shutoff device for deep water wells, while the US opted for “further study” in 2003. Nobody knows if that remote control would have worked in this case, but it’s no surprise that the decision not to use these devices was justified “because they tend to be very costly.”

Read almost any report of an energy-related tragedy or disaster in the US, and you’ll find a similar statement buried somewhere. Regulatory capture like this is such a commonplace occurrence that I doubt that this story will get the play it deserves, save perhaps in other shrill blogs. And it’s telling that what discussion we’ve had about the new energy bill has focused almost entirely on cap-and-trade and other broad issues, with little or no mention of regulating extraction and production.

As much as I’d like to believe that wind farms and solar energy will provide us with lights and heat, I know that we’re going to continue extracting fossil fuels, and we’ll be building new nuclear plants. Both of these activities aren’t getting the kind of adult supervision they need, and I can’t see how that’s going to change.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 8:26 am

Kentucky Burgoo and Eggs Benedict

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Not served together, of course, but these two recipes at Simply Recipes caught my eye:

Kentucky Burgoo

Eggs Benedict (using Hollandaise made in a blender—and note in comments the suggestion to use clarified butter)

I have to confess one oddity the second recipe bothered me. Elise capitalizes the proper noun "English" in (e.g.) "English muffin", but for some reasons doesn’t capitalize the proper noun "Benedict" in "eggs Benedict". The inconsistency bothers me—mainly, I suppose, because I can’t understand it. (The "Benedict" is from the name of the creator of the dish, though several different Benedicts lay claim to that fame. None, however, spell their name "benedict," which is how Elise spells it.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2010 at 8:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes


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