Later On

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

Archive for April 16th, 2009

The US could stand to follow Europe’s lead in some things

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For example, Marion Nestle in Food Politics:

The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (”antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3’s: “supportive …

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16 April 2009 at 6:01 pm

Garlic prep in the movie Goodfellas

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The background music is Bobby Darin singing Somewhere Beyond the Sea, a very big song for me in my Sophomore year of college.

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16 April 2009 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Video

Another video to make us feel better

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Embedding was turned off for this video. Sorry about that. I don’t quite understand why they do that, but there it is.

BTW, you can sign up with Amazon to get her new CD when it’s released.

UPDATE:  Good story in the LA Times.

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16 April 2009 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Daily life, Music, Video

More Maru

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Watching Maru makes me not so cranky.

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16 April 2009 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Cats, Daily life, Video

Addressing educational inequality

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Nicholas Kristof has an interesting column today:

Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics.

After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It,” which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.

Professor Nisbett provides suggestions for transforming your own urchins into geniuses — praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity — but focuses on how to raise America’s collective I.Q. That’s important, because while I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.

Intelligence does seem to be highly inherited in middle-class households, and that’s the reason for the findings of the twins studies: very few impoverished kids were included in those studies. But Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia has conducted further research demonstrating that in poor and chaotic households, I.Q. is minimally the result of genetics — because everybody is held back.

“Bad environments suppress children’s I.Q.’s,” Professor Turkheimer said.

One gauge of that is that when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study. For example, …

Continue reading.

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16 April 2009 at 2:43 pm

Good news on gay marriage in New York

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Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2009 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Spencer Ackerman agrees: Gen. Hayden makes no sense

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Spencer Ackerman:

The Obama administration is apparently going to release the 2005-era Office of Legal Counsel memoranda about what torture techniques the CIA could employ. Keep hitting refresh here. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell had former CIA Director Mike Hayden on to make the case against disclosure of the memos, and for the life of me, I can’t see how this argument isn’t indicative of a certain outdated mode of thinking. Hayden:

The president, when he issued his executive order tying all American agencies to the Army field manual, also launched a six-month study to determine whether or not the field manual, the Army field manual and the 19 techniques contained therein, are sufficient in all cases facing the Republic. We’re in the midst of that study. To make these techniques public — and Andrea, I must admit, I’ve not seen the redacted version, so I don’t know the final decision — but to the degree to which we make these techniques public, to tell our enemies the outer limits of American interrogation techniques, it moots the study that the president directed, because it effectively takes these techniques off the table.

Well, yes, exactly. The only way this would be problematic is if you believe the Obama administration issued the executive order banning torture as a public cover while it secretly let the CIA return to Bush administration-era practices. Even then, it’s not totally problematic, because we know from numerous public disclosures in the press that the CIA has, for instance, waterboarded people. In that nefarious circumstance, at least Hayden’s point would have some merit, because the administration could always withhold official recognition about what techniques the CIA employed in interrogations. It would be a lie. But still.

But in fact, officials all down the line — from President Obama to Attorney General Holder to CIA Director Panetta — have expressly forsworn torture. They embraced the Army field manual, which is not legally problematic from a Geneva Conventions-compliance perspective, precisely for that reason.  There are important vagaries, because the field manual can’t envision every conceivable case, and that’s what the review is going to address. And since I see that the president has put out a statement in the time it’s taken me to write this post, I’ll just quote Obama:

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program – and some of the practices – associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.

Radical concept.

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16 April 2009 at 1:39 pm

NSA revelations prompt outcry for restoring FISA

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Interesting story by Spencer Ackerman in the Washington Independent:

In 2007 and 2008, as the Democratic-led Congress and the Bush administration collaborated in rewriting several elements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, civil libertarians in and outside of Congress warned that the changes would institutionalize wide-ranging surveillance by the National Security Agency on U.S. citizens. In the wake of the revelations that the NSA “overcollected” domestic communications even beyond the boundaries of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, many are claiming vindication — and vowing to lead an effort, once thought to be a longshot, to restore old FISA protections.

“It was a classic I-told-you-so moment,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the Washington director of the ACLU. “So many protections in FISA were dismantled by the FISA Amendments Act. We predicted this would happen.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday night that the NSA acknowledged to Congress that it had engaged what it called an “overcollection” of communications — which the paper called “significant and systemic” — belonging to U.S. citizens without connection to terrorism. The Justice Department said in a statement that it had taken “comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance” with the law, but did not specify how the law was broken; what measures were necessary to return the surveillance program to legality; nor what safeguards it enacted to prevent what the NSA is calling unintentional “overcollection” of domestic communications in the future. Attorney General Eric Holder has reauthorized the NSA surveillance program, the paper reported.

Civil liberties groups are currently reviewing their options for rolling back changes to the FISA law undertaken last year that established what they say is a permissive legal framework for the disclosed abuse, and they see the new administration as an ally, even despite recent policy decisions that have disappointed civil libertarians. “I don’t know if I’ve seen anything that would lead me to think Holder is unwilling to revisit the rules,” Fredrickson said.

After The New York Times disclosed in 2005 that the Bush administration ordered the NSA to engage in warrantless surveillance of communications that included the phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens as part of its response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration and Congress in 2007 sought to change the standards for seeking a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court established by the FISA law of 1978.

Several rounds of heated negotiations led to the emergence and passage, in July 2008, of a bill that allowed the NSA to seek a generalized warrant from the court to allow surveillance on intelligence “targets” as long as the agency “reasonably” believed one party to a communication to be outside the United States at the time of surveillance. It did not require the agency to submit to the court a finding of individualized suspicion indicating that a specific surveillance target was reasonably believed to pose a threat to national security. The law established a biannual review process, conducted jointly by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence, to ensure that the process fell within those loosened restrictions, which civil libertarians warned were ripe for abuse.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama voted for the bill.

“We were right,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, one of the principal groups pushing against the FISA Amendments Act’s abandonment of individualized suspicion. In passing the FISA Amendments Act last year, she said, then-President Bush and then-Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell “refused to explain or even mention what kinds of powers they really gave the NSA, in particular with regard to call and email record data. We continually tried to say, ‘hey, this authorizes a massive collection of meta-data” — a term referring to non-substantive information about the origin of communications, such as the Internet Protocol addresses from which emails originate, but not the substance of a communication — “with no safeguards on Americans.’” …

Continue reading. I suspect some of the energy comes from the discovery that NSA contemplated wiretapping a Representative or Senator. I bet a whole lot of Reps and Senators have conversations that that REALLY don’t want a government agency to hear—arranging payments, reassuring contributors, and the like.

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16 April 2009 at 1:35 pm

The Bush program of torture

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People are studying the newly released memos frantically, and already scanned images are starting to be posted. Daphne Eviatar has an interesting observation:

Here are some highlights from the May 30, 2005 memo from former Office of Legal Counsel director Steven Bradbury:

1) The Convention Against Torture does not apply outside the United States, or anywhere where the US has de fact control: hence, it does not apply to CIA “black sites”, which are in other countries. Therefore, the CIA can torture people there and not have to worry about the law.

2) However, even if the CAT did apply, it only applies if the techniques “shock the conscience” in a constitutional sense. Because the methods are derived from SERE techniques which are part of U.S. military training (albeit training for soldiers to resist torture by foreign captors), and because the techniques are “carefully limited to further the Government’s paramount interest in protecting the Nation while avoiding unnecessary harm,” the OLC concludes that they do not “shock the conscience.”

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16 April 2009 at 1:31 pm

Holder reaffirms rule of law, but doesn’t say how he’ll enforce it

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Daphne Eviatar in the Washington Independent:

In a keynote speech at the opening of the West Point Military Academy’s Center for the Rule of Law last night, Attorney General Eric Holder made a point of breaking with the Bush administration by affirming the United States’ commitment to international law and acknowledging that the United States has not always lived up to those legal commitments. But even as he extolled the the military officials who’ve stood up for the rule of law, he carefully avoided mentioning the controversial legal policies initiated by the Bush administration that his own Justice Department continues to support. And he failed to explain how the Obama administration can credibly claim to uphold the rule of law when it refuses to investigate the most egregious legal violations by its predecessors.

“There are some today who argue that as the most powerful military force on earth, international laws will only hinder our efforts and endanger our strength,” said Holder in one of the stronger moments of his speech. “But I reject the very premise of that argument. . . . our strength as a country is amplified – not diminished – when we expand the sphere of the rule of law across the globe.”

In part, Holder’s statement was an implicit endorsement of Harold Hongju Koh, President Obama’s nominee for State Department legal advisor. Koh has been harshly criticized by conservative Republicans for writing that international law should guide all nations, including the United States.

But many of Holder’s other statements seemed more to highlight the controversies of his own Justice Department than to take any specific principled stand.

Holder acknowledged, for example, that the United States has “not always been immune to the impulse to sacrifice the timeless principles of the rule of law to the transient fears of the moment,” without specifically mentioning the Bush administration’s violations of the Geneva Conventions or the Convention Against Torture, or how he intends to respond to them.

Holder is now under great pressure to restore the law-abiding reputation that the United States lost during the Bush years. Whether he can do that will rest in part on how he responds to the Bush administration’s torture and abuse of detainees – all clear violations of domestic and international law. So far, he has skirted the issue, although he’s consistently claimed that “no one is above the law.” …

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16 April 2009 at 1:22 pm

Glenn Greenwald on the memo release

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16 April 2009 at 1:19 pm

Obama continues to defy the law and treaties

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Obama has released the memos, but stated strongly that he will not obey the legal requirement to investigate and punish war crimes, a requirement in law (torture is against US law) and by treaties the US is party to. This is not a good sign. Once you begin to pick and choose which laws to enforce, you’re on the way to rule by whim—or worse, rule by influence, with parties that have influence able to ignore the law while those without are punished.

I’m not particularly interested in punishing the underlings who actually did the torture—though they should definitely have known better. I’m interested in investigating and punishing those who ordered the torture. But that’s too much for Obama, apparently. Those who ordered the torture have lots of money and influence, so they get off. That’s the US way, nowadays.

I’m disgusted. Can you tell?

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16 April 2009 at 12:34 pm

Obama’s statement on release of the OLC memos

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UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has a good column that includes a video interview: Andrea Mitchell interviewing Gen. Michael Hayden. Although Gen. Hayden is quite sure that releasing the memos will be damaging to the US, he can’t state exactly what that damage would be. He does say if terrorist know the techniques, then they will be better able to resist. I don’t see how that follows: professional interrogation techniques are generally effective when used by an experienced interrogator. I guess I just don’t believe Gen. Hayden.

News story in the Washington Post.

Statement of President Barack Obama on Release of OLC Memos:

The Department of Justice will today release certain memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005 as part of an ongoing court case. These memos speak to techniques that were used in the interrogation of terrorism suspects during that period, and their release is required by the rule of law.

My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

But that is not what compelled the release of these legal documents today. While I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, I also believe that in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is classified for purposes of national security. I have already fought for that principle in court and will do so again in the future. However, after consulting with the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, and others, I believe that exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release.

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program – and some of the practices – associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

Going forward, it is my strong belief that the United States has a solemn duty to vigorously maintain the classified nature of certain activities and information related to national security. This is an extraordinarily important responsibility of the presidency, and it is one that I will carry out assertively irrespective of any political concern. Consequently, the exceptional circumstances surrounding these memos should not be viewed as an erosion of the strong legal basis for maintaining the classified nature of secret activities. I will always do whatever is necessary to protect the national security of the United States.

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

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16 April 2009 at 12:27 pm

Robert Gates and the future of the US military

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Very good post by James Fallows:

I mentioned last week Robert Gates’s remarkably lucid argument for why the Air Force should stop most future purchases of the wonderful-if-we-could-afford-it-but-we-can’t F-22 fighter plane.

Yesterday, he went to the Air War College, at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, to lay out the rationale for thinking about the F-22 and defense planning in general. Why "go to the war colleges to discuss this topic?" Gates asked rhetorically in the speech. Because "these recommendations are less about budget numbers than they are about how the U.S. military thinks about and prepares for the future."

If you’re interested in such thinking and preparation, the speech is very much worth reading. It includes passages like the following, which to put it mildly are not what we’ve mainly heard from Secretaries of Defense over the decades (emphasis added):  

Another important thing I looked at was whether modernization programs, in particular ground modernization programs, had incorporated the operational and combat experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicles was that a program designed nine years ago did not adequately reflect the lessons of close-quarter combat and improvised explosive devices that have taken a fearsome toll on our troops and their vehicles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

Finally, I concluded we need to shift away from the 99 percent "exquisite" service-centric platforms that are so costly and complex that they take forever to build and only then in very limited quantities.  With the pace of technological and geopolitical change, and the range of possible contingencies, we must look more to the 80 percent multi-service solution that can be produced on time, on budget, and in significant numbers. As Stalin once said, "Quantity has a quality all of its own."

Does this mean that everything Gates proposes is right, that the defense budget has been pared to the essentials, and that all systemic problems have been solved? Of course not. The best single starting point for the necessary ongoing critique is the venerable "Defense and the National Interest" site here, or the book America’s Defense Meltdown which I have so often touted, now on sale here.

But Gates in this speech (and some previous ones) does the very things I found admirable in Barack Obama’s recent long-form economic presentation. He treats the audience like adults, he fairly presents opposing viewpoints, and he explains why he nonetheless considers the path he’s on the most sensible one. All in all, he sounds like a man who makes his own decisions on the basis of evidence and logic — and who presents issues as if he expects the public to do the same. That’s worth noticing.

Update: For an extensive (and very supportive) parsing of the intellectual and argumentative structure of Obama’s economic speech, see this entry at XPostFactoid.

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16 April 2009 at 12:06 pm

"Mustn’t talk about Bush anymore"

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Leonard Pitts Jr in McClatchy:

So apparently, we’re not allowed to talk about George W. Bush anymore.

I found this out recently after opining in this space about a newspaper report documenting the use – actually, the uselessness – of Bush-approved torture on a supposed al-Qaeda terrorist. In response came notes from a handful of Bush dead-enders that might fairly be summarized as follows:

"He’s been out of office over two whole months. Stop talking about him. You’re living in the past. Move on."

You had to take it with the proverbial granule of salt since, as you’ll recall, those folks weren’t particularly receptive to people criticizing Bush when he was in office, either. Anyway, my correspondents told me what I should be spotlighting is President Obama’s recent gaffe: a deep bow before the king of Saudi Arabia that has the conservative blogosphere vibrating with rage (which is to say, normal, status quo).

To be fair, the episode offers reason for vexation if not quite apoplexy. As I understand protocol, the president of the United States doesn’t bow from the waist before anyone. Nor is the White House explanation – the gangly chief executive leaned over to better shake hands with the vertically-challenged monarch – particularly convincing. No, it was just a dumb thing to do, not least because it gives fresh ammunition to conspiracy goobers still peddling the idea that Obama is a closet Muslim.

And you know what? One day soon, we will add it all up – gaffes like that one, accomplishments, scandals, controversies – and begin to construct a picture of How It Was during the Obama era.

We will sift through it all in search of such lessons as might prove valuable down the road. That is precisely the process that is going on now with regard to our 43rd president. And it also is precisely the thing some of his faithful seem determined to forestall. They say the time is past to be talking about the Bush administration. But for goodness sake, we are still debating the Reagan administration! So it is hard to see why a presidency that ended barely three months ago is somehow off limits to critical scrutiny…

More to the point:

Continue reading.

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16 April 2009 at 11:39 am

Dianne Feinstein calls for a hearing into NSA’s domestic surveillance

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Interesting: Sen. Feinstein voted to gut FISA and give the telecoms immunity. Don’t know what her payoff was, but it looks as though she’s have second thoughts—I would imagine that her hearing is just to provide cover for her run for governor rather than from any concerns about her actions. The story in the NY Times:

The head of the Senate intelligence committee said Thursday that she would hold a hearing to examine the National Security Agency’s interception of domestic communications after new reports that recent wiretapping went beyond what Congress has authorized.

“These are serious allegations, and we will make sure we get the facts,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who leads the Senate intelligence committee. “The committee is looking into this, and we will hold a hearing on this subject within one month.”

The New York Times reported in Thursday’s editions that the N.S.A. had intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, citing interviews with government officials. The agency also sought in 2005 or 2006 to wiretap an unidentified congressman as part of a foreign intelligence operation, The Times said.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been active in overseeing intelligence issues, said Thursday that the report of wiretapping problems was part of “a tragic retreat from the principles that had governed the sensitive area of government surveillance for the previous three decades.”

Mr. Feingold called for reforms in intelligence law as well as the public release of certain aspects of wiretapping operations “so that the American people can better understand their scope and impact.”

Continue reading.

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16 April 2009 at 11:37 am

100 and one faces

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16 April 2009 at 11:31 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Big Business stymies Democrats

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Sad:

Source: New York Times, April 10, 2009

Despite Barack Obama‘s bold rhetoric on global warming, the administration is pursuing a more timid line both domestically and in international negotiations leading to the COP15 conference in Copenhagen in December. John M. Broder notes that Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, defended the Obama administration‘s lack of leadership in negotiations on the grounds that it was waiting to gauge domestic political support, technological capacity and whether Congress is willing to set specific greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have publicly welcomed the administration’s cautious approach, major environmental groups prefer to remain mute. Broder writes that while environmental advocates are "frustrated," most are "reluctant to speak on the record for fear of alienating their allies inside government."

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16 April 2009 at 11:17 am

“Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn”

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Unofficial fan video for Evelyn Evelyn’s song “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn”, out on the album Elephant Elephant from Jason Webley’s Eleven Records, and containing contributions from Amanda Palmer as well as Jason.

The Evelyns: http://www.myspace.com/everythingevelyn
The director: http://www.alexdecampi.com
The animator: http://www.nodicestudios.ca

If you like this song, you should also check out the work of Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, because they’re lovely: http://www.amandapalmer.net http://www.jasonwebley.com

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16 April 2009 at 11:14 am

Posted in Daily life, Jazz, Video

How bacteria communicate

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16 April 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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