Later On

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

Archive for April 28th, 2008

Improve IQ through training

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Interesting—from New Scientist, reported by Alison Motluk:

Can mental training improve your intelligence? No video game or mental puzzle has convincingly been shown to work. But now a group of neuropsychologists claims it has found a task that can add points to a person’s IQ – and the harder you train, they say, the more you gain.

So-called “fluid intelligence”, or Gf, is the ability to reason, solve new problems and think in the abstract. It correlates with professional and educational success and it appears to be largely genetic.

Past attempts to boost Gf have suggested that, although by training you can achieve great gains on the specific training task itself, those gains don’t transfer to other tasks.

Now Susanne Jaeggi at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, US, and her colleagues say that is not true.

They invited 70 healthy adults to participate in a challenging training exercise known as the “dual n-back” task.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Trials at Guantánamo hopelessly compromised

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The testimony of the former chief prosecutor shows how bad it is:

The Defense Department’s former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases appeared Monday at the controversial U.S. detention facility here to argue on behalf of an accused terrorist that the military justice system has been corrupted by politics and inappropriate influence from senior Pentagon officials.

Sitting just feet from the courtroom table where he had once planned to make cases against military detainees, Air Force Col. Morris Davis instead took the witness stand to declare under oath that he felt undue pressure to hurry cases along so that the Bush administration could claim in advance of political elections that the system was working.

His testimony in a small, windowless room — as a witness for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, an alleged driver for Osama bin Laden — offered a harsh insider’s critique of how senior political officials have allegedly influenced the functioning of the system created to try suspected terrorists outside existing military and civilian courts.

Davis’s claims, which the Pentagon has previously denied, were aired here as the Supreme Court is nearing a decision on whether the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that laid the legal foundation for these hearings violates the Constitution by barring any of the approximately 275 remaining Guantanamo prisoners from forcing a civilian judicial review of their detention.

Davis told Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, who presided over the hearing, that top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, made it clear to him that bringing charges against some of the most notorious detainees before elections this year could have “strategic political value.”

Davis said he wanted to wait until the cases — and the military commissions system — had a more solid legal footing. Davis also said that Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II, who announced his retirement in February, once bristled at the suggestion that some defendants could be acquitted, an outcome that Davis said would give the process added legitimacy.

“He said, ‘We can’t have acquittals,’ ” Davis said under questioning from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, the military counsel who represents Hamdan. ” ‘We’ve been holding these guys for years. How can we explain acquittals? We have to have convictions.’ ”

Davis also decried as unethical a decision by top military officials to allow the use of evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques. He said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal adviser to the top military official overseeing the commissions process, was improperly willing to use evidence derived from waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. “To allow or direct a prosecutor to come into the courtroom and offer evidence they felt was torture, it puts a prosecutor in an ethical bind,” Davis testified. But he said Hartmann replied that “everything was fair game — let the judge sort it out.”

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:10 pm

Cool (and useful) Firefox add-in: NoSquint

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Take a look—extremely useful for aging folks.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:28 pm

Posted in Firefox, Software

Ron Mueck, hyper-realistic sculptor

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Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:18 pm

Posted in Art

Bush does not support the troops

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Not in any way. Look at this Phil Carter column in the Washington Post:

Last year, the Washington Post illuminated the horrors of barracks life for wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed. The coverage ended careers, triggered Congressional inquiries, and catalyzed building improvements and numerous other fixes. More broadly, the scandal opened America’s eyes to the larger challenges facing military personnel and veterans today.

Unfortunately, problems like those at Walter Reed still exist, and they exist throughout the Army, even at some of its most storied bases. When his son came home to Fort Bragg, N.C., from a combat tour in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, one father found massive infestations of mold, peeling paint, standing water, rust, ripped out fixtures and many other problems in his son’s barracks. Instead of merely getting angry, he made a YouTube video documenting what he saw:

Absolutely appalling and disgusting. But unfortunately, not surprising.

Those barracks probably aren’t WWII-vintage, as the video says. That concrete style was built sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. You’ll find similar barracks at Fort Campbell, Fort Benning, and Fort Hood, among other bases.

Still, these old buildings are in a state of perpetual decay. They cannot handle the human load of full occupancy, because their infrastructure (wiring, plumbing, etc.) is simply too aged. Expert maintenance supervised by hawkish sergeants major can keep these buildings in decent shape. But when left empty, as during a unit deployments, such buildings fall apart. Mold grows. Railings rust. Sewers clog. The building become uninhabitable.

There’s no excuse for this. These buildings are on active-duty bases. Fort Bragg might not have the troops to take care of barracks back home, but it could have contracted for this job or found another way to get it done. It failed to do so. And once again, it’s the soldiers and veterans who must pay the price.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:16 pm

Chutzpah in the mortgage industry

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Look at this article in the Washington Independent by Mary Kane:

The mortgage industry is fighting the Federal Reserve’s attempts to put limits on lending following the meltdown of the subprime market, the New York Times reports today.

Keep in mind the industry put up the same kind of battle the last time the Fed tried to expand its powers under the Home Ownership Equity Protection Act, a tool it can use to restrict lending. The lenders won that time around a decade ago, and the Fed wound up applying that law to fewer than one percent of all mortgages, the Times noted.

Had the Fed been more forceful, consumer advocates say, much of the subprime lending abuses that took place and that have led to high default rates could have been avoided.

This time around, the mortgage industry -which apparently lacks any sense of irony – says that new rules on lending will make loans more expensive and restrict credit.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about the Fed here, not a quasi-Communist movement that wants to take over the private sector. All the Fed is considering asking is that lenders disclose to borrowers sales fees that previously had been hidden, make sure borrowers actually can afford their mortgages, and prohibit misleading advertising.

That’s hardly onerous – it’s just requiring lenders to play by the rules. Consumer groups already are worried the Fed is going to water down even those modest proposals in the face of industry pressure.

Goes to show you that not everyone learns from their mistakes, even the Fed.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:14 pm

Another Clinton “Oops.”

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Interesting. David Sirota points out a major Clinton oversight, given her experience and all:

In my upcoming book, The Uprising, one of the threads tying together the disparate forms of populism on both the Right and Left is a sense of confused frustration at a political system whose politicians employ disinformation and propaganda to make basic economic issues indecipherable. This has been no more obvious than on the issue of trade and globalization in the presidential race – and Hillary Clinton’s latest television ad (which is also a standard part of her stump speech) shows exactly what I’m talking about.

Clinton is airing this advertisement in Indiana, bemoaning the closure of a defense contractor Magnequench’s manufacturing plant in Valparaiso (she is also echoing this line in her stump speeches). Looking at the camera, she tells us she’s upset that the 200 jobs that were sent to China, and that “now America’s defense relies on Chinese spare parts.” And then comes the kicker: She tells viewers that “George Bush could have stopped it, but he didn’t.”

Clinton is certainly right that it is a tragedy that 200 American jobs were killed in a corporate deal that also exported sensitive military technology to China. But she forgets to mention that it wasn’t George Bush who was in the key position to stop it – it was Bill Clinton.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Democrats, Election

Secondhand cigarette smoke

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I’ve been on blogs and in forums where the issue of secondhand smoke has come up, and conservatives leap to deny that secondhand smoke is at all harmful. If you beat them down on the facts, their fallback position is that, even if it is harmful, the government (local, state, or federal) shouldn’t do anything about it—let the free market decide. I just spotted this story on WebMD:

Just 30 minutes in a smoky room can cause profound blood vessel injury in healthy young adults, greatly increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study published in the May 6 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that suggests that there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke, contains an array of harmful chemicals, including nicotine, which have been shown to increase one’s risk for cardiovascular disease. Exposure to such smoke causes upwards of 50,000 heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers every year in the United States, making it a major public health concern.

Study author Christian Heiss, MD, currently affiliated with the University RWTH Aachen in Germany, and colleagues in California evaluated blood vessel function in healthy, young, nonsmoking adults after they were exposed to a half hour of secondhand smoke at levels commonly found in public smoking areas. The study participants also underwent similar evaluations after exposure to smoke-free air on a different day.

The researchers learned that in healthy nonsmokers, even brief exposure to secondhand smoke resulted in blood vessel dysfunction and interfered with the activity of endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs), which are believed to play a key role in repairing blood vessels. The damage to the EPCs appeared to last as long as a day.

“Taken together, these findings provide further evidence that even a very short period of passive smoke exposure has strong, persistent vascular consequences,” the scientists write in the journal article.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 4:07 pm

Our shameful Supreme Court

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It’s not just Scalia—the SCOTUS has taken a sharp turn to the right. Here is Kevin Drum’s pithy comment on the decision that upholds Indiana’s voter ID law:

The Supreme Court today upheld Indiana’s shiny new voter ID law, a law that plainly fails to address any actual problem. Or does it? From the lead opinion:

It remains true, however, that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years, and that Indiana’s own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago Mayor — though perpetrated using absentee ballots and not in-person fraud — demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.

And what are the examples of voter fraud that John Paul Stevens managed to adduce to support this paragraph? Marty Lederman tells us: (1) Boss Tweed stuffing ballot boxes in 1868, (2) a case in Washington state in which one person committed voter fraud, and (3) a 2003 case of fraud in Indiana which, as Stevens acknowledges, the new law wouldn’t cover because it was done via absentee ballot.

Presumably these were the best examples that anyone could come up with. And what do you conclude from them? That’s easy: in-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare while absentee voter fraud is, perhaps, a problem genuinely worth addressing. Needless to say, though, Indiana’s law does exactly the opposite: it requires voter ID for in-person voting and does nothing to ensure the integrity of absentee voting.

We all know why this is: it’s because, as Common Cause reminds us, restricting in-person voting tends to reduce turnout among minorities, the elderly, voters with disabilities, the poor, and the young — all of which, though CC is too polite to mention it, tend to vote Democratic. Absentee voters, by contrast, tend to vote Republican.

So what’s the real motivation for Indiana’s law? That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? And pretty shameful.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 12:04 pm

Free shipping from Amazon.com

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I paid for Amazon Prime, so I get free shipping (and two-day delivery) on all purchases. I figure that it has saved me money from buying an additional item just to get above the $25-purchase needed for free shipping. But via Cybernet, there’s this Web-based application that will search for items (in the categories you specify) that cost just the amount you need to get to $25. You can even make it a Firefox add-on. And when I tested it, looking for a $3.80 item in several categories, I got a very long list, including even some items of interest.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 11:20 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

A little test for you

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Via Healthbolt, I found the brief Blue Zones Vitality Compass test. So I took it to find out:

And so how’d I do? Glad you asked. (I suspect this will be of interest only to family.)

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 10:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Health

Baked beans update

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I did make the baked beans, and they turned out pretty good—but I had to do some intervention. They started soupy and stayed soupy until I removed the cover and turned up the oven from 200º to 275º for the last few hours. So I need to work on the recipe so that the intervention isn’t necessary. But I think I have the right mix of ingredients. I basically used the ingredients in recipe #5, but added a good splash of Worcestershire sauce for umami. I used a bit more bacon and onion than the recipe specified.

As soon as this batch is gone, I’ll make another and if it works will post the final recipe.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:50 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

BBC spot from early April

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:45 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

Justifying the unjustifiable: torture

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Phil Carter, in his Washington Post blog “Intel Dump,” makes an excellent point (and the comments at the link are worth reading):

Among the more Kafkaesque arguments proferred by the Bush administration for its coercive interrogation (or torture) regime is this: Cruel, inhuman or degrading acts are not torture if they’re done with good intentions. That is to say, if an interrogator tortures someone because he honestly believes he is doing so to prevent another terrorist attack (as opposed to doing so for the sake of cruelty), then that’s okay. It’s an extreme interpretation of the intent requirement in the federal anti-torture statute. This argument permeates most of the torture memos, including the infamous Yoo-Bybee memo from August 2002 and the DoD Working Group memo from March 2003.

Today’s New York Times reports that the CIA’s interrogation program now relies on this argument for its legal foundation. In essence, because CIA officers believe they’re Jack Bauer, working hard to protect the country, they can’t be guilty of torture, no matter what they do. According to the Times:

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:39 am

Viktor Frankl

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I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning years ago. I was reading self-help books at the time, and I had a small list of those I found good—and every single one of those referenced Frankl’s book. I was interested to see that Mind Hacks had a post on it:

I’ve just finished reading the wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book written by psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl where he discusses his experiences and observations as a Nazi concentration camp inmate.

The book comes in two parts, the first recounts Frankl’s experience as an inmate in the concentration the second discusses the ideas behind the form of psychotherapy he developed, called logotherapy.

Unlike narrative accounts of concentration camp life such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Frankl describes scenes rather than a story, and uses them to explore the psychology of both the oppressed and the oppressors in the camp.

It is particularly outstanding in that it explores the social complexities of the concentration camps with remarkable subtlety, noting when the failings of the inmates and the humanity of the guards were present. He highlights that these seemingly out-of-places responses had the most impact amid the brutality of camp life.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:33 am

Posted in Daily life

Tagged with

Popular democracy

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Glenn Smith has an excellent article on popular democracy. It begins:

Can we repair our political practices and achieve something like the popular democracy that has remained always just around the corner? Popular democracy – a democracy in which the wisdom of a self-governing people is translated into policy – was opposed from the beginning of our nation’s history by the likes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a shrewd authoritarian who had the insight that capitalist elites, protected by federal charter and largesse, could rule safely as invisible monarchs. This, of course, unraveled the naïve hopes of Adam Smith, who attempted to include compassion and human sympathy within his rationalist model, and who thought a free, unfettered market economy would promote human sympathy, equality and understanding.

Today, the elite democracy view is embodied in top-down political practices that diminish the franchise and excuse voter suppression, advantage the wealthy through legal fiat that makes wealth and speech equivalent, reduce citizenship to passive consumerism, and maintain a class of political consultants and pundit elites who believe themselves a cut or two above the people they pretend to represent.

What’s loosely referred to as the “netroots revolution” is part of a revitalized progressive, popular democracy movement aimed at the reform of these practices. Its egalitarian emphasis is on engagement and action by the many. Citizens are entering the political sphere in numbers that threaten the hegemony of an elite class that has long dominated the Republican and Democratic parties. A good example of the movement’s spirit was seen in the overwhelming grassroots reaction against the patronizing and condescending performances of moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos during the ABC Obama/Clinton debate. Sen. Hillary Clinton revealed the elite’s us-and-them feelings of superiority when she told a private gathering of contributors that activists were getting in the way of their old-politics plans: “I mean, that’s what we’re dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions …” Clinton said.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:29 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Confessions of a sweatshop inspector

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Fascinating article by T.A. Frank. It begins:

I remember one particularly bad factory in China. It produced outdoor tables, parasols, and gazebos, and the place was a mess. Work floors were so crowded with production materials that I could barely make my way from one end to the other. In one area, where metals were being chemically treated, workers squatted at the edge of steaming pools as if contemplating a sudden, final swim. The dormitories were filthy: the hallways were strewn with garbage—orange peels, tea leaves—and the only way for anyone to bathe was to fill a bucket with cold water. In a country where workers normally suppress their complaints for fear of getting fired, employees at this factory couldn’t resist telling us the truth. “We work so hard for so little pay,” said one middle-aged woman with undisguised anger. We could only guess how hard—the place kept no time cards. Painted in large characters on the factory walls was a slogan: “If you don’t work hard today, look hard for work tomorrow.” Inspirational, in a way.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:16 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Credit card companies

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Remember how the result of making bankruptcy much more difficult would be that credit card rates could then be lowered? Or so said the credit card companies. Well, it turns out that they lied. Big surprise, eh. After reading Kathy Chu’s article in USA Today, doesn’t it seem that some Federal regulation is called for?

Even as the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates, financial institutions have sharply raised rates for credit card customers — even those who pay on time — as they grapple with losses from other bad consumer loans.

This month, Washington Mutual (WM) told some credit card customers that it was raising their rates by as much as 100%. Discover (DFS) is lifting its penalty rate to 31%, effective May 1, and may apply that maximum to consumers who exceed their credit limit twice in a rolling 12 months.

Bank of America (BAC) raised rates for some customers in March — triple, in some cases, though spokeswoman Betty Riess says, “It would be very rare.”

All three institutions say they reserve the right to adjust rates when customers become higher risks. [Even if the customer is paying all payments on time. And who judges risk? The credit card company. – LG] Keith Givens, a spokesman for Washington Mutual, also notes that the decision to raise some rates is “an indicator of overall deterioration in the economy.”

As banks deal with tough business conditions, their definition of risk is evolving: “It’s a lot like beauty; it’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Elizabeth Edwards on the media

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She has some harsh things to say—but they’re true:

FOR the last month, news media attention was focused on Pennsylvania and its Democratic primary. Given the gargantuan effort, what did we learn?

Well, the rancor of the campaign was covered. The amount of money spent was covered. But in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country this political season, the information about the candidates’ priorities, policies and principles — information that voters will need to choose the next president — too often did not make the cut. After having spent more than a year on the campaign trail with my husband, John Edwards, I’m not surprised.

Why? Here’s my guess: The vigorous press that was deemed an essential part of democracy at our country’s inception is now consigned to smaller venues, to the Internet and, in the mainstream media, to occasional articles. I am not suggesting that every journalist for a mainstream media outlet is neglecting his or her duties to the public. And I know that serious newspapers and magazines run analytical articles, and public television broadcasts longer, more probing segments.

But I am saying that every analysis that is shortened, every corner that is cut, moves us further away from the truth until what is left is the Cliffs Notes of the news, or what I call strobe-light journalism, in which the outlines are accurate enough but we cannot really see the whole picture.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 8:42 am

Posted in Daily life, Election, Media

Slant bar

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With a two-day stubble, the shave stick is irresistible. I picked up the D.R. Harris Almond shave stick, and the Rooney Heritage Alibaba Large quickly produced that wonderful Harris lather. I scanned the razor rack and decided on the Hoffritz Slant Bar, which already had an Astra Superior Platinum blade of some uses. Very nice shave—smooth and easy. The oil pass was done with Rituals Skincare shave oil, and the aftershave was Royall Spice. Quite a nice shave and a good start on a foggy morning.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2008 at 8:22 am

Posted in Shaving

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