Later On

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

Archive for March 2012

A Jewish view of modern-day Jewish political culture

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Very interesting excerpt from Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism that appears in Salon:

I remember walking back with my grandmother one night from synagogue, past the loquat trees of Sea Point, South Africa, the most beautiful Jewish ghetto in the world. I was a kid, and boasting about the United States, the country to which her daughter — my mother — had immigrated. She grew annoyed. “Don’t get too attached,” she announced. “The Jews are like rats. We leave the sinking ship. One day, please God, we’ll all join Isaac in Israel.”

Isaac was her brother. They had parted ways four decades earlier, as the ancient Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, broke under the strain of economic depression, Arab nationalism, and world war. My grandmother’s family were Sephardic Jews. They took their name, Albel-das, from a Spanish town cleansed of Jews five hundred years ago. From Spain, her ancestors crossed the Mediterranean. Her father hailed from Izmir in what is now Turkey, her mother from the Isle of Rhodes in what is now Greece.

When the Jewish community of Alexandria collapsed, everyone in the family except Isaac went south, to a corner of the Belgian Congo where Jews from Rhodes were congregating. A few years later, the Jews who still remained in Rhodes found themselves under Nazi rule. The Nazis rounded them up, stole their possessions, extracted their gold teeth, stripped them naked to search for hidden jewelry, starved them, and put them in cargo ships and sealed cars for the two-week trip to Auschwitz. Virtually the entire community — which dated from the second century B.C.E. — was murdered. Now there were no more Jews there either.

When the war ended, my grandmother moved again, this time to South Africa, where she met my grandfather. Fifteen years later, the Congo erupted in civil war, and the Jews there fled. Now, in her old age, racial violence was bloodying South Africa, too, and all around her, Jews were again packing their things. Only later did I realize: My grandmother had spent her life burying Jewish communities. So had her parents. She suspected I would do the same.

Yet she was at peace, because of Israel. She never joined Isaac, who ran a store in Haifa. But Israel’s existence calmed her, comforted her, rooted her. It made her feel that Jewish history was more than an endless cycle of estrangement and dislocation; it actually led somewhere. It made her feel that not all Jewish homes need be temporary, that all the running had not been in vain.

My life has been very different from my grandmother’s. But I have seen enough to understand how she feels. When I was thirteen, I watched footage of thousands of emaciated Ethiopian Jews, isolated from the rest of their people since the days when the First Temple stood, trekking through the Sahara to reach the planes that the Jewish state had sent to take them home. When I was fourteen, I saw a squat, bald Russian named Anatoly Sharansky — fresh from eight years in a Soviet jail — raise his hands in triumph as he descended the steps at Ben-Gurion Airport. In those soul-stirring scenes, I saw my grandmother’s Zionism — the Zionism of refuge — play out before my eyes. It became my Zionism, too. Like her, I sleep better knowing that the world contains a Jewish state.

But not any Jewish state. Roughly eighteen months ago, an Israeli friend sent me a video. It was of a Palestinian man named Fadel Jaber, who was being arrested for stealing water. His family had repeatedly asked Israeli authorities for access to the pipes that service a nearby Jewish settlement. But the Jabers have little influence over the Israeli authorities: like all Palestinians in the West Bank, they are subjects, not citizens. Partly as a result, West Bank Palestinians use roughly one-fifth as much water per person as do Jewish settlers, which means that while settlements often boast swimming pools and intensive irrigation systems, Palestinians fall far below the World Health Organization’s recommended daily water consumption rate. In the video, Israeli police drag Fadel toward some kind of paddy wagon. And then the camera pans down, to a five-year-old boy with a striped shirt and short brown hair, Khaled, who is frantically trying to navigate the thicket of adults in order to reach his father. As his father is pulled away, he keeps screaming, “Baba, Baba.”

As soon as I began watching the video, I wished I had never turned it on. For most of my life, my reaction to accounts of Palestinian suffering has been rationalization, a search for reasons why the accounts are exaggerated or the suffering self-inflicted. In that respect, I suspect, I’m like many American Jews. But in recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I had been lowering my defenses, and Khaled’s cries left me staring in mute horror at my computer screen.

Perhaps it is because my son is Khaled’s age. He attends a Jewish school, has an Israeli flag on his wall, and can recount Bible stories testifying to our ancient ties to the land. When he was younger, we thought he would call me Abba, the Hebrew word for father. But he couldn’t say Abba, so he calls me Baba, the same name Khaled calls his father.

One day, when they’re old enough to understand, I’ll tell . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2012 at 9:02 am

Rise in allergies linked to our war on bacteria

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Interesting note by Diana Gitig of Ars Technica:

“Allergic diseases have reached pandemic levels,” begins David Artis’s new paper in Nature Medicine. Artis goes on to say that, while everyone knows allergies are caused by a combination of factors involving both nature and nurture, that knowledge doesn’t help us identify what is culpable — it is not at all clear exactly what is involved, or how the relevant players promote allergic responses.

arstechnica

There is some evidence that one of the causes lies within our guts. Epidemiological studies have linked changes in the species present in commensal bacteria — the trillions of microorganisms that reside in our colon — to the development of allergic diseases. (Typically, somewhere between 1,000 and 15,000 different bacterial species inhabit our guts.) And immunologists know that signaling molecules produced by some immune cells mediate allergic inflammation.

 

Animal studies have provided the link between these two, showing that commensal bacteria promote allergic inflammation. But these researchers wanted to know more about how.

To figure it out, Artis and his colleagues at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine treated mice with a broad range of oral antibiotics to diminish or deplete their commensal bacteria and then examined different immunological parameters. They used a combination of five different antibiotics, ranging from ampicillin, which is fairly run of the mill, to vancomycin, which is kind of a nasty one.

They found that mice treated with antibiotics had elevated levels of antibodies known to be important in allergies and asthma (IgE class antibodies). The elevated antibodies in turn increased the levels of basophils, immune cells that play a role in inflammation, both allergic and otherwise.

This connection doesn’t only apply to mice but also to humans who have high levels of IgE for genetic reasons. People with genetically elevated levels of IgE are hypersusceptible to eczema and infections, and antibodies that neutralize IgE are used to treat asthma.

The antibiotic treatments and IgE did not act by promoting the survival of mature basophils, but rather by promoting the proliferation of basophil precursor cells in the bone marrow. Commensal bacteria limit this proliferative capacity.

That discovery is the real insight contributed by this paper. It has been well known for some time that . . .

Continue reading.

Here’s another brief note (from The Scientist) on the topic. I almost blogged this some days ago, with the idea that people (especially Americans?) who are culturally inclined to admire Rugged Individualism—the person who is entire unto him/herself, independent of others and not requiring help—tend to see the individual as remarkably separate (despite the fact that the individual’s clothing, food, shelter, knowledge, and language all come from other people, and all of us (save for some hypothetical handful) live interdependently with our fellows. In particular, as the note suggests, our own bodily processes cannot operate properly without the incorporation and cooperation of microbes that are not really a part of us but live in us and are essential to our health.

The line between us and our environment is very fuzzy indeed: we and our environment merge into each other.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2012 at 8:45 am

Interesting walking facts

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From Wendy Baumgartner at About.com’s Walking section:

If you add just 2000 more steps a day to your regular activities, you may never gain another pound. So says research by Dr. James O. Hill of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. To lose weight, add in more steps.

Move More
Sedentary people in the USA generally move only 2000-3000 steps a day. Previous studies have shown that moving 6000 steps a day significantly reduces risk of death, and 8000-10,000 a day promotes weight loss.

How far is 2000 steps? It is about a mile. But the benefits for health and for weight management don’t depend on you walking a mile all at one time, but simply adding in more steps throughout the day. . .

The post continues, discussing pedometers. I have to say, though, that the Fitbit Ultra has been delightful. It’s quite light—it weighs less than half an ounce: 0.4 oz. And you can clip it to your pyjama sleeve (or use the comfortable wristlet) and wear it while you sleep, which gives you this sort of information:

Being an old guy, I get up at night to pee—and I don’t require much sleep nowadays. (I note, BTW, that normally I fall asleep in 6-8 minutes—last night was an exception.)

It also tracks ascents (e.g., walking up hills), which it translates into “flights of stairs”. Altogether I’m very happy with this. You also have access to a food log, activity log, weight tracker (and you can link it to the Withings site so it automatically reflects info from the wireless Withings scale).

This is head and shoulders about any pedometer I’ve had.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2012 at 8:34 am

Interesting lifestyle in 5000-sq ft one-room home

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The guy who made this:

.

Very interesting profile by Joyce Wadler in the NY Times of a Czech who resettled in Utah:

WHEN a man escapes from an Iron Curtain country in an aircraft he built himself, perhaps it should not be surprising, nearly three decades later, to find him making his home in an airplane hangar.

The three runways surrounding Ivo Zdarsky’s hangar are not pristine, despite his continual battle with the badgers that burrow underneath, threatening them with collapse. But at least he has managed to keep them clear of the cattle. Lucin International Airport is what Mr. Zdarsky calls this place, though the only plane that lands regularly in this ghost town a 180-mile drive northwest of Salt Lake City is his own. (If you go to Ogden, 160 miles away, to stock up on groceries, it is good to have your own plane.)

Do not think, however, that the home of Mr. Zdarsky, who makes his living manufacturing airplane propellers, is austere. His great room — essentially his only room — is dominated by such big-box treasures as a 90-inch flat-screen TV, with four-foot-tall speakers in the corners of the room. There is also a drum set, a desk and a computer, two mattresses in front of the TV and an upside-down inflatable hot tub covered with a sheet and repurposed as a settee.

You must be really close to the U.P.S. guy, the reporter says.

“Brent,” says Mr. Zdarsky, 51, who retains the accent of his native Czechoslovakia, and has a high-pitched voice and a dry but wicked sense of humor. “He lives in Ogden. He is my lifeline to civilization.”

And sitting on the bed and settee, as casually as you might toss a sweater, are two assault weapons.

“I use them on the badgers because they dig in my ground,” Mr. Zdarsky explains. “You cannot imagine the damage these badgers do.”

In fact, looking around, the reporter counts seven weapons in the room. Specifics, please.

“That’s a .308 sniper rifle,” Mr. Zdarsky says. “That’s a .223 sniper rifle. There is a shotgun if the badgers get too close. There is a Belgium FS2000.”

He gestures toward some ammunition on a homemade table nearby. “That’s what our guys are using in Afghanistan. It’s very effective against badgers. And probably terrorists too.”

There is also camouflage clothing. Why would Mr. Zdarsky, who may be the only resident of Lucin, need camouflage clothing?

“Because they don’t get dirty,” Mr. Zdarsky says. “Plus, the badgers don’t see it.”

THERE are ghost towns, and then there are towns that are so deserted they aren’t even the ghosts of ghost towns. Lucin, in Box Elder County, is the latter. In the late 1800s, steam engines stopped nearby to take on water. In the 1970s, a few retired railroad workers were still living here, but they are long gone.

More significant to Mr. Zdarsky is the area’s military history — which may be the reason he found a mysterious 500-foot-wide, 4,000-foot-long runway on his property. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2012 at 8:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

Another excellent shave

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Excellent, but hard to tell whether it’s the equal of the previous shave. Still, no complaints. I used the Veleiro pre-shave soap again, and I must say I need to get back to using my Thater brushes. This morning the brush felt particularly soft at the tips while still resilient and producing good lather. These are top-notch brushes.

I got a good lather with the I Coloniali rhubarb shaving cream, and it’s quite a nice cream. I took my time working in the lather because I was enjoying the brush so much, then did three passes with the Weber holding a Wilkinson Sword Blade. (Soon I’ll try it with an Astra Superior Platinum, which may well contribute to the exceptional shaves I’ve recently enjoyed. YMMV: it’s a razor blade.)

A little squirt of TOBS A Gentleman’s Aftershave Balm, very nice, and now ready to go, drinking a nice cup of Lapsang Souchong (from Mariage Frères: terrific teas).

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2012 at 8:11 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

If you’re a serious coffee drinker, …

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This is for you. Holds 3 Ventis (almost half a gallon: it holds 61 oz, half a gallon is 64). And read how well it insulates. You could stop by Starbucks for a fill-up and have coffee for most of the morning…

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Caffeine, Technology

FBI believes it is above the law

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My God, this feeling that the law does not apply is spreading. Certainly the law doesn’t apply to Barack Obama, who is free to ignore the treaty requirements (the highest law of the land) in the Convention Against Torture—nor did it apply to the torturers and those who murdered prisoners (apparently CIA). And now we see that the FBI was telling its agents that they could ignore the law. Once the notion is accepted that some, by virtue of their jobs or their offices, are above the law and can break the law publicly and with impunity—well, everyone wants to get on that train. Michael Schmidt and Charlie Savage report in the NY Times:

Training material used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation said agents had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others,” but that language has now been removed, according to a briefing the bureau recently provided to Congress.

The language suggesting that agents could bend the law was contained in 876 pages of training materials about Muslims and Arab-Americans the F.B.I. deemed to be offensive or inaccurate and removed after a review of about 160,000 pages of such material over the past six months, according to aides present at the briefing.

Also removed was the admonition that agents should never stare at or shake hands with an Asian, and the assertion that Arabs had “Jekyll and Hyde” personalities making them more likely to have “outbursts and loss of control” than even-keeled Westerners.

A description of some of the material deemed inappropriate was contained in a letter sent on Tuesday by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, to the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III. The letter was first reported by Wired magazine, which last year published similar leaked training materials that prompted the F.B.I.’s broader review.

Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the F.B.I., confirmed the removal of the language suggesting “the ability to bend or suspend the law,” which he described as “inartful.” But — pointing to a set of talking points that apparently accompanied the material — he said the trainers meant that under normal circumstances, agents have the ability to eavesdrop legally on private communications if they obtain wiretap orders from a court.

“I cannot emphasize enough that we disagree with the implication that training attendees, who were analysts, were led to believe that we actually bend or suspend the law or anything like that,” Mr. Kortan said. . . [despite the clear language telling agents that they had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others.” Mr. Kortan is a VERY inartful liar. And it was NOT an “implication”, it was a totally clear and open statement. The scum. – LG]

Continue reading. I guess obeying the law is not so important now in the US. Having power is the thing—like the police officers I blogged yesterday who slammed a guy to the pavement for the perfectly legal act of photographing them making a traffic stop: the cops broke the law, but they will not be punished, because they have power. The guy was obeying the law, but that’s not the point nowadays in the US—at least in some obvious cases. And, in the case at hand (the FBI), the agents were clearly and explicitly told that they were not bound by the law. Great.

I would bet that the top priority in the FBI right now is to find who leaked the documents and do everything possible to destroy him/her and his/her career.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 4:32 pm

Back from retina doctor

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Things proceed apace, and I see him again in 3 weeks. The bubble has gone down about halfway, and I can see clearly (though needing correction) the top half of things, but the bottom half is still obscured by the bubble. But wait! The bubble, being gas, would be on top of the vitreous fluid—and it is. I always forget: the eye uses a convex lens so image is reversed and upside down—our brain fixes that. So the “clear” part of my vision travels through the vitreous fluid, which is in the bottom of the eye, which is where the image of the tops of things is formed. (The light from the bottoms of things, naturally, goes through the convex lens and thus goes to the top of the retina, where the gas bubble still interferes.

I have the long-lasting gas bubble, but eventually it will go. And the retina repair is doing well.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Pilates analogy

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From a letter I wrote to a friend:

In the movie Ordinary People, a family has lost their older son in a boating accident, and the younger son (played by Timothy Hutton) goes to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). It’s a town in Illinois, and Hutton goes upstairs in an office building to a hallway where the psychiatrist’s office is located. He’s standing front of the door (psychiatrist’s name on the frosted glass) when another door, farther down the hall, opens and Hirsch sticks his head out. He says that he’s the psychiatrist Hutton is to see, and to come on in.

So Hutton goes in and they begin the session. Hutton sees his (emotional) problems as a lack of control, so he’s telling Hirsch that he’s come in hopes of increasing his control of his emotions. Uh-oh. Hirsch explains that first, perhaps, they should explore what’s happened and see whether more control really is the answer.

And, of course, it turns out not to be the answer. The movie has nicely symbolized this: Hutton expects that he will go through the obvious door, but it turns out that a different door is opened and is the one he needs to go through.

That sort of thing happens with Pilates: you think you’re just going to get more fit, but it turns out that other doors open.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 4:14 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Pilates

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas calls for breaking up “too-big-to-fail” banks

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And an excellent idea it is, too. Jesse Eisinger reports at ProPublica:

An annual report from a regional Federal Reserve bank is typically a collection of banalities and clichés with some pictures of local worthies who serve on the board.

And so it is with this year’s annual report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, whose pages are graced by the smiling, stolid portraits of board members who run local companies like Whataburger Restaurants.

But the text is something else entirely. It’s a radical indictment of the nation’s financial system. The lead essay, which is endorsed by the president of the Dallas Fed, contends that despite the great crisis of 2008, a cartel of megabanks is still hindering the economic recovery and the institutions remain too big to fail.

The country’s biggest banks look much as they did before the 2008 financial crisis — only bigger. They have “increased oligopoly power” and “remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation,” Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s research department, wrote in the essay.

Having seen the biggest banks make risky bets, crush the economy and get rewarded leaves “a residue of distrust for the government, the banking system, the Fed and capitalism itself,” Mr. Rosenblum wrote.

It’s one thing for the Occupy movement to point out how bailing out the biggest banks — with little cost to their executives or shareholders and creditors — has demolished credibility. It’s quite another for top officials in the Federal Reserve system to put it in an annual report.

As for Dodd-Frank’s “resolution authority” — the power to dissolve big financial institutions that Barney Frank famously hailed as a death panel for banks — well, not so much. “For all its bluster, Dodd-Frank leaves TBTF entrenched,” Mr. Rosenblum wrote, using the acronym for “too big to fail.”

Yes, Dodd Frank has mechanisms in place to prevent taxpayer bailouts of the largest banks, he concedes. Banks are supposed to have “living wills” that explain how they could be seized and wound down while minimizing the use of taxpayer money.

But the Dallas Fed is deeply skeptical that this would work in real life. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Business

Homemade veggie burgers (good for vegans, too)

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This recipe looks pretty good. I think I may make it. Ingredients:

Note: For best texture, the veggie burgers must be cooked within thirty minutes of adding bread crumbs or they will become mushy. To prepare in advance, combine all ingredients except for crumbs and mix in the crumbs just before forming the patties and serving.

Special equipment: food processor

Yield: makes about 2 pounds veggie burger mix, active time 1 hour, total time 1 1/2 hours

  • 1 1/2 pounds button mushrooms, trimmed
  • 1/4 cup canola oil (or grapeseed oil)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 thyme sprigs
  • 1 whole small eggplant (about 1/2 pound)
  • 2 large leeks, chopped fine (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 large celery rib, chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 medium clove garlic, grated on a microplane grater (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 3/4 cup dry pearl barley
  • 1 (14-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and patted dry on paper towels
  • 1 cup toasted cashews, pinenuts, or a mix
  • 1 teaspoon Marmite, Vegemite, or Maggi seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 1/2-cups panko-style bread crumbs (see note above)

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Food, Recipes

Top 10 lessons learned from the Iraq War

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Well, maybe “learned” is inaccurate. Stephen M. Walt has an excellent article at Foreign Policy. Really: an essential article, especially as we now consider war with Iran. It begins:

This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it’s fair to say that the results were not what most Americans expected.  Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.

Lesson #1:  The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn’t win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn’t have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf — which is hardly something the United States intended — and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan) and made the United States much less popular around the world.This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counternarrative, the 2007 surge was a huge success (it wasn’t, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren’t really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had “won” the war by 2008, but President Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn’t stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.

The danger of this false narrative is obvious: If Americans come to see the war as a success — which it clearly wasn’t — they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.

Lesson #2: It’s not that hard to hijack the United States into a war. The United States is still a very powerful country, and the short-term costs of military action are relatively low in most cases. As a result, wars of choice (or even “wars of whim”) are possible. The Iraq war reminds us that if the executive branch is united around the idea of war, normal checks and balances — including media scrutiny — tend to break down.

The remarkable thing about the Iraq war is how few people it took to engineer. It wasn’t promoted by the U.S. military, the CIA, the State Department, or oil companies. Instead, the main architects were a group of well-connected neoconservatives, who began openly lobbying for war during the Clinton administration. They failed to persuade President Bill Clinton, and they were unable to convince Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to opt for war until after 9/11. But at that point the stars aligned, and Bush and Cheney became convinced that invading Iraq would launch a far-reaching regional transformation, usher in a wave of pro-American democracies, and solve the terrorism problem.

As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman told Ha’aretz in May 2003: “Iraq was the war neoconservatives wanted… the war the neoconservatives marketed…. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”

Lesson #3: The United States gets in big trouble when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 11:08 am

More censorship from the MPAA Ratings Board

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This action by the MPAA Ratings Board is high-handed and stupid. Andrew O’Hehir reports in Salon:

With its unerring instinct for being on the wrong side of every major social and aesthetic issue, the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board has refused to budge off its R rating for “Bully,” an earnest and moving documentary made for and about tormented preteens and teenagers. There’s almost a perverse, Santorum-style integrity about the MPAA’s staunch resistance. Its ratings board — an anonymous group of Los Angeles-area parents — stands tall for some unspecified and imaginary set of American values, in the face of a viral lobbying campaign that has enlisted Justin Bieber, Johnny Depp, Martha Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres and nearly 500,000 other people, and made an overnight media celebrity out of 17-year-old Katy Butler, a self-described victim of bullying who started the online petition.

But what’s really perverse, of course — not to mention cruel and repellent — is a ratings decision that ensures that the kids who most need the succor that “Bully” has to offer are now the least likely to see it. I’m both a parent and a movie critic, and I understand the usefulness of a ratings code and the impossibility of screening all entertainment options for your kids in advance. But while the MPAA board pretends to be a source of neutral and non-ideological advice to parents, it all too often reveals itself to be a velvet-glove censorship agency, seemingly devoted to reactionary and defensive cultural standards. In the “Bully” case, the board has ended up doing what it usually does: favoring the strong against the weak, further marginalizing the marginalized, and enforcing a version of “family values” that has all sorts of unspoken stereotypes about gender and sexuality and race and other things baked into it. In short, the MPAA has sided with the bullies and creeps.

Controversies over MPAA ratings are nothing new, of course, and there’s already an entire documentary film — Kirby Dick’s “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” — devoted to the subject. But in the past they’ve usually concerned depictions of non-normative sexuality (especially lesbian/gay sex, or adult female sexuality of any kind), about which the ratings board is infamously panicky, or violence, which is tolerated at almost any level and intensity. In stigmatizing a social-issue documentary, the ratings board has accidentally opened up a new front in the culture wars — one where, over the long haul, its nervous-Nellie neo-Puritan values are unlikely to prevail.

Without doubt, the MPAA has handed “Bully” director Lee Hirsch and Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing the film, a formidable marketing weapon and a tremendous amount of free publicity. Even more significantly, it has provided Weinstein an opening to drive a wedge into the MPAA’s rating system and its hegemonic control over what films are shown where. As promised some weeks ago, the Weinstein Co. will now release “Bully” without a rating, which would ordinarily kill off any chance of reaching a mass audience. While MPAA ratings have no legal force, national cinema chains generally won’t program unrated movies, and often can’t advertise them in newspapers. (Unrated releases are assumed to be adult-oriented indies or foreign films, released by specialty distributors and confined to art-house theaters.)

Mind you, there’s no one in show business who knows how to sell a movie from a maverick or outsider position better than Harvey Weinstein. He has apparently persuaded AMC, the second-largest theater chain in North America, to screen “Bully” in some locations, and it’s possible other exhibitors will follow suit. But while the pissing contest between Weinstein and the MPAA should make for good spectator sport — and may further erode the MPAA’s power, which is certainly welcome — it’s still true that middle schools and high schools won’t be able to screen “Bully” for their students, and that in most cases theaters showing it won’t admit unaccompanied teenagers.

At least officially, the R rating for “Bully” is a response to some frank teenage conversation (especially the use of the word “fuck,” always a shibboleth). As a parent of young children, I wholeheartedly agree that young people should be instructed to avoid such language at Grandma’s dinner table (or within adult earshot generally). But are we really expected to take that seriously? A few F-bombs in a sober, serious, troubling documentary — and that’s what we need to protect real-life teenagers from? As I see it, the smatterings of profane language make a convenient stand-in for all the stuff in “Bully” that’s genuinely obscene, and that can and should make us all uncomfortable. Like the story of Kelby Johnson of Tuttle, Okla., a 16-year-old out lesbian who has been ostracized by her entire town, including her teachers, school officials and other authorities; or 17-year-old Tyler Long of rural Georgia, an awkward and introverted kid who hanged himself in his bedroom closet after years of taking abuse from classmates and being ignored by adults; or 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson of Yazoo County, Miss., who went to prison after confronting her school-bus tormentors with a loaded gun.

No one knows exactly how or why . . .

Continue reading. Bullying is common, and to make it visible and show the human costs of bullying should not be stymied by bluestocking concerns.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 11:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Movies & TV

Another interesting talk—remember Hypercard?

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 10:56 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

Dying in the 21st Century

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Very interesting talk. Since all of use will die in the 21st century, it’s certainly relevant.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 10:47 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Video

Guns: What would it take for the US to consider reasonable restrictions on firearms?

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It’s hard to imagine anything that would move the US toward more reasonable restrictions on firearms ownership. Drew Westen has an interesting column on the topic in the NY Times, from which I quote:

. . . President Obama delivered a moving speech on Jan. 12 at the scene of the carnage in Tucson. In it, the president called on the nation to mourn not only the shooting of a beloved member of Congress but the lives of the people who died at the hands of Giffords’ assailant, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. But on neither that national day of mourning nor on any day since has the president or the members of Congress, who are either too frightened or too corrupted by the National Rifle Association, honored Giffords or the memory of those who died in that massacre in Tucson in the most appropriate way: with a return to common sense, like reestablishing the assault weapons ban that might have saved their lives. Later in January, Representative Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Frank Lautenberg proposed legislation to outlaw high-capacity magazines; it has gone nowhere.

The first President Bush, unlike his swaggering son (who advocated the demise of a ban on assault weapons whose sole purpose is to hunt humans) showed political courage by publicly quitting the N.R.A. in disgust in 1995 when it began advocating ideas like its contention that citizens need military-style assault weapons to protect themselves against our own government (members, for example, of the National Guard). In colorful but paranoid language, it called law enforcement officers “jack-booted government thugs,” prompting the elder Bush to condemn the group for its disrespect for the law and those who defend it. Since then, it has successfully advocated for increasingly radical laws. One of them, of course, is Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which discourages de-escalation of potential firefights in public with predictable results, like the shooting death in Sanford, Fla., of Trayvon Martin.

Between the Giffords massacre and Martin’s death, we have seen more shootings and more bipartisan moments. Around the anniversary of the Tucson massacre that cut short the congressional career of an extraordinary woman — a woman I had come to know personally and adore in her five years in Congress — came two more mass killings. One occurred in Chardon High School in a small town in Ohio, as a 17-year-old opened fire on students with a Ruger .22-caliber semiautomatic with a capacity of 10 rounds. Fortunately the alleged shooter, T.J. Lane, didn’t have access to a gun with more firepower. About two weeks later, a man entered one of the nation’s premiere medical centers, at the University of Pittsburgh, with two semiautomatic handguns, and opened fire.

And in yet another show of bipartisanship, political leaders on both sides of the aisle put on their silencers. If an assassination attempt on one of their own did not move members of Congress to ask whether the N.R.A. has a little too much sway in their chambers, a few dead and wounded teenagers, medical patients, and their family members were not going to unlock their safeties. Most have clearly made the risk assessment that they have more to fear from the N.R.A. than they do from an occasional sniper. In the 2010 election cycle, the N.R.A. spent over $7 million in independent expenditure campaigns for and against specific candidates, and it has a remarkable record of success at taking out candidates and elected officials with the misfortune of being caught in its crosshairs.

Over a million Americans have lost their lives to gunfire since that awful spring of 1968 when both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed by assassins’ bullets. Last year alone guns killed or wounded another100,000 Americans; roughly 30,000 of them died. Had that occurred elsewhere, we would call it genocide.We don’t know exactly how many have been killed in the fighting in Libya, Egypt and Syria, but our elected officials have had far less trouble calling for the ouster of Middle Eastern leaders than the leadership of the N.R.A.

But it’s not just money that prevents common-sense action on gun violence in America. Millions of Americans hunt, and a third of all households in the United States own a gun. Guns were part of the frontier culture that shaped the American psyche, and hunting has passed from generation to generation in much of America. As a son of the South, I could give an intruder a run for his money (although, like most people, I would do better to rely first on our security service and the loud alarm a break-in sets off), and I put on my thickest Southern accent and tease my soon-to-be teenage daughter that I’ll be out on the front porch “cleaning my shotgun” when her first date arrives at the door.

In so many cases, it’s a failure of our leaders — Republicans, who prey on the fears of their constituents and don’t even bother anymore to hide the puppet strings pulled by large corporations, and Democrats, who too frequently forget that humans are supposed to be vertebrates (and hence to have a spine) — to speak to Americans’ ambivalence about guns. Over the years in my capacity as a strategic messaging consultant, I’ve tested a range of messages on guns, and the messages that resonate with hunters and gun owners sound like this: “If you need an M-16 to hunt deer, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a damned gun,” or “If you’re hunting with an AK-47, you’re not bringing that meat home for dinner.” The first things responsible hunters teach are never to point a gun anywhere but up or down unless you mean to shoot, and where the safety is. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 10:35 am

Should wrong-doing be reported to authorities?

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That is, if you know of or observe a crime being committed, or even a serious violation of rules and regulations, do you have any duty to recognize and report it (assuming that confronting the miscreant is unwise or impossible, or if s/he persists after confrontation)?

My own thought is “yes,” but the water is muddied by “loyalty”. For example, suppose the miscreant belongs to a group to which you belong. For many people, that ends the discussion: group loyalty is the highest morality for these, so reporting a fellow group member’s wrong-doing would mean being disloyal (to the group or to the fellow group member). The moral thing to do is either to ignore the misdeed or indeed to help cover it up.

We see this constantly: in the Catholic hierarchy, in police forces, in the military, in business: group members are constantly told that loyalty is the paramount virtue, and informing the authorities of misdeeds in the group is contemptible.

That’s why I don’t much value loyalty as a virtue: it seems to mean mostly to ignore or hide wrongdoing. Indeed, loyalty seems to become an issue only if the group or members of it are doing something wrong. If everything’s going fine, loyalty is no problem, but if you detect (say) someone in your department is taking kickbacks, are you “loyal” to him? or do you report the crime? What if he’s your uncle/cousin/brother/whatever? Does that require you to choose between becoming an accomplice or being “disloyal”? Indeed, for many a simple criticism of something the US is doing or has done is prima facie evidenceof “disloyalty”.

Why, exactly, is loyalty so important? Can someone explain to me what benefits it provides?

Right now I’m reading the Wikipedia article on loyalty.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Daily life

“We’re all born believers”

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The way the mind works—assuming an agent is responsible to initiate movement, and readily accepting that agents can be invisible, plus an assumption that because we do things for a purpose, everything we see is similarly done for a purpose—predisposes us to religious belief. (This does not, of course, speaking the the factual truth of religious belief: that is, those who believe in a religion will view the mind’s structure as God helping us along toward finding Him, while those who disbelieve in religion will see religion as an outgrowth of a quirk of the mind developed via evolution—much as our minds push us toward common errors in decision-making. These quirks of our mind were studied intensely by Daniel Kahneman got a Nobel prize for the work he did with Amos Tversky (who had died by the time the prize was awarded) and gave rise to the new field of behavioral economics.

The common errors can be corrected, but knowing the tendency is useful in avoiding the errors. Winning Decisions, by Russo and Schoemaker, is an excellent guide to avoiding the most common errors to which evolution has directed our minds. Well worth study. An earlier version of the book, titled Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, is readily available (link is to used editions for $1). It’s really an excellent book: the process of making a decision consists of 4 steps, and the book discusses the two most common errors made at each step, plus the most common error in even approaching the decision, and the common (and critical) error following the decision. Highly recommended. $1. Think about it.

To continue: Because our minds have a tendency to operate in a particular way does NOT (a) mean that we’re stuck with the automatic process/assumptions, nor (b) that the automatic process gives the best answers. Now that we can think, we can improve over the natural tendencies (just as we have improved our natural condition in nature by developing language, which led to the accumulation of human culture: the knowledge expressed through our daily activities of making and using things and ideas—at first just from observation but, as we developed our ability to reason (beyond mere rationalization) and to create carefully structured experience (experiments) as a way to learn specific things).

At any rate, scientists are beginning to discover why religion is such a common response to the phenomenon of existence, even though even the religious will agree that our evolved tendency to be religious leads most of us astray. That is, most people believe in false religions, a statement with which even the religious will agree. (Regardless of the religion that Person A believes, s/he’ll find that most of the world does not accept that religion but believes instead in a false religion (i.e., for Person A, a religion other than A’s own) or don’t believe in religion at all.

So what are these tendencies? Justin Barrett describes them in an article in New Scientist:

By the time he was 5 years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could play the clavier and had begun to compose his own music. Mozart was a “born musician”; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.

Few of us are quite so lucky. Music usually has to be drummed into us by teaching, repetition and practice. And yet in other domains, such as language or walking, virtually everyone is a natural; we are all “born speakers” and “born walkers”.

So what about religion? Is it more like music or language?

Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.

As soon as they are born, babies start to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Religion, Science

The military calling

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The military profession was one a regular calling, along with things like the law, the church, and medicine. In recent years, because of the incompetence of many officers and commanders as well as poor choices of wars to fight, many view the military with a jaundiced eye. It’s important to realize that the military can be much more than the US has frequently made of it. Via Scott Feldstein’s blog, I happened upon this excellent talk by a guy who seems to be an admirable officer. Well worth watching.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 9:25 am

Posted in Military, Video

Another extraordinary shave

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So I tried a shave similar to yesterday’s: different pre-shave soap (went with MR GLO), different brush (though still a Rooney), different shaving cream (though an excellent shaving cream), and different aftershave balm (though quite similar to the Primalan), but the same razor and blade.

So my thought is that the Weber ARC is quite good at removing stubble that lies flat to escape cutting—that, or else I’m getting the knack.

I think I’ll continue with the shaving creams a bit and see if I can continue the streak of superb shaves. Tomorrow, though, I’ll use the other Weber, probing at whether it’s the head design or the coating.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2012 at 9:11 am

Posted in Shaving

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