Archive for November 17th, 2010
I highly recommend a subscription. Just in current issue:
Almost half of US could be obese by 2050 – Obesity will rise to around 42% of the population by 2050 and then stabilize at that level.
Human evolution was shaped by plate tectonics – Our remote ancestors preferred to live in tectonically active regions for reasons the article explains—and the evidence is convincing.
Born to laugh, we learn to cry – The two sounds we do not have to learn: laughing and the sound of relief.
Countdown to ‘thermogeddon’ has begun – Parts of the tropics will (with global warming) grow too hot for humans to survive. Projections say this could happen by 2100 and evidence shows that the process is underway. (The problem is that the stability threshold, which triggers cooling storms as a natural thermostat, will rise.)
And much more, including this note: “1 billion gigabytes of data will be uploaded or downloaded via US cellphone networks in 2010, up 112% from 2009.”
Editorial in New Scientist:
FOR believers in rationality, the modern world is often a frustrating and bewildering place.
Despite the many and manifest successes of science, it seems ever harder to penetrate the fog of superstition, magical thinking and prejudice that infects most human belief systems. Quack medicine, astrology, supernatural beings and denialist movements are not just alive in the 21st century, they are thriving. Herein lies a paradox for rationalists.
Those who find rational arguments persuasive naturally assume that others do too, and that the way to win a debate is simply to employ a cold-eyed blend of objectivity, data and logic. And if at first that doesn’t succeed, try, try again, but more forcefully.
Even then, success is far from guaranteed – and for good reason: the more we learn about irrational beliefs, the clearer it becomes that they are perfectly normal. Human beings are not wired for logic. Irrationality is our default state, and overcoming it is hard work. The dream of a glorious future when the march of progress automatically exorcises our demons will always remain a dream.
In How weird are you? Oddball minds of the western world we report on research revealing that rational, analytical thinking is alien to most people.
We like to think that western societies are more logical and rational. But there is a good reason why this 10 per cent or so of the world’s population is labelled "western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic" – aka WEIRD.
Among the WEIRD, irrational thinking proliferates – and always has. Take denial, for example. We tend to think of scientific denial movements as a modern phenomenon, but as our feature on page 48 shows, they are not.
Almost as soon as the theory of general relativity was published in 1915 it was being savaged by opponents on less-than-scientific grounds. Many opposed it because they saw it as a threat to the established order, part of the widespread social and political unrest of the time, while others were motivated by religion or anti-Semitism. That movement eventually dwindled, but has recently resurfaced in a different guise, showing that irrationality will always find a way.
What are we to do? Yes, rationality is the best way to solve problems and move forward, but we have to now focus the forces of rationality on developing an even deeper understanding of irrational thinking.
Stuart Vyse of Connecticut College in New London has highlighted our natural urge to find cause and effect in coincidences. And he suggests that superstitions are seen as an insurance policy, a variant of "Pascal’s wager", referring to how the 17th-century philosopher thought that it was rational to believe in God, just in case.
Shelley Taylor at the University of California in Los Angeles has done research to show how "positive illusions" – such as an unrealistic optimism, or an illusion of personal control – can offer psychological benefits, particularly in times of stress.
The more we understand about irrationality and why rational arguments fail, the better placed we are to apply rational thought to win over hearts as well as minds. Call it the rational case for irrational thinking.
In the last Congress, the House approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, only to see it die in the face of a Republican filibuster. This year, it’s happened again.
The first bill President Obama signed after taking office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to seek justice for pay discrimination. At the time, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) joined with Democrats to overcome strong Republican opposition to the bill.
But today, all three Republican senators voted against a motion to proceed on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that "would further strengthen current laws against gender-based wage discrimination." [...]
Women earn barely three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for the same work, but conservatives have invented a number of ludicrous reasons for opposing equal pay legislation. For example, the Heritage Foundation has suggested that equal pay laws actually hurt women because businesses simply won’t hire them if they are required to pay them fair wages. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has claimed that women would receive better compensation if they just had more "education and training."
The final tally was 58 senators supporting the measure, and 41 opposing. Because our Senate is often ridiculous, 41 trumps 58.
What’s more, note that this was only a vote on the motion to proceed. In other words, opponents didn’t just disagree with the proposal, they filibustered a measure that would have let the Senate debate the idea.
And what did those opponents have in common? Looking at the roll call, every Republican in the chamber voted to kill the Paycheck Fairness Act, while every Democratic except one supported it. The lone exception was, of course, Ben Nelson.
Soon after, President Obama issued a statement, noting, "I am deeply disappointed that a minority of Senators have prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from finally being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote. This bill passed in the House almost two years ago; today, it had 58 votes to move forward, the support of the majority of Senate, and the support of the majority of Americans. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in history, this bill would ensure that American women and their families aren’t bringing home smaller paychecks because of discrimination. It also helps businesses that pay equal wages as they struggle to compete against discriminatory competition. But a partisan minority of Senators blocked this commonsense law. Despite today’s vote, my Administration will continue to fight for a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work."
I’m reading a totally fascinating book, The Horse, The Wheel, And Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony.
The steppes are the great grass savannah that stretches from Bucharest and Odessa in the West all across Asia to the Great Wall of China. As Anthony points out, this great plain of grass was an impenetrable barrier so long as humans traveled by foot—but with the domestication of sheep, goats, and horses, and in particular with the invention of the wheel, it became instead a communications channel. And along that channel poured a people from whom sprang our modern languages and cultures.
Who were they? They were the Indo-Europeans, who spoke the Indo-European language—and that’s a story in itself, a story that in modern times begins with Sir William Jones, a British judge in India who wrote an electrifying sentence in 1786:
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
Sir William was studying Sanskrit because Indian law depended on texts in that language. He already knew Welsh, English, Latin, Greek, German, and Persian—quite an amazing guy.
Anthony describes how the efforts to learn Indo-European took off, propelled by a variety of motivations. That in itself is fascinating. Then he turns to what we have learned from pursuing the Proto-Indo-European language.
The only aspect of the Indo-European problem that has been answered to most peoples’ satisfaction is how to define the language family, how to determine which languages belong to the Indo-European family and which do not. The discipline of linguistics was created in the nineteenth century by people trying to solve this problem. Their principal interests were comparative grammar, sound systems, and syntax, which provided the basis for classifying languages, grouping them into types, and otherwise defining the relationships between the tongues of humanity. No one had done this before…
Historical linguistics gave us not just state classifications but also the ability to reconstruct at least parts of extinct languages for which no written evidence survives. The methods that made this possible rely on regularities in the way sounds change inside the human mouth. If you collect Indo-European words for hundred from different branches of the language family and compare them, you can apply the myriad rules of sound change to see if all of them can be derived by regular changes from a single hypothetical ancestral word at the root of all the branches. The proof that Latin kentum (hundred) in the Italic branch and Lithuanian shimtas (hundred) in the Baltic branch are genetically related cognates is the construction of the ancestral root *k’mtom-. The daughter forms are compared sound by sound, going through each sound in each word in each branch, to see whether they can converge on one unique sequence of sounds that could have evolved into all of them by known rules. (I explain how this is done in the next chapter.) That root sequence of sounds, if it can be found, is the proof that the terms being compared are genetically related cognates. A reconstructed root is the residue of a successful comparison.
Linguists have reconstructed the sounds of more than fifteen hundred Proto-Indo-European roots. The reconstructions vary in reliability, because they depend on the surviving linguistic evidence. On the other hand, archeological excavations have revealed inscriptions in Hittite, Mycenaean Greek, and archaic German that contained words, never seen before, displaying precisely the sounds previously reconstructed by comparative linguistics. That linguists accurately predicted the sounds and letters later found in ancient inscriptions confirms that their reconstructions are not entirely theoretical. If we cannot regard reconstructed Proto-Indo-European as literally “real,” it is at least a close approximation of a prehistoric reality.
The recovery of even fragments of the Proto-Indo-European language is a remarkable accomplishment, considering that it was spoken by nonliterate people many thousands of years ago and never was written down. Although the grammar and morphology of Proto-Indo-European are most important in typological studies, it is the reconstructed vocabulary, or lexicon, that holds out the most promise for archaeologists. The reconstructed lexicon is a window onto the environment, social life, and beliefs of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European.
… But the proto-lexicon contains much more, including clusters of words, suggesting that the speakers of PIE inherited their rights and duties through the father’s bloodline only (patrilineal descent); probably lived with the husband’s family after marriage (patrilocal residence); recognized the authority of chiefs who acted as patrons and givers of hospitality for their clients; likely had formally instituted warrior bands; practiced ritual sacrifices of cattle and horses; drove wagons; recognized a male sky deity; probably avoided speaking the name of the bear for ritual reasons; and recognized two senses of the sacred (“that which is imbued with holiness” and “that which is forbidden”).
All that by page 15. Terrific book.
They really, REALLY did not want American to have affordable access to healthcare. Lee Fang reports at ThinkProgress:
This morning, Bloomberg reporter Drew Armstrong broke anincredible story revealing that health insurance companies, like UnitedHealth and CIGNA, funneled $86.2 million into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 to pay for the Chamber’s multifaceted campaign to kill President Obama’s health reform legislation. In January of this year, the National Journal’s Peter Stone reported that insurers had pumped $20 million into the Chamber for its anti-health reform campaign. Armstrong’s report exposes the true extent to which insurers worked to fool the public and defeat health reform. However, the report also poses new questions about the role of insurance companies in the health reform debate.
Why did insurance companies try to hide their donations to the Chamber’s anti-health reform campaign? Given their own unpopularity and Obama’s pledge to be the first leader to successfully reform America’s broken health system, the health insurance industry hatched a plan to fundamentally deceive the public, the press, and politicians. Instead of fighting reform tooth and nail, the insurance industry worked to manipulate the process and ultimately kill reforms by adopting what ThinkProgress termed “The Duplicitous Campaign.” In public, health insurance lobbyists and executives promised to support reform and work closely with reform advocates. The top health insurance lobbyist, Karen Ignagni, went to the White House early in the reform debate and promised Obama, “You have our commitment to play, to contribute and to help pass health-care reform this year.”
In private, the health insurance industry worked with conservative think tanks and media, right-wing front groups, and highly ideological trade associations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber to kill the bill. By using third party groups and ideological covers, the health insurance industry sought to trick Americans into hating reform. In September of 2009, while many in the media still believed insurance executives were honestly supporting reform, ThinkProgress released a report detailing the ways in which the health insurance industry secretly worked to undermine the process and poison public opinion (read it here). We also produced a video with health insurance whistle-blower Wendell Potter, who explained how insurers control the debate to defeat reform:
ThinkProgress busted several anti-reform groups, like Conservatives for Patients’ Rights,Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights and Center for Medicine in the Public Interest as industry-created fronts used to deceive the public. As ThinkProgress has also first reported, health insurance companies like WellPoint and Blue Cross Blue Shield have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-reform talking heads like Newt Gingrich. In December of 2009, ThinkProgress produced an exclusive investigation showing how health insurance executives are also secretly working to undermine and undo reform on the state level by orchestrating state-based constitutional challenges to the law. The question for the press and for politicians becomes: we now know that health insurance companies absolutely lied to the public about its role in the reform process in 2009. How much are health insurers funding efforts to repeal the law and weaken health reform regulations?
According to a new report by HCAN, health insurers posted a 22 percent increase in profits for 2010, largely by shedding customers. How much of that money — money from health insurance premiums — is being used on right-wing lobbying campaigns instead of actual treatments and health care for the sick?
By now, you all have heard that the Republicans, in one of their first acts back from the midterm elections, have decided to scuttle START. Yes, that is crazy, obscene, and will undercut our foreign policy with Russia while making the world less safe, but to me, the craziest thing I’ve seen about the whole affair came in this NY Times write-up:
President Obama’s hopes of ratifying a new arms control treaty with Russia by the end of the year appeared to come undone on Tuesday as the chief Senate Republican negotiator moved to block a vote on the pact, one of the White House’s top foreign policy goals, in the lame-duck session of Congress.
The announcement by the senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican point man on the issue, blindsided and angered the White House, which vowed to keep pressing for approval of the so-called New Start treaty. But the White House strategy had hinged entirely on winning over Mr. Kyl, and Democrats, who began scrambling for a backup plan, said they considered the chances of success slim.
Really? This blind-sided them? Sweet mother of everything holy.
Just what the hell have the members of this administration been paying attention to for the last two years? The Republicans are going to do EVERY single thing they can to ruin your administration. If they sense there is the slightest chance for you to do anything positive or constructive, they will block it. Did you not see them demanding that Robert Byrd be wheeled to the floor of the Senate at midnight on Christmas to vote for HCR? Did they not learn from Chuck Grassley saying that sure, if everything I want in HCR is in there, I will still vote against it. Did they not learn anything from all their dealings with the snow princesses in Maine? Have they not learned anything from the antics of mean old man McCain in regards to DADT? Lindsey Graham on cap and trade and immigration? They are actively working to keep the economy in the shitter until 2012, for chrissakes.
With all due respect, what the hell are you idiots in the White House smoking? You incompetent boobs. THE REPUBLICANS WILL NOT WORK WITH YOU IN GOOD FAITH ON ANYTHING. Get it through your god damned heads. And they will screw you dim bulbs on tax cuts next, and then you all will throw up your hands and tell us no one could have predicted. The Republicans aren’t the only one living in their own reality, as this White House clearly has constructed a new reality in which Republicans act in good faith. It’s about as real as Narnia.
Fly With Dignity is a site that collects TSA horror stories and is putting up a petition to abandon the naked-photo scanners. Take a look.
The optimism hadn’t been expressed publicly, but the White House really did think it finally had a deal in place for Senate ratification of the new arms control treaty with Russia, New START.
Republicans had made Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) their point man on the issue — it’s not clear why, since Kyl has no background or working knowledge of the issue — and he made specific objections to the Obama administration clear. Officials, in response, gave Kyl what we asked for. The deal, they thought, was done.
Over many months of negotiations, the administration committed to spending $80 billion to do that over the next 10 years, and on Friday offered to chip in $4.1 billion more over the next five years. As a gesture of commitment, the White House had made sure extra money for modernization was included in the stopgap spending resolution now keeping the government operating, even though almost no other program received an increase in money.
All told, White House officials counted 29 meetings, phone calls, briefings or letters involving Mr. Kyl or his staff. They said they thought they had given him everything he wanted, and were optimistic about completing a deal this week, only to learn about his decision on Tuesday from reporters.
Kyl wouldn’t even give the White House the courtesy of a phone call to let them know he was betraying them and the nation’s national security needs. Worse, the dimwitted Kyl, with the future of American foreign policy in his hands, couldn’t even give a coherent rationale for why he’d made the decision — his office would only say "there doesn’t appear to be enough time" in the lame-duck session.
This is what happens when serious officials try to negotiate in good faith with Republicans — they refuse to take "yes" for an answer, they don’t have intellectual capacity to explain why, and the entire country has to suffer the consequences.
The bulk of the Republican foreign policy apparatus enthusiastically supports this treaty, as does the entirety of America’s military, diplomatic, and intelligence leadership. Matt Cooper noted late yesterday:
Indeed, Republicans will need to explain why they want to sit on a treaty that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has described this way: "I believe — and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes — that this treaty is essential to our future security. I believe it enhances and ensures that security. And I hope the Senate will ratify it quickly." [...]
There are risks for Republicans who follow Kyl and find themselves on the opposite side of the military and diplomatic community on ratification of the treaty.
There should be risks, but they don’t really exist. Let me put this plainly: They. Don’t. Care. They disregard the pleas of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and listen to the confused misjudgments of a buffoon from Arizona. They assume the public isn’t paying attention, so there won’t be political consequences. They expect this to hurt the foreign policy power of the United States, but they’re fine with that since there’s a Democratic president.
When it comes to Russia, inspection of the country’s long-range nuclear bases will remain suspended indefinitely; the country’s hard-liners will be emboldened; and Russia’s willingness to cooperate with U.S. on Iran or on Afghanistan will likely disappear.
But in the bigger picture, countries around the globe will see this as a reminder that negotiating with the United States is pointless, since the country is burdened with a Republican Party that puts partisan hatred above the country’s interests. It hurts American credibility in ways that are hard to even gauge.
Sleep well, Jon Kyl. Dream of the time when the United States had the respect and stature to lead the world.
The FBI continues to expand its role in domestic surveillance. Charlie Savage reports in the NY Times:
Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, traveled to Silicon Valley on Tuesday to meet with top executives of several technology firms about a proposal to make it easier to wiretap Internet users.
Mr. Mueller and the F.B.I.’s general counsel, Valerie Caproni, were scheduled to meet with senior managers of several major companies, including Google and Facebook, according to several people familiar with the discussions. How Mr. Mueller’s proposal was received was not clear.
“I can confirm that F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller is visiting Facebook during his trip to Silicon Valley,” said Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s public policy manager. Michael Kortan, an F.B.I. spokesman, acknowledged the meetings but did not elaborate.
Mr. Mueller wants to expand a 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to impose regulations on Internet companies.
The law requires phone and broadband network access providers like Verizon and Comcast to make sure they can immediately comply when presented with a court wiretapping order.
Law enforcement officials want the 1994 law to also cover Internet companies because people increasingly communicate online. An interagency task force of Obama administration officials is trying to develop legislation for the plan, and submit it to Congress early next year.
The Commerce Department and State Department have questioned whether it would inhibit innovation, as well as whether repressive regimes might harness the same capabilities to identify political dissidents, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
Under the proposal, firms would have to design systems to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages. Services based overseas would have to route communications through a server on United States soil where they could be wiretapped.
A Google official declined to comment. Mr. Noyes said it would be premature for Facebook to take a position.
Thanks to TYD for the link.
The contrast could not be more distressing. [I would say "damning" rather than "distressing." – LG]
The British government has decided to pay former detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tens of millions of dollars in compensation and conduct an independent investigation into its role in the mistreatment of prisoners.
The United States still operates the Guantánamo camp, with no end in sight. None of the truly dangerous terrorists there have been brought to justice, while many prisoners are still held who never should have been. The government not only refuses to come clean on this ignoble history, but it is covering up the Bush administration’s abuses by denying victims a day in court.
In July, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that there would be an independent investigation into Britain’s role in the mistreatment of detainees. On Tuesday, the government announced that it was compensating British citizens who were held at Guantánamo, six of whom filed a lawsuit accusing government agencies of complicity in their detention, torture and incarceration.
Three years ago, Canada apologized and paid compensation to Maher Arar, a Canadian torture victim, following an investigation into how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police mistakenly identified him as a terrorist. American authorities acted on that false information to arrest Mr. Arar and “render” him overseas. Even after the mistake was revealed, they continued to hold him.
The United States has neither compensated victims of illegal detention and abuse nor taken steps to hold the architects of the human rights abuses accountable. Indeed, some of the Obama administration’s biggest legal victories have come in shielding Bush-era officials by getting lawsuits brought by victims with credible claims of kidnapping and torture thrown out of court on specious secrecy grounds, without any testimony being heard.
Among the former detainees whom Britain has agreed to compensate is Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born former detainee with a British right of residency who said that he was tortured after American authorities sent him to Morocco. In September, a federal appeals court dismissed his case on unconvincing security grounds presented by Obama administration lawyers.
It will do no good for this nation’s tarnished human rights reputation that at the same time Britain took responsibility for its comparatively minor role in the ill treatment of terrorism suspects, former President George W. Bush was bragging in a new book that he had personally authorized the repeated use of a form of simulated drowning called waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of Sept. 11.
At least someone is owning up to the awful legacy of Mr. Bush’s illegal detention policies.
Obama’s legacy is irremediably stained by his contempt for the rule of law and his determination to protect malefactors. This is becoming increasingly clear to many observers. From Greenwald:
. . . Also from the Department of Glaring Contrasts, we have this:
Britain to Compensate Former Guantánamo Detainees
Bidding to restore the reputations of MI5 and MI6 and to rebuild damaged intelligence links with the United States, the British government said on Tuesday that it had agreed to pay compensation running into millions of dollars to 15 former detainees at Guantánamo Bay and one man still held there who have accused Britain’s intelligence agencies of colluding in their torture in the American-run detention system. . . .
They have said in their lawsuits that agents of MI5 and MI6 worked closely with the C.I.A. and other American agencies involved in their interrogation, and must have known about the torture and mistreatment. They said they suffered so-called stress techniques like sleep deprivation; subjection to extremes of noise: heat and cold, beatings and death threats.
The [Canadian] prime minister apologized Friday to a Syrian-born Canadian [Maher Arar] and said he would be compensated $8.9 million for Ottawa’s role in his deportation by U.S. authorities to Damascus, where he was tortured and imprisoned for nearly a year. . . . Arar’s case was an example of rendition, a practice in which the U.S. government sends foreign terror suspects to third countries for interrogation. He was exonerated in September after a two-year public inquiry led by Associate Chief Justice of Ontario Dennis O’Connor.
The [British] settlement represents the first time any Guantanamo Bay detainee, of 779 who have passed through or are still held at the military prison in Cuba, has received a financial settlement because of his incarceration. . . . The George W. Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the federal courts, have rejected the idea of compensation. . . .
A number of former Guantanamo detainees have tried to sue in the United States. The courts have dismissed every case on the grounds that the government agencies and officials named have immunity from such civil lawsuits. . . .
The Bush and Obama administrations have also invoked the “state secrets” privilege to end a number of lawsuits that charged that various government and private entities were complicit in torture.
“The Obama administration continues to shield Bush-era torturers from accountability in civil proceedings by blocking judicial review of their illegal behavior,” said Steven Watt, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “To date, not a single victim of the Bush administration’s torture program has had his day in a U.S. court. The U.S. can no longer stand silently by as other nations reckon with their own agents’ complicity in the torture program” . . . .
But another former U.S. military officer praised the British action. “Without getting into whether they are good guys or bad guys, there is a global obligation that we don’t condone torture, and the U.S. has done everything to avoid its duty under domestic and international law to prevent and atone for torture,” said retired Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, who resigned in 2007 after alleging political interference in the military’s legal process.
It was clear from that start that, standing alone, Obama’s steadfast devotion to protecting and shielding all Bush crimes from any form of accountability — and his active blocking of all victims from obtaining compensation or any form of justice in a court of law — seriously mars his record, his legacy and his character. That other nations are providing exactly the accountability that Obama has desperately sought to prevent makes that even more apparent. The British are acting with less than pure motives here — they are particularly concerned that allowing these lawsuits to proceed will expose their intelligence agencies to judicial scrutiny — but the fact that their political and legal system (and Canada’s and Sweden’s and others’) does not permit a total whitewash of these crimes while ours eagerly does speaks volumes about comparative notions of justice and the rule of law — especially since, first and foremost, they are American crimes. Leaders of the Free World.