Later On

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

Archive for August 4th, 2010

The facts that Judge Walker finds

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Marc Ambinder:

Here’s what you need to know about Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision invalidating California’s Proposition 8, a referendum passed by voters that banned same-sex marriage. The decision itself will be appealed, and Walker’s reasoning could serve as the basis for argument at the appellate level — or, the appeals court could decide to argue the case a completely different way.

What matters are the facts that Walker finds. Why? As Chris Geidner notes, "[the] judge or jury who makes the findings of fact, however, is given deference because factual determinations are aided by the direct benefit of the judge or jury at trial. On appeal, Judge Walker’s findings of fact will only be disturbed if the appellate court finds any to be clearly erroneous."

Walker, in his decision, writes that "Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gays and lesbians for denial of a marriage license." He evaluates as credible witnesses the panel of experts who testified against Proposition 8, and finds fault with the credentials of several witnesses who testified against same-sex marriage, including David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values:

Blankenhorn’s testimony constitutes inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight," Walker writes. "Blankenhorn gave absolutely no explanation why manifestations of the deinstitutionalization of marriage would be exacerbated (and not, for example, ameliorated) by the presence of marriage for same-sex couples. His opinion lacks reliability, as there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion Blankenhorn proffered.

Here are the relevant facts Walker finds: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

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Nice Q&A with Daniel Okrent re: Marijuana legalization

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Daniel Okrent wrote the recent book on Prohibition (alcohol). The questions begin:

Last week, we solicited your questions for Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  He has answered your questions with gusto. Big thanks to Okrent and all of you for turning in another great Q&A.

Q. As an ardent believer in the legalization of marijuana, as well as most other currently illegal drugs, I’d be curious to know if you find any corollaries between the current ‘War on Drugs’ (which we’re losing and will continue to waste time and money on) and prohibition? – Mark Clark

A. The obvious parallel between Prohibition and the war on drugs is their shared futility, establishing that you just can’t legislate against human appetites. There’s also the consequent enrichment of those who would try to satisfy those appetites outside the law: the bootleggers of the 1920’s and the drug syndicates of today.

But the common aspect that suggests, to me, that our drug laws will be changing radically over the next few years is the government’s inability to derive revenue from the sale of liquor then, drugs today. No factor played a larger role in the repeal of Prohibition than the government’s desperate need for revenue as the country fell into the grip of the Depression. Before Prohibition’s advent, a substantial amount of federal revenue came from the excise tax on alcohol. As the collection of income taxes and capital gains taxes plummeted between 1930 and 1933, politicians realized that the return of liquor and beer could help shore up federal finances. In fact, in the first post-repeal year, 1934, fully nine percent of federal revenue came from the revived alcohol tax.

In today’s political climate, where no one seems to be willing to raise income-tax rates, both state and federal governments are turning increasingly to excise taxes, use taxes and other levies that could easily be applied to marijuana. Californians will be voting on such a measure — it’s actually called the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act” – this November.

Q. Why did it require a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol but prohibitions against other drugs — marijuana, e.g. — require no special amendments? — Jim S   . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Drug laws

Donate to the Cordoba Project

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From xpostfactoid:

In the demagogue’s parade highlighted in today’s Times’ coverage of Mayor Bloomberg’s heroic defense of the plan to build an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, one particularly vicious thug stood out:

But even as the mayor called for the mosque to be embraced, those opposed to the project pledged to aggressively fight it, using both litigation and public pressure. A prominent Republican and foreign policy analyst said he was working with business, civic and political leaders to organize a campaign to persuade architects, contractors and donors to steer clear of the project. He said they would also aggressively scrutinize any donors who supported it.

The Republican, Daniel Senor, a former high-ranking official with the coalition government in Iraq, said that anybody who works with the center “needs to know there is going to be a real stigma associated with this project.”

“Do they really want to be involved with something so detrimental, that might set New York back?” he asked.

Aggressively scrutinize any donors? What’s he going to do, put them on a terrorist watch list? Is this kind of intimidation legal?  And where do I sign up to donate? [UPDATE: hereAndrew, your donation is now complete]

What’s next, a Muslim kristallnacht?

Bloomberg was right yesterday —  “this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.” We are entering the danger zone.

In case you missed it, you can donate to the Islamic Center (The Cordoba Project) here. I made a fairly substantial donation, feeling guilty about the extreme bigotry displayed by so many—like Dan Senor, but of course one expects little from that source.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 2:30 pm

Food notes

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Whole Foods today had red Fresno peppers, so I got about a quart and have made pepper sauce:

  • Cut stems off the peppers. (No need to core or seed.)
  • Put peppers into blender.
  • Add 4 dried ancho peppers.
  • Add white vinegar to cover. (I actually used a mix of Sherry vinegar and Marsala vinegar, with a little balsamic added.)
  • Add 1/4 c. kosher salt.
  • Blend.
  • Put in pot, bring to boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Pour into blender, and blend again.
  • Funnel into bottles.

I have 4 1-cup bottles, filled to the top (so the total amount is well over a quart).

I also got a veal shank and I’m making some variation of osso buco.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 2:03 pm

Militarization and the Authoritarian Right

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Very good post by Barry Eisler (and I also highly recommend the (free) book The Authoritarians (PDF)):

Yes, former Bush administration speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen’s demand that "WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped" is, as his colleague Eva Rodriguez notes, "more than a little whacky." But it’s useful, too, because an infatuation with the notion of using the military in non-military operations, particularly domestic ones, is a key aspect of the modern American right and of the rightwing authoritarian personality. Examining Thiessen is a good way to understand both.

Thiessen lays out his premise in his first sentence: "WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise." The premise is silly — unless the Washington Post for whom Thiessen writes and every other news organization that seeks and publishes leaks is a criminal enterprise, too (apparently Thiessen didn’t bother to read 18 USC 793, which he cites as the basis for his opinion about criminality, citing it instead just to sound authoritative). But as whacky as the premise is, it’s nothing compared to Thiessen’s conclusion.

Which is: that the government "employ not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring [Wikileaks founder Julian] Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business." This notion — that crime should be fought with the military — is part of the creeping militarization of American society. You can see it, too, in rightist support for military tribunals to replace civilian courts in trying terror suspects; in the increasing militarization of our border with Mexico; in the numbers of soldiers deployed in American airports and train stations; and in then Vice President Cheney’s attempt to have the military supplant the FBI in arresting terror suspects on American soil.

Thiessen tried to back away from his authoritarian argument when Rodriguez called him on it, but his disavowal rings false…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Government

Isn’t it too late already?

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I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that the US will respond to climate change until it’s way too late. But some still try: Bill McKibben writes in the LA Times:

Try to fit these facts together:

•According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record.

•A "staggering" new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40% since 1950.

•Nine nations so far have set their all-time temperature records this year, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May — a hair under 130 degrees.

•And then, in late July, the U.S. Senate decided to do exactly nothing about climate change. It didn’t do less than it could have; it did nothing, preserving a perfect two-decade bipartisan record of no action. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided not to even schedule a vote on legislation that would have capped carbon emissions.

I’m a mild-mannered guy, a Methodist Sunday school teacher. I’m not quick to anger. But the time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.

For many years, the lobbying fight for climate legislation on Capitol Hill has been led by moderate environmental groups, outfits such as the Environmental Defense Fund. We owe them a great debt, and not just for their hard work. We owe them a debt because they did everything the way you’re supposed to: They wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly and compromised at every turn.

By the time they were done, they had a bill that would have capped carbon emissions only from electric utilities (not factories or cars) and was so laden with gifts for industry that if you listened closely, you could actually hear the oinking. Sen. John Kerry, the legislator they worked most closely with, issued this rallying cry as the final negotiations began: "We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further."

And even that was not enough. They were left out to dry by everyone — not just Reid, not just the Republicans. President Obama wouldn’t lend a hand either. [President Obama seems to hate confrontations and avoids fights. – LG]

The result: total defeat, no moral victories.

So now we know what we didn’t before: Making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, but it didn’t work. So we’d better try something else.

Step 1 involves actually talking about global warming. For years now, the accepted wisdom was: talk about anything else — energy independence, oil security, beating the Chinese to renewable technology.

But the task at hand is to keep the planet from melting. We need everyone, beginning with the president, to start explaining that basic fact at every turn.

It is the heat, and also the humidity. Because warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is about 5% moister than it was 40 years ago, which explains the freak downpours that seem to happen someplace on this continent every few days.

It is the carbon. That’s why the seas are turning acid, a point Obama could have made with ease while standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Energy independence is nice, but you need a planet to be energy independent on.

Step 2, we have to ask for what we actually need, not what we calculate we might be able to get. If we’re going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, we don’t actually need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry. We need a stiff price on carbon, set by the scientific understanding that we can’t still be burning black rocks a couple of decades hence.

Asking for what you need doesn’t mean you’ll get all of it. Compromise still happens. But as David Brower, the greatest environmentalist of the late 20th century, explained amid the fight to save the Grand Canyon: "We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else propose the compromise."

Which leads to the third step in this process: …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 11:19 am

Orangutans are really cool

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In IQ tests, I’ve read the orangutans drive researchers crazy. They’ll give a puzzle to a chimp, and the chimp goes to town: turning it, shaking it, wiggling pieces, biting it, throwing it, and in generally staying very busy until the puzzle is broken or solved.

Give the same puzzle to an orangutan, and it will just sit there, looking at it and holding it, for several minutes. Then it will solve the puzzle in one move. The researchers hate that it doesn’t show its work.

And now this report from Jonah Lehrer at Wired:

Lie down on the couch, television blaring, a bowl of chips on your stomach and a Big Gulp of cola on your chest. If you need anything, yell for it. Wait a few hours. Guess what? You’re still burning more energy than a fully active orangutan.

According to a new study of orangutan energy expenditure, our close evolutionary cousins use less energy, pound for pound, than almost any other mammal. The findings could help illuminate how humans became so energy-intensive.

“Such an extremely low rate of energy use has not been observed previously in primates,” wrote researchers led by Washington University anthropologist Herman Pontzer Aug. 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers studied four orangutans — Azy, Knoby, Katy and a four-year-old named Rocky — at the Great Ape Trust, an Iowa-based center for non-invasive studies of great ape behavior, communication and culture.

To measure energy use, the researchers dosed the orangutans’ water with traceable molecules of hydrogen and oxygen, then measured how the concentration changed in the orangutans’ urine. Lost oxygen could be attributed to carbon dioxide produced as a body burns fat, carbohydrates and protein. This provided a true-to-life snapshot of energy use, far more detailed than at-rest metabolic rates produced by most primate metabolism studies.

Over the course of two weeks, the orangutans used even less energy than predicted. They used far less energy per unit of body weight than humans, or macaque monkeys on calorie-restricted diets, or hibernating lemurs. Excepting egg-laying mammals like duck-billed platypuses, or marsupials like kangaroos — whose odd reproductive habits and evolutionary histories make them metabolic outliers — the orangutans appeared to use less energy than every mammal except three-toed sloths.

A sloth can spend its adult life in a single tree, moving so slowly that moss grows on it. But orangutans are quite active, and the Great Ape Trust orangutans are no different. Inside their multi-acre, open-air woodland habitat, their activity patterns resembled those seen in the wild.

The findings suggest “a physiological adaptation for minimizing energy throughput previously unknown in apes,” wrote the researchers. And whatever the mechanism may be, the findings also raise the question of why the orangutans require so little energy.

The researchers think it’s an evolutionary adaptation to boom-and-bust cycles in the availability of the endangered orangutans’ South Asian rain forest fruit fare. This fits with their extremely slow growth and reproduction rates. By contrast, humans — which last shared a common ancestor with orangutans between 12 million and 16 million years ago — are fast-growing and fast-breeding.

Improvements in hunting and gathering “may ultimately explain why human reproductive rates diverged,” the researchers wrote.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:58 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Interesting comment on New York

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James Fallows:

In complimenting Mayor Bloomberg’s wise statement of toleration for a proposed mosque in lower Manhattan, I noted that this moment made New York seem wholly "American." Tim Heffernan, proud New Yorker, writes to set me straight:

Just a point of order: We like to measure America by its relative New Yorkness. Yougottaproblemwitdat?
Joking aside, though, I have felt for awhile that New York under Bloomberg has approached some sort of American ideal. Culturally libertarian, fiscally prudent, entrepreneurial to the Nth, and, yes, genuinely tolerant in the adult "that’s life" way rather than the treacly "we are all one" way lip-serviced by patriotic scoundrels left and right. The Cordoba House affair just encapsulates the difference between our America and much of the rest of it. We got hit on 9/11. And we did not let it change us. I can’t say that for the rest of the country.

True enough. For the moment, I heart NY.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:52 am

Posted in Daily life

Curiosity: The greatest gift?

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One characteristic of people I like is that they are curious. Incurious people are curiously uninteresting. Jonah Lehrer writes about curiosity at Wired:

Curiosity is one of those personality traits that gets short scientific shrift. It strikes me as a really important mental habit – how many successful people are utterly incurious? – but it’s also extremely imprecise. What does it mean to be interested in seemingly irrelevant ideas? And how can we measure that interest? While we’ve analyzed raw intelligence to death – scientists are even beginning to unravel the anatomy of IQ – our curiosity about the world  remains mostly a mystery. (According to one review of the literature, the amount of research on curiosity peaked in the late 1940s.) Einstein would not be pleased: “I have no special talents,” he once declared. “I am only passionately curious.”

Nevertheless, progress is occurring; our curiosity about the brain is even leading us to understand curiosity. One of the most interesting recent papers comes from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, and was led by Min Jeong Kang. The experiment itself was straightforward: Nineteen Caltech undergrads were asked 40 trivia questions while in a brain scanner. After reading each question, the subjects were told to silently guess the answer, and to indicate their curiosity about the correct answer. Then, they saw the question presented again, followed by the correct answer. That’s it.

The results of the fMRI experiment are an intriguing, if limited, glance at the neural processes underlying creativity. The first thing the scientists found is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for abstract information – this is the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that also responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll. This reminds me of something Read Montague,  a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, told me a few years ago: “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a sweet treat,” he said. “His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner…You don’t have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”

The elegance of this system is that it bootstraps a seemingly unique human talent to an ancient mental process. Because curiosity is ultimately an emotion, an inexplicable itch telling us to keep on looking for the answer, it can take advantage of all the evolutionary engineering that went into our dopaminergic midbrain. (Natural selection had already invented an effective motivational system.) When Einstein was curious about the bending of space-time, he wasn’t relying on some newfangled circuitry. Instead, he was using the same basic neural system as a rat in a maze, looking for a pellet of food.  I’ll let the scientists have the last word:

Understanding the neural basis of curiosity has important substantive implications. Note that while information-seeking is generally evolutionarily adaptive, modern technologies magnify the amount of information available, and hence the potential effects of curiosity. Understanding curiosity is also important for selecting and motivating knowledge workers who gather information (such as scientists, detectives, and journalists). The production of engaging news, advertising and entertainment is also, to some extent, an attempt to create curiosity. The fact that curiosity increases with uncertainty (up to a point), suggests that a small amount of knowledge can pique curiosity and prime the hunger for knowledge, much as an olfactory or visual stimulus can prime a hunger for food, which might suggest ways for educators to ignite the wick in the candle of learning.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:50 am

Confessions of a Tea Party casualty

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Very interesting article by David Corn at Mother Jones:

It was the middle of a tough primary contest, and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) had convened a small meeting with donors who had contributed thousands of dollars to his previous campaigns. But this year, as Inglis faced a challenge from tea party-backed Republican candidates claiming Inglis wasn’t sufficiently conservative, these donors hadn’t ponied up. Inglis’ task: Get them back on the team. "They were upset with me," Inglis recalls. "They are all Glenn Beck watchers." About 90 minutes into the meeting, as he remembers it, "They say, ‘Bob, what don’t you get? Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.’" Inglis didn’t know how to respond.

As he tells this story, the veteran lawmaker is sitting in his congressional office, which he will have to vacate in a few months. On June 22, he was defeated in the primary runoff by Spartanburg County 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, who had assailed Inglis for supposedly straying from his conservative roots, pointing to his vote for the bank bailout and against George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq. Inglis, who served six years in Congress during the 1990s as a conservative firebrand before being reelected to the House in 2004, had also ticked off right-wingers in the state’s 4th Congressional District by urging tea-party activists to "turn Glenn Beck off" and by calling on Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) to apologize for shouting "You lie!" at Obama during the president’s State of the Union address. For this, Inglis, who boasts (literally) a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, received the wrath of the tea party, losing to Gowdy 71 to 29 percent. In the weeks since, Inglis has criticized Republican House leaders for acquiescing to a poisonous, tea party-driven "demagoguery" that he believes will undermine the GOP’s long-term credibility. And he’s freely recounting his frustrating interactions with tea party types, while noting that Republican leaders are pushing rhetoric tainted with racism, that conservative activists are dabbling in anti-Semitic conspiracy theory nonsense, and that Sarah Palin celebrates ignorance.

The week after that meeting with his past funders—whom he failed to bring back into the fold—Inglis asked House Republican leader John Boehner what he would have told this group of Obama-bashers. Inglis recalls what happened: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:47 am

Posted in Daily life, Election, GOP

Peter Beinart on the decline of the ADL and the rise of its double standard

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Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast:

The other day, when the Anti-Defamation League came out against building a mosque near Ground Zero, I think I heard a sound—the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

The ADL calls itself “the nation’s premier civil rights/human relations agency.” Coming from an explicitly Jewish organization, that’s an audacious claim. But it’s an inspiring one, too. The ADL was born in 1913, after a Georgia jury falsely convicted a Jewish factory owner named Leo Frank of murdering a Christian employee. The men who defamed, and later lynched, Frank were anti-Semites. But they were not only anti-Semites. Three months after Frank’s murder, some of his tormenters met on Georgia’s Stone Mountain to refound the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that would now dedicate itself not merely to terrorizing African-Americans, but to terrorizing Catholics and Jews as well.

Against this backdrop, the founders of the ADL made their organization a kind of mirror image of the Klan. If the Klan saw anti-Semitism as one component of the struggle to maintain white, Protestant supremacy, the ADL would make its opposition to anti-Semitism one component of the struggle against white, Protestant supremacy. If bigotry was indivisible, anti-bigotry would be indivisible too. “The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people,” declared the ADL’s charter. “Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”

For much of the 20th century, the ADL lived this mission well. It opposed Joe McCarthy, lobbied for civil rights, and denounced the anti-Catholic bigots who insinuated that John F. Kennedy would take orders from Rome. Then came the creation of the state of Israel. For the ADL, Israel posed a conundrum: the conundrum of Jewish power. In the United States, it was relatively easy to oppose all forms of discrimination while still serving particular Jewish interests, since Jews—by virtue of their place in society—were bigotry’s victims but rarely its main perpetrators. But Israel was different. While Israel’s Jews certainly suffered from Arab bigotry and violence, the Jewish state also perpetrated a great deal of bigotry and violence itself, especially after 1967, when it made itself occupier of millions of Palestinians to whom it denied the vote.

Had the ADL genuinely tried to apply its universalistic mandate to the Jewish state, it would have become something like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) or B’Tselem (full disclosure: I’m on B’Tselem’s American board): Israeli human rights organizations that struggle against all forms of bigotry, and thus end up spending a lot of time defending Muslims and Christian Palestinians against discrimination by Jews. But the ADL hasn’t done that. Instead it has become, in essence, two organizations. In the United States, it still links the struggle against anti-Semitism to the struggle against bigotry against non-Jews. In Israel, by contrast, it largely pretends that government-sponsored bigotry against non-Jews does not exist. When Arizona passes a law that encourages police to harass Latinos, the ADL expresses outrage. But when Israel builds 170 kilometers of roads in the West Bank for the convenience of Jewish settlers, from which Palestinians are wholly or partially banned, the ADL takes out advertisements declaring, “The Problem Isn’t Settlements.”

For a long time now, the ADL seems to have assumed that …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:42 am

Wikileaks: The National-Security State strikes back

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Important post at Harper’s by Scott Horton:

WikiLeaks’ disclosure of the 91,000 U.S. government documents that it labels the “Afghan War Diary” raises a number of vital issues. Most of the discussion so far has focused on the significance of the documents themselves. They make the intelligence community look not so intelligent, and they make a number of political leaders look like dissemblers, spewing claims about the situation in Afghanistan that can’t really be squared with information in their briefing portfolios. But quite apart from their contents, the WikiLeaks documents are a test for America’s voracious national-security state. Its response to them gives us a sense of how it intends to fight perceived threats to secrecy.

An Information War Targeting WikiLeaks. Field officers of the intelligence community urgently need to play a game of misdirection–relabeling the threat that is presented to them. They will argue that the WikiLeaks disclosures imperil the safety of American forces on the ground, America’s allies, and thus every American citizen sitting at home. They will find few facts to back this contention, but that won’t stop them. This argument already been rolled out repeatedly. Almost immediately on publication, it was in a statement issued by Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones. The latest variant is the claim, advanced last week at the Pentagon, that the leaks have disclosed the names of Afghans who collaborate with the U.S. military. That’s certainly a plausible argument—and it’s regrettable that WikiLeaks decided to publish the documents without blocking these names—but so far the concern is hypothetical rather than real. In any event, however, the first stage in the effort to build public support will be to demonize WikiLeaks. It will be accused of endangering men and women in uniform, even though it might be better described as a channel in which they can vent their frustration at institutionalized stupidity and wrongdoing. Much of the American media, which filled the airwaves with bogus claims about WMDs in Iraq, can be counted on to view WikiLeaks as an adversary rather than an ally.

Making an Example of the Leaker. Focal to the response will be a harsh and heavy-handed prosecution or court-martial of the leaker. The message to other would-be whistleblowers must be clear. Cross us, and we will destroy you. You have no law or rights to hide behind. We can and will turn you into the enemy. At this point, attention is focused on Private Bradley Manning, a young enlisted man from Potomac, Maryland, who was arrested and detained in Kuwait. He appears to have been denied access to independent counsel and held incommunicado outside the country. Reports also indicate that criminal investigators are looking to identify individuals who may have facilitated his leak. A student at MIT was identified this past weekend as having assisted Manning in some Internet maneuvers. While the facts remain to be fully developed, it seems hard to see how Manning can mount a meaningful legal defense. The military whistleblower statute carves out a very narrow zone in which uniformed service personnel can disclose classified information; Manning does not appear to be in a position to avail himself of these defenses. Considering the weakness of Manning’s position, the heavy-handed tactics which are being applied against him are mystifying displays of asymmetrical legal warfare.

Destroying WikiLeaks. But the major target surely is WikiLeaks itself, and on this score the goal of the national-security state is unambiguous. WikiLeaks must be destroyed. Indeed, as I noted in March, long before these leaks, the Army Counterintelligence Center had prepared a 32-page secret plan to destroy WikiLeaks. The memo notes that the American intelligence community has valuable allies in the struggle against WikiLeaks—China, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. It recommended emulating the tactics used by these tyrannical states:

The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the Web site.

Finally, it argues that WikiLeaks itself must be criminalized and put out of business.

There is some evidence that this strategy is in fact being implemented. The Huffington Post reports:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:38 am

Ignorance of the law a valid excuse for cops

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Radley Balko:

Part of a recurring theme. In addition to my prior post today, here’s a roundup of other photography/video stories in the news of late:

  • Earlier this month, Carlos Miller—who runs the Photography Is Not a Crime blog—was “banned” from Miami’s Metrorail system after guards from the firm hired to provide security for the system, and then Miami police officers, wrongly told him he wasn’t permitted to shoot video at the train station. Miller returned this week with his camera and a crew from HDNet TV. Things got violent.
  • The Washington Post catalogs a number of incidents in which police have arrested, harassed or detained photographers and cell phone videographers in jurisdictions where the law is quite clear on their right to record and photograph in public.
  • Also from the Times, an incident in which a photographer was wrongly stopped by police from taking pictures at an Amtrak station. He was shooting for a photography contest sponsored by Amtrak.

The common thread in all of these stories is that the police were wrong on the law, and the photographers were right. If the photographers had been mistaken, they could be arrested and charged. Not knowing the law isn’t an excuse for breaking it. But when law enforcement officials don’t know the law, and wrongly prevent someone from photographing or recording, or even illegally detain and arrest someone, it’s a shrug and a sigh and we all move on.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

The "third-person effect" in persuasion

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Interesting post from PsyBlog:

One of the most intriguing things about the psychology of persuasion is how many people say that persuasion attempts have little or no effect on them. Other people, oh sure, adverts, work on them. But not you and I, we’re too clever for that.

Attractive woman holding a bottle of beer? Hah! How stupid do they think we are? We know what they’re doing and we wouldn’t fall for such cheap tactics.

Would we?

So pervasive is this feeling that only ‘other’ people are influenced by things like adverts that many studies have explored the idea, with an initial surge in the 1980s and 90s. Psychologists wanted to see how much people thought they were influenced by persuasive messages like adverts and compare it with actual attitude changes, if any.

Typically these studies first got participants to watch an advert, read a newspaper article or other medium containing a persuasive message. Then they were asked how much it had influenced them and how much it might influence other people. Since the experimenters measured actual persuasion and knew from previous research how influential the messages were, they could compare people’s guesses with reality.

What they found, in study after study, was that participants thought others would be influenced by the message, but that they themselves would remain unaffected. When psychologists looked at the results, though, it was clear that participants were just as influenced as other people. This was dubbed the ‘third-person effect’.

Reviewing the research in this area, Perloff (1993) found that studies on political adverts, defamatory news stories, public service announcements and many more all showed a robust third-person effect. Similar conclusions were reached by Paul et al. (2000), who looked at 32 separate studies.

Perloff also found that when people don’t agree with the message or judge its source as negative, the third-person effect became even stronger. The effect is also stronger when messages aren’t directly relevant to people.

In other words people are likely to be influenced more than they think on subjects that are currently of little or no interest to them. An everyday example would be seeing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the market for a new car. We’d probably guess it has little or no influence on us, but this research suggests we’d be wrong.

The third-person effect is unusual because it goes against the general finding that we overestimate other people’s similarity to ourselves.

This is what psychologists call the false consensus effect: we tend to assume that others hold more similar opinions and have more similar attributes and personalities to ourselves than they really do.

The third-person effect, though, goes in the other direction. When it comes to influence, instead of thinking other people are similar to us, we think they’re different. There are two facets of human nature that support this exception:

  • Illusion of invulnerability. People prefer to believe that they are, on average, less vulnerable than others to negative influences, like unwanted persuasion attempts. We all want to protect our sense of control over our lives. One way we do that is to assume that ads only work on other people.
  • Poor self-knowledge. Although it’s an unpalatable idea, we often don’t know what’s really going on in our own minds (see the hidden workings of the mind). Not only does this make scientific psychology a tricky enterprise, it also means that many of our intuitions about the way our own minds work are scrambled and subject to biases like the illusion of invulnerability. The effect of persuasive messages is a good example of this.

People often react to this sort of research by saying it’s disheartening, which it is. It’s not a happy thought that we don’t know how easily we are influenced because we don’t really know what’s going on in our own minds.

However, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending influence attempts don’t work is likely to increase our vulnerability. On the other hand, if we acknowledging our lack of insight into our own thought processes, we can raise our defences against the power of advertising and messages of influence, and take back control for ourselves.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:31 am

Genesis of a paranoid conspiracy theory

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Amazing. Jonah Lehrer at Wired:

This blog post makes me sad. It’s about a story I wrote and how it was horribly twisted into a dangerous nugget of right-wing paranoia. Last week, my profile of Robert Sapolsky was posted online. While most of the story is about the dangerous effects of chronic stress, the last several hundred words explore a new research project being undertaken by Sapolsky and others, which is often referred to as a “stress vaccine”:

After several years of genetic engineering — it’s not easy to substitute all the dangerous genes with their therapeutic replacements — Sapolsky began introducing the modified herpes virus into rodent brains. Then he induced a series of tragedies, such as a massive stroke or an extended seizure, which would trigger the release of glucocorticoids. (Chronic stress is like a slow-motion stroke.) Within minutes, the modified herpes virus began pumping out neuroprotective proteins, which limited the extent of cell death. As a result, the damage was contained. For instance, rats given the herpes treatment were able to stave off practically all cell loss, while control rats lost nearly 40 percent of neurons in a given region. In the hippocampus, neuronal death was reduced substantially. “To be honest, I’m still amazed that it works,” he says. “It’s not going to help anybody soon” — the research is still years away from clinical trials — “but we’ve proved that it’s possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress.”

Now for the bad news. Apparently, one of the most popular Google Trend searches for August 3 was “brain eating vaccine”.  The blog reconstructs the timeline:

…When the Wired article becomes available, it’s quickly picked up by London’s Daily Mail where it’s aggressively paraphrased and a little sensationalized from 6800 words down to less than 400. These 400 words in the Daily Mail imply that Sapolsky is working to create a vaccine that will eliminate feelings of stress. Based on the Daily Mail article, the kind of people who are worried that world governments are conspiring to sterilize and/or pacify their populations through drugs in their water supplies conclude that Sapolsky is working to rid us of our emotions via his vaccine project. Since this theoretical vaccine would work by altering brain chemistry, the excitable folks decide that it’s going to destroy people’s brains and thus encourage folks to search for “brain eating vaccines”.

And so a decade of careful experimental research is reduced to a delusional rant about how the “elite” are moving to “lobotomize, zombify global population”. I don’t want to post the actual video of Alex Jones, but if you want to see what happens when the paranoid style in American politics fuses with YouTube and molecular biology – the video is a greatest hits of idiotic conspiracy theories, from the government putting lithium in the water to drug addiction vaccines that destroy brain tissue – you should check it out. The saddest part, of course, is that this diatribe has already been seen by tens of thousands of people. Paranoia sells.

If you happened to find this article by searching on Google for a “brain eating vaccine,” please know that there is no such thing. Alex Jones is a liar.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

Horsehair-badger combo

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The little badger+horsehair Vie-Long brush did a fine job: very good lather and plenty of it. Probably the improvement is in part because the brush is getting broken in. I do like the Vintage Blades shaving soap. Three passes with the Apollo Mikron holding a Swedish Gillette blade and the face is smooth—and fragrant now as well with Pinaud’s Clubman aftershave.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2010 at 8:20 am

Posted in Shaving

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