Later On

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

Archive for April 2012

Watching Rango again

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Brilliant movie. And the “making of” feature isn’t bad. But the movie’s really something.

Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2012 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Regular blogging will resume tomorrow

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Just back from the doctor, who said that I may read. Apparently the scleral buckle makes a big difference—that’s also why I don’t have to lie in bed on my side for 5 days straight.

But today I’m going to be taking it easy. A nap now, for example.

Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2012 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Daily life

Fine shave

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Fine shave. Eye still quite swollen but ice-packs help. Will see retina surgeon at 11:00 today for follow-up visit. Still no reading. Good Krugman column in NY Times this morning.

Written by Leisureguy

30 April 2012 at 7:23 am

Posted in Shaving

Movie & progress notes

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Movie note: Rango is surprisingly excellent. (Watching movies is okay with my eye.)

Eye note: Terribly swollen this morning, but ice pack took it right down. No pain, just sort of not able to do fun things except movies. Have excellent list of questions for surgeon tomorrow.

Written by Leisureguy

29 April 2012 at 11:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Movies & TV

Temporarily inactive. Here’s why.

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Photoboth, via screen shot. Not so painful, in fact, but vision in my left eye (Photobooth apparently does mirror image rather than actual orientation: the bad is on my left in fact) is compromised. In fact, right now, no vision. It comes back slowly. I did learn the gas used in the bubble C3F8: fluoridated propane, which is inert. (Fluorine atoms replace the hydrogen atoms in propane.)

The scleral buckle is not at all uncomfortable, though it’s a YMMV thing: for some people it’s agonizing at first. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m also full of Vicodin, which might have something to do with it.

The Wife is going to on me about using the computer, but I thought you’d want to see the results. So far, so good.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2012 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Daily life

Travelers: Avoid air travel in and from the US

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The TSA is not worth it because they don’t understand the requirements of working in a free, democratic society in which citizens are to be treated with respect, not as criminal terrorist suspects. Their operating procedures are better suited to a more authoritarian country, but perhaps they’re simply the advance agents to soften us up and get us ready for more obtrusive government control.

Read this post about a TSA agent’s loud questions to a 79-year-old woman (a 4′ 11″ librarian) about what he terms “an anomaly in the crotch area.”

And take a look at this extract from a James Fallows post:

Meanwhile, in depressing airport-security news:
– A four-year old girl in Missoula arouses suspicions that she might be a terrorist courier.

Brademeyer’s mother [grandmother of the little girl] had triggered an alarm and was awaiting a pat-down when Isabella ran to her. That’s when Transportation Security Administration officers told Brademeyer her mother could have passed something to her daughter during that brief encounter.

“They said (to Isabella), ‘You need to sit down right now!’ and they told me, ‘She made contact!’ ” Brademeyer said Tuesday afternoon.

In her Facebook note, she wrote, “When they spoke to her, it was devoid of any sort of compassion, kindness or respect. They told her she had to come to them, alone, and spread her arms and legs. She screamed, ‘No! I don’t want to!’ then did what any frightened young child might, she ran in the opposite direction.

“That is when a TSO told me they would shut down the entire airport, cancel all flights, if my daughter was not restrained. It was then they declared my daughter ‘a high-security threat,’ ” she wrote.

– In New York, a 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy is involved in the same sort of incident. Picture and description from The Daily:

With her crutches and orthotics, Dina cannot walk through metal detectors and instead is patted down by security agents. The girl, who is also developmentally disabled, is often frightened by the procedure, her father said.

Marcy Frank [her mother] usually asks the agents to introduce themselves to her daughter, but those on duty on Monday were exceptionally aggressive, Joshua Frank said, and he began to videotape them with his iPhone.

“And the woman started screaming at me and cursing me and threatening me,” he said

More on the episodes here. I don’t have time now for the full argument about the balance between “perfect” security and civic liberty. There’s more about it here and passim. Yes, any toddler could be an explosive-carrier working with her grandmother. Yes, a disabled girl could conceivably have weapons concealed in her crutches. And by the same logic, every van going down the street could be carrying bombs, and every passer-by on the sidewalk could be carrying a gun. (In some jurisdictions, most passers-by probably are!) A system that “defends” itself by applying worst-case logic/paranoia to every possible contingency will soon have little worth defending.More anon.UPDATE: I wrote the material above at home, but didn’t post it, before heading out to Dulles airport for a flight to LAX at noon.

I love airplanes. I love airports. I detest Washington Dulles airport, for reasons not solely related to its TSA procedures but significantly affected by them. Including one just now that I am too angry to write about in ways I won’t regret.  (Enforced several-hour cooling off period begins as soon as the plane door closes in a minute or two.)

But it prompts me to quote this note from a reader that came in recently:

‪In your own post on the Khan story, you once again write as if Homeland Security was some sort of independent federal entity like the Federal Reserve or (my personal favorite as a chemist) the Chemical Safety Board — answerable to no one but themselves. That’s not true, is it? DHS and their behavior are somehow connected to the executive branch, right? Why can’t President Obama do something about this? ‬

‪I will not hide my political preferences — I am a conservative, and I have voted for the Republican in the past. But (as I said in my very first e-mail to you on this issue), it was my hope that the Obama Administration would change the TSA’s procedures. ‬

‪Perhaps I’m too blinded by my political preferences to understand this issue. But I see it with (wonderful, intelligent, very liberal pop culture critic) Alyssa Rosenberg’s complaints about Khan’s detention as well. Once again, DHS is apparently some sort of unmoored federal bureaucracy, unanswerable to the White House, randomly stopping innocent people and embarrassing the United States.‬

‪If you guys act like our President can’t control these people (DHS/TSA), who will? ‬

‪I cannot state how much this small issue is coloring my perspectives on our federal government and our ability as a nation to have control over it. If I have voted (and I did, indirectly, much to my chagrin) for the creation of a unchangeable, unmanageable federal bureaucracy that can never be corralled or corrected, I should learn my lesson and never support the creation of a federal office again. ‬

I don’t reach quite that conclusion, as I’ll go into more another time. But I will be reflecting yet again these next few hours on the varied excesses of the security state.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2012 at 12:13 pm

ShopBot: I’d love to get one of these for The Grandsons

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Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2012 at 11:47 am

Posted in Technology

Analytical thinking undermines religious belief

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A very interesting case of bending the needle: trying to prevent analytical thinking in order to prop up religious belief, which I think is the mission of many of the conservative Christian colleges (and of the enmity conservatives of all religions feel toward education). Talk about bending the needle!

Marina Krakovsky writes in Scientific American:

People who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious, but getting them to think analytically even in subtle ways decreases the strength of their belief, according to a new study in Science.

The research, conducted by University of British Columbia psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, does not take sides in the debate between religion and atheism, but aims instead to illuminate one of the origins of belief and disbelief. “To understand religion in humans,” Gervais says, “you need to accommodate for the fact that there are many millions of believers and nonbelievers.”

One of their studies correlated measures of religious belief with people’s scores on a popular test of analytic thinking. The test poses three deceptively simple math problems. One asks: “If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?” The first answer that comes to mind—100 minutes—turns out to be wrong. People who take the time to reason out the correct answer (five minutes) are, by definition, more analytical—and these analytical types tend to score lower on the researchers’ tests of religious belief.

But the researchers went beyond this interesting link, running four experiments showing that analytic thinking actually causes disbelief. In one experiment, they randomly assigned participants to either the analytic or control condition. They then showed them photos of either Rodin’s The Thinker or, in the control condition, of the ancient Greek sculpture Discobolus, which depicts an athlete poised to throw a discus. (The Thinker was used because it is such an iconic image of deep reflection that, in a separate test with different participants, seeing the statue improved how well subjects reasoned through logical syllogisms.) After seeing the images, participants took a test measuring their belief in God on a scale of 0 to 100. Their scores on the test varied widely, with a standard deviation of about 35 in the control group. But it is the difference in the averages that tells the real story: In the control group, the average score for belief in God was 61.55, or somewhat above the scale’s midpoint. On the other hand, for the group who had just seen The Thinker, the resulting average was only 41.42. Such a gap is large enough to indicate a mild believer is responding as a mild nonbeliever—all from being visually reminded of the human capacity to think.

Another experiment used a different method to show a similar effect. It exploited the tendency, previously identified by psychologists, of people to override their intuition when faced with the demands of reading a text in a hard-to-read typeface. Gervais and Norenzayan did this by giving two groups a test of participants’ belief in supernatural agents like God and angels, varying only the font in which the test was printed. People who took the belief test in the unclear font (a typewriterlike font set in italics) expressed less belief than those who took it in a more common, easy-to-read typeface. “It’s such a subtle manipulation,” Norenzayan says. “Yet something that seemingly trivial can lead to a change that people consider important in their religious belief system.” On a belief scale of 3 to 21, participants in the analytic condition scored an average of almost two points lower than those in the control group.

Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in Religion, Science

Extremely nice shave

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I took a break from the non-lathering shaving creams for today—though I just had to use one of the Mystic Water soaps I ordered, so picked the Sandalwood Rose, an interesting and pleasant fragrance.

The brush loaded easily, but I’m not sure I loaded it enough: the third pass was a little light in the lather department. OTOH, the lather struck me as quite good in terms of its function and I did get a good third pass. Now I’m eager to try the soap again, of course. I’ll try another brush and see how it goes, but no real complaint: I’m still in the learning/exploratory stage of this soap.

The ARC Weber with the Astra Superior Platinum did its usual superb job: a terrific shave. And the splash of Sandalwood was a very good choice. I’m sitting here still enjoying my shave—and I need to break out this aftershave more often.

Sandalwood, I should note, is one of the fragrances that seem to trigger skin reactions in some men, so if you’ve not used Sandalwood previously, it’s a good idea to make your initial purchase of sandalwood (shaving soap, shaving cream, aftershave, whatever) as a sample, and then test that sample on your skin at the crease of your elbow joint or inside your forearm before trying it on your face. (Similar precautions should be observed with, for example, Proraso’s menthol+eucalyptus shaving cream.)

And as a nice coincidence, Garry’s Sample Shop is holding a sale:

10% off any order (before shipping); that goes to 15% off any order (before shipping) if you subscribe to his email list. Moreover, shipping is free on any order that totals more than $30.

The sale ends at midnight PST 4/30/2012

To get the discount, all you have to do is to specify two things in your order:

1. Which site you’re coming from to place the order; and

2. That you want the “customer appreciation” discount.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2012 at 7:46 am

Posted in Shaving

Good thing we went to doc yesterday

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When I called the office the very first thing yesterday morning, the initial response was that the doctor would see me on Monday. I wasn’t having any of that, based on what I had learned from my first doctor: the darkness at the fringe of the field of vision required immediate attention—and indeed when I later was reading about this, I saw that it was formally termed “a medical emergency”.

I just got up to pee (it’s 3:20 here) and I note now that my left eye’s field of vision is now a small irregular patch in the middle of a cluster of dark clouds all around the sides—as if the retina was closing in on itself. But at least now we’re taking care of things as soon as we can. I would sure be kicking myself if I had been thinking I would see the doctor Monday sometime.

Written by Leisureguy

27 April 2012 at 3:24 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Now Krugman knows how Cassandra felt

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Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 9:37 pm

Culture shock

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A friend who once helped train Peace Corps volunteers was trying to explain to me about culture shock. Culture shock is not that they eat odd foods. Culture shock is when they say or do something that is simply wrong. As you see it. That’s culture shock: when what is good and acceptable in that culture is simply wrong in your own. And, of course, the shock at seeing a friendly gesture or remark received with anger or hostility—when you’ve done something wrong (though in your own eyes, knowing that you acted perfectly properly, you decide that the local residents are surly and hostile (in general, not due to anything you did).

I would bet cultural divergences closely track and mirror language divergences: at first the related groups can understand each other perfectly well, but as time and space grow, each begins to notice that the other is speaking with an accent; then, a strong accent; then, you can’t understand a word they say—better get an interpreter.

Cultures probably diverge in a similar way: all together initially, but then as the groups grow apart (and their languages diverge), they also develop new routines suited to new habitats and the new generations that come along—styles change independently in the two cultures, and new ideas and strong personalities have their own effects, and pretty soon people from one culture are shocked and stunned by what the other culture thinks is not only perfectly okay but the obvious thing to do/say.

I was telling The Wife tonight about trying to watch Eastbound and Down because I like Danny McBride, but the egotistical asshole character he played totally put me off. I was telling The Wife that this comedy would be funny only to those who have never known such a person, but I have, and my goal in running into such a person is to put as much distance as possible between me and him.

But The Wife protested: some people know people like McBride’s character and they stay with them. We started discussing why: trapped? doesn’t know any better? thinks that everyone is like this? actually enjoys it?

I got to thinking about why I didn’t enjoy it, and I suddenly realized: it’s culture shock. This character is from another culture—well, let’s leave the McBride character for now, because pretty much no one likes him: he really is an asshole. But look at the Tea Party adherants and GOP leaders such as Eric Kantor and Mitch McConnell: I can’t stand them, but perhaps that’s culture shock on my part. The various cultures within the US have gone past “speaking with an accent” at each other (as in the 50’s and 60’s, say, when communication was still possible and both sides had similar understandings of reality, natural and social) and now simply do not speak the same language and cannot communicate—and each side is shocked by the behavior and positions of the other. Maybe the US is falling apart along cultural fault lines.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 9:02 pm

Second eye surgery scheduled for tomorrow at 5:30

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P.M., thank God, not A.M. (We were worried.) We have to be at the hospital in San Jose at 3:30 p.m. (all the admissions procedure, which is lengthy), and then the surgery is expected to take 2.5 hours (so done at 8:00 p.m.). Follow-up appointment next day is 9:00 a.m., so we’ll spend the night. Then back home for the recovery—so probably no blogging for a few days. Not sure.

This surgery will include a vitrectomy, to remove the vitreous. Apparently some strands have developed in the vitreous, and these are pulling the retina away from the eyeball wall—not good. So first step is to remove the vitreous and (I assume) install another gas bubble which will slowly, slowly be absorbed.

The second step is to install a scleral buckle, a soft Silastic patch that deforms the eyeball slightly so that the retina is more inclined to hug the wall than to fall away. Generally this produces myopia in the eye—not a problem, I’ll be wearing glasses in any event.

General anesthesia again, and nothing to eat or drink (no water, even) all day tomorrow—so tonight I’m having a good dinner, and before I go to bed I’ll drink as much water as seems wise.

I share all this information because you yourself may be facing this someday, or some member of your family, and I’ve always thought it better to know things than to be ignorant. So I’m thinking some readers will find the information of interest.

While I’m not looking forward to the procedure, I’m not particularly dreading it: I’ll be asleep. I won’t enjoy the recovery (judging from this past surgery), but that will pass. The success rate is 95%, so that’s encouraging.

Excuse the slow blogging for the next while.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Information in human culture

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A very interesting article (and discussion of books) in an interview by Eve Garber of history professor Ann Blair as part of The Browser’s ‘Five Books’ series. It begins:

Our topic is the history of information. Before we broach the books, please sketch the evolution of this subject as a field of academic inquiry.

The history of information has developed especially in the last 10 years. It is a subset of intellectual and cultural history, which is a subset of general history. “Information” today typically refers to all the stuff we find on the web and there is so much of it that we have become especially aware of the need to select and manage information. But information management has been practiced for a very long time, even if it wasn’t called that. Looking back in the past to ancient Rome, the Middle Ages or the emergence of printing in the early modern period, historians have started to ask new questions about how earlier periods accumulated and managed information. Information took many forms in the past, as it does today, but the forms that have survived down to us are mostly textual – descriptions, examples, anecdotes written down and transmitted through copying or the survival of the original texts.

The history of information offers a new way of looking at texts that intellectual historians have often studied before, by emphasizing how a text was consulted, read and used in the past. For example, back in the first century of the Common Era, the Roman naturalist Pliny boasted that he had collected 20,000 facts from 2,000 authors in his 38-volume “Natural History.” That text became a key source of information for medieval encyclopedias and all kinds of texts about the natural world up to the 18th century. Historians of information look at the forms in which the text circulated and was presented, to see how the information was made accessible in different times, through alphabetical indexing or adding marginal keywords or through the way the text was laid out on the page.

Please explain the distinction you’re making between information and knowledge. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Why Muslims are so touchy about the Q’uran

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Very interesting article in History Today by Tom Holland:

Midway through the eighth century a monk living in the monastery of Beth Hale in Iraq recorded the arrival there of an eminent visitor. A ‘Son of Ishmael’ – one of the Arab dignitaries who served at the court of the caliph – had fallen ill. Naturally enough, since Christian holy men were renowned for effecting miracle cures, he had turned to the monks to help him with his convalescence. The Arab stayed ten days in the monastery and in that time he and his hosts argued freely about their respective religions. The monk, of course, portrayed himself as emphatically the winner. Nevertheless it is clear that the Arab had managed to land the odd blow. ‘Is not our faith better than any faith that is on the earth?’ he had demanded to know. ‘And is this not the sign that God loves us and is pleased with our faith – namely, that he has given us dominion over all religions and all peoples?’

The terms of this argument, it is true, were hardly original to Islam. Back in the early fourth century Eusebius, a Palestinian bishop, had written a biography of Constantine (r. 306-37), the emperor who had stunned the Roman world by converting to Christianity. God had blessed him for bowing his head before Christ with any number of rewards. Eusebius, who combined the talents of a polemicist with a profound streak of hero-worship, had sheltered no doubts on that score: ‘So dear was Constantine to God, and so blessed, so pious and so fortunate in all he undertook that with the greatest facility he obtained authority over more nations than any who had preceded him – and yet retained his power, undisturbed, to the very close of his life.’

This core equation – that worldly greatness was bestowed by God upon those who pleased Him – was one that reached back to the origins of human belief in the supernatural. Rarely had a society existed that did not see itself as somehow blessed by divine approval. Empires had invariably cast themselves as the favourites of the gods. So it was, some 300 years before Constantine, that Virgil had defined the Romans as a people entrusted by the heavens with a sacred charge: to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty. A potent sentiment and an enduring one. Muslims as well as Christians had proven to be its heirs. The Qu’ran, composed though it was on the margins of the Roman world during the seventh century, bore witness to a conception of imperial mission that was not so different from the pretensions of Virgil’s day: ‘When you encounter the unbelievers, blows to necks it shall be until, once you have routed them, you are to tighten their fetters.’ So Muhammad, serving as the mouthpiece of God, had informed his followers. ‘Thereafter, it is either gracious bestowal of freedom or holding them to ransom, until war has laid down its burdens.’

Yet by the time of Muhammad (570-632) much had changed from the heyday of the pagan empire and to seismic effect. The revolutionary notion that the universe was governed by a single, all-powerful god had decisively transformed people’s understanding of what the sanction of the heavens might mean. Just as Constantine had discovered in Christ an infinitely more potent patron than Apollo or Sol Invictus had ever been, so those who turned to the pages of the Qu’ran found revealed there a celestial monarch of such limitless and terrifying power that there could certainly be no question of portraying Him – as the Christians did with their god – in human form. Nothing, literally nothing, was beyond Him. ‘If He wishes, O mankind, He can make you disappear and bring others in your stead.’ To a deity capable of such a prodigious feat of annihilation what was the overthrow of an empire or two? Remarkable though it was that the previously despised and marginal Arabs had managed to trample down both Roman and Persian power, no explanation was needed for this, so Muslims came to believe, that did not derive from an even more awesome and heart-stopping miracle: the revelation to the Prophet of the Qu’ran. What surprise that a fire lit far beyond the reach of the ancient superpowers should have spread to illuminate the entire world when that fire was the Word of God?

So it was, across a vast sweep of Eurasia, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the frontiers of China, that a distinctive understanding of history came to be taken for granted. Whether in Christendom or in the House of Islam, the past was understood as the tracing of patterns upon the centuries by the forefinger of God. The divine had intruded into the sweep of earthly events and everything had changed as a result. The very fabric of time had been rent. Quite how a deity who transcended eternity and space might actually have descended from heaven to earth was, of course, a tricky problem for Christians and Muslims alike to solve and it took bitter and occasionally murderous argument to arrive at anything like a consensus. . .

Continue reading. It’s an interesting article. It has always struck me that religious arguments lead so often to vicious struggles is because there is no deciding authority to which contending parties can appeal: each side is discussing their beliefs, whose truth is determined by faith and faith, as well all know, differs enormously from person to person and from religion to religion. In scientific matters, OTOH, the contending parties can resolve their differences with an experiment: shape an experience so that the answer is provided by what we commonly refer to as reality. In mathematical matters, the contending parties can verify that the proof follows the laws of logic. But in matters of religious belief, the only authority is power, as the Vatican has just demonstrated to US nuns.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 12:43 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

When we create a poisonous environment

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I don’t know how many tons of toxins—that is, items specifically created to be toxins—humans push into the environment each year: beyond the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides industry agriculture spreads so lavishly (and the companies that make those continually work to increase sales—i.e., to get more of their products into the environment), households in the US regularly use many of the same products to control insects and make their lawns look good. But perhaps filling our environments with toxins is not so good an idea as it first seemed. Toxins are, naturally enough, toxic, and we’re seeing evidence that bee colony collapse disorder is related to a certain type of pesticide. And now Eleanor Bader offers an intriguing explanation for the rapid increase in rates of autism:

If horror is your genre, environmental writer Brita Belli’s The Autism Puzzle, is the book for you. Her terrifying look at the chemicals we eat, drink and breathe is guaranteed to make your hair stand on end.

We should thank her for it.

Statistics released earlier this spring by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that one in 88 U.S.-born toddlers has an autism spectral disorder — from the less severe Asperger’s syndrome to the so-called classical form of the ailment. Worse, it’s not just a North American phenomenon; Belli also reports a 57 percent spike in Asia and Europe.

The question is why. Perhaps, some posit, medical professionals have simply become better diagnosticians, and people previously labeled eccentric or developmentally disabled were in fact, autistic. Or, perhaps there’s a genetic culprit since ASD typically runs in families. Belli gives credence to both theories, but ultimately concludes that there is more to the puzzle. “If the rise in autism numbers were only due to improved diagnosis and awareness of autism among the medical community — or if the roots of the epidemic were primarily genetic — professionals would have seen an increase in adult or adolescent patients who had not been diagnosed or who had been misdiagnosed in the past,” she writes.

But they haven’t. This realization piqued Belli’s curiosity, and her investigation into the relationship between environmental poisons and human health is riveting. “The idea that a toxin can cause autism is neither controversial nor speculative,” she begins. In fact, thalidomide, a medication used in the 1960s to control morning sickness in pregnant women, was tied to autism almost 20 years ago. Likewise valproic acid, used to treat bipolar disorder; misoprostol, an ulcer drug; and chlorpyrifos, an insecticide.

And that’s just the tip of the chemical iceberg. “Many other chemicals distributed far and wide across the natural world by power plant smokestacks, leaking waste sites, improper storage facilities and outdated manufacturing processes have been proven to cause injury to developing brains,” Belli continues. More specifically, mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls — also known as PCBs — along with the chemicals used to make insulation, flame retardants, electronic equipment and plastic pose known health risks to fetal life and newborns.

Belli cites recent studies by the Environmental Working Group that discovered an average of 200 pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of infants. Among them: pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, antibiotics and polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

Belli is particularly interested in “autism clusters,” geographic areas with higher-than-average rates of the disorder. One such place is Brick Township, N.J., where 63 million gallons of septic waste were dumped into a nearby landfill between 1969 and 1979. By the time the community learned that heavy metals and volatile organic compounds had leaked from storage containers, it was too late — soil and groundwater had already become contaminated by bromoform, chloroform and chloroethylene.

Researcher Carol Reinisch tested the impact of each of these substances on clam embryos (a precursor to human trials) and found that the “chemical cocktail” — the combined impact of the three substances acting together — was far more destructive to the body than each of the chemicals acting alone. Reinisch’s research, Belli writes, “made a solid case for the fact that toxins in combination can have a unique impact on the way brains develop. It is likely not one bodily insult that’s driving up [autism] cases, but a number of contaminants and exposures acting in concert.”

That there are approximately 1,300 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List — 200 of them in New Jersey, the state with the highest autism rates — should both give us pause and make us furious since we know who is responsible for fouling the air, water and soil: unscrupulous businesses. In fact, Belli reports that the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of pollution often avoid taking responsibility for their misdeeds, sometimes declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying necessary cleanup costs, at other times disappearing altogether. Many companies simply continue polluting without consequence.

Take Fairfax County, Va. . .

Continue reading. Who could have guessed that filling the environment with toxic substances might be bad for us? And, among businesses, which ones care? I would guess only those that see a profit in selling anti-toxic scams. Businesses are by design sociopathic, and make all decisions with a single goal: maximize the growth of profit. That is their fiduciary responsibility. Also, of course, since the managers are running the business, not the shareholders, the secret first priority is to maximize the managers’ remuneration. In other words, I believe that managers first make sure a decision will benefit themselves, and only then consider whether it benefits the company. Good managers look at all decisions that benefit the company and select for implementation those that benefit the manager most. Bad managers look at all decisions that benefit themselves and select those that either also have some benefit for the company or whose benefit for the manager is substantial enough that the return (if any) the company is unimportant to the decision-maker. No managers really work for other benefits (the community, the families of the employees, etc.), except insofar as such efforts promise to benefit the manager directly or to increase company profits—a fairly severe restriction.

You will note that companies have fought tooth and nail not to clean up their environmental messes. GE lost after years of legal struggle and finally began to clean up the Hudson River, but most companies increase their profit by not disposing properly of their waster: it’s called “externalizing costs”—the idea is to have others pay for the company’s actions, typically taxpayers (as in the various Superfund cleanups).

I don’t see how to fix it: the incentives seem to favor destructive approaches.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 12:34 pm

Bullying the Nuns

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Very nice post on the NY Review of Books Blog by Garry Wills:

The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

There was a vogue, just after the Second Vatican Council, for some Catholics to demonstrate their liberation from Catholic schooling by making fun of nuns, as strict disciplinarians or prissy moralists. I wrote at the time that this was untrue of the many nuns I have known, beginning with the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, who taught me for five of my grade school years. They taught me the Latin of the old liturgy; Father Sullivan, our pastor, just got angry at words mispronounced or forgotten. The Dominicans never physically punished anyone that I saw or heard of.

They were more supportive of talent than were most of the lay teachers I met in a brief experience of public school. I had no artistic inclinations, but classmates who did were encouraged. The nuns’ genuine interest in their pupils can be seen in the fact that my seventh grade teacher kept in touch with me for all the years until her death in 1996. She was Sister John Joseph when I met her, but she recovered her real name after the Council, and as Anne O’Connor congratulated me on anything I wrote. (I would no more have kept up with Father Sullivan than with cholera.)

Anne O’Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 11:24 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

Samuel L. Jackson

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Good profile in the NY Times Magazine by Pat Jordan.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 11:01 am

Posted in Movies & TV

Benanke knows how to attack the problem the US faces, but only if it’s in other countries

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Very interesting article by Paul Krugman in the NY Times Magazine:

When the financial crisis struck in 2008, many economists took comfort in at least one aspect of the situation: the best possible person, Ben Bernanke, was in place as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.

Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.

The Bernanke Conundrum — the divergence between what Professor Bernanke advocated and what Chairman Bernanke has actually done — can be reconciled in a few possible ways. Maybe Professor Bernanke was wrong, and there’s nothing more a policy maker in this situation can do. Maybe politics are the impediment, and Chairman Bernanke has been forced to hide his inner professor. Or maybe the onetime academic has been assimilated by the Fed Borg and turned into a conventional central banker. Whichever account you prefer, however, the fact is that the Fed isn’t doing the job many economists expected it to do, and a result is mass suffering for American workers.

What the Fed Can Do

The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate: price stability and maximum employment. It normally tries to meet these goals by moving short-term interest rates, which it can do by adding to or subtracting from bank reserves. If the economy is weak and inflation is low, the Fed cuts rates; this makes borrowing attractive, stimulates private spending and, if all goes well, leads to economic recovery. If the economy is strong and inflation is a threat, the Fed raises rates; this discourages borrowing and spending, and the economy cools off.

Right now, the Fed believes that it’s facing a weak economy and subdued inflation, a situation in which it would ordinarily cut interest rates. The problem is that rates can’t be cut further. When the recession began in 2007, the Fed started slashing short-term interest rates until November 2008, when they bottomed out near zero, where they remain to this day. And that was as far as the Fed could go, because (some narrow technical exceptions aside) interest rates can’t go lower. Investors won’t buy bonds if they can get a better return simply by putting a bunch of $100 bills in a safe. In other words, the Fed hit what’s known in economic jargon as the zero lower bound (or, alternatively, became stuck in a liquidity trap). The tool the Fed usually fights recessions with had reached the limits of its usefulness.

That doesn’t mean the Fed was out of options. Not according to the work of a number of economists, anyway, among them a prominent Princeton professor by the name of Ben Bernanke. As noted above, Bernanke was among the economists who took notice, back in the 1990s, of the troubles afflicting Japan — a huge real estate bubble that left behind a legacy of high private-sector debt when it burst and a central bank up against the zero lower bound.

The woes confronting the United States today aren’t identical to those faced by Japan. For one thing, Japanese inflation wasn’t just low; by the end of the 1990s, Japan was actually suffering chronic deflation. For another, Japan’s slump was never as terrible as ours; unemployment, in particular, never became the scourge it has become here. Still, Japan provided an example of how an advanced modern economy could seemingly be caught in an economic trap.

In a hard-hitting 2000 paper titled “Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self-Induced Paralysis?” Bernanke declared that “far from being powerless, the Bank of Japan could achieve a great deal if it were willing to abandon its excessive caution and its defensive response to criticism.” He proceeded to lay out a number of actions the Bank of Japan could take. And he called on Japanese policy makers to act like F.D.R. and do whatever it took: “Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening? To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.”

Bernanke had some specific proposals that could serve as advice for the Fed today. One set of options would . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 10:30 am

Maltreatment of women in the Middle East

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Mona Eltahawy writes inForeign Policy:

In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she too climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just as her husband denies her an orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts his, and the man leaves. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer — so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer — and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to make coffee dutifully for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him as he prefers, she notices he is dead. She instructs their son to go and get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.

But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129; according to Morocco’s Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.

It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

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