Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reality is Reality, Whatever Fox News Says

Steve Taylor at Outside the Beltway:
. . . if we cannot agree on what basic reality is, we cannot govern ourselves. I no longer adhere to the Republican Party because the vast majority of the party’s candidates, commentators, and supporters have abandoned the notion that reality is reality. Specifically:  tax cuts do not, in fact, always create GDP growth (we have empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates this fact—see the Bush tax cuts), American power cannot always shape the international system to US preferences (see:  Iraq and Afghanistan), there is climate change (see all the data), and so forth. I will note:  there are real debates to be had about how to deal with these, and other, issues, but we all have to at agree on the fact that a debate needs to take place.  We can debate what to do about the climate and what the the appropriate level of taxes should be, but simply denying that there is climate change is not a policy. Asserting that tax cuts will lead to growth has no basis in reality.

I Can't Wait for 2012 S1

National Geographic:
Even with powerful telescopes, comet 2012 S1 (ISON) is now just a faint glow in the constellation Cancer. But the ball of ice and rocks might become visible to the naked eye for a few months in late 2013 and early 2014—perhaps outshining the moon, astronomers say.

The comet is already remarkably bright, given how far it is from the sun, astronomer Raminder Singh Samra said. What's more, 2012 S1 seems to be following the path of the Great Comet of 1680, considered one of the most spectacular ever seen from Earth.

"If it lives up to expectations, this comet may be one of the brightest in history," said Samra, of the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada. . . .

Because 2012 S1 appears to be fairly large—possibly approaching two miles (three kilometers) wide—and will fly very close to the sun, astronomers have calculated that the comet may shine brighter, though not bigger, than the full moon in the evening sky.
The image shows the last spectacular comet, McNaught, in 2007.

The Garden in Early Fall

 Today.






Torturing the Prophet

From a review in Lapham's Quarterly of  Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet by Donald Weinstein (Yale University Press):
On May 20, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola, the friar whose visions of tribulation and transformation had galvanized the citizens of Florence for almost a decade, faced torture for the second time in his life. For years, he had been telling the Florentines that the end of the world was near. An adroit combination of threats and promises had brought him political, as well as spiritual, authority. But now he stood exposed as a charlatan who had only pretended to receive instruction through visions sent by God. In April of that year, a government commission had already interrogated him. Attendants bound his hands behind his back with a rope that went over a pulley. Then they hoisted him into the air—a procedure that dislocated his arms and eventually broke one of them—and either dropped him to the floor or left him suspended just above it. Savonarola gave in, as most suspects did, and confessed in writing that he had only pretended to be a prophet whose revelations came from God. When the new set of inquisitors sent by Pope Alexander VI confronted him in May, he fell on his knees and insisted that his confession had been false: “I confess I have denied Christ. I lied.” But as soon as Savonarola was raised into the air again, he confirmed his confession. When the commissioners demanded to know why he had lied, he admitted, “I’m more susceptible than other people. Just looking at [the instruments of torture] is for me like getting ten turns of the rope.” Three days later he would die on the Piazza della Signoria, where he was defrocked and hanged. His body was burned and the ashes thrown in the river Arno, to prevent his followers from collecting any relics.

Obamacare is a Conservative Plan

J.D. Kleinke in The Times:
If Mitt Romney’s pivots on President’s Obama’s health care reform act have accelerated to a blur — from repealing on Day 1, to preserving this or that piece, to punting the decision to the states — it is for an odd reason buried beneath two and a half years of Republican political condemnations: the architecture of the Affordable Care Act is based on conservative, not liberal, ideas about individual responsibility and the power of market forces.

This fundamental ideological paradox, drowned out by partisan shouting since before the plan’s passage in 2010, explains why Obamacare has only lukewarm support from many liberals, who wanted a real, not imagined, “government takeover of health care.” It explains why Republicans have been unable since its passage to come up with anything better. And it explains why the law is nearly identical in design to the legislation Mr. Romney passed in Massachusetts while governor. . . .
Not only is the plan conservative in its design, according to current ideologies, it is conservative in the sense that it makes minor adjustments to the status quo rather than attempting a radical overhaul:
The president’s program extends the current health care system — mostly employer-based coverage, administered by commercial health insurers, with care delivered by fee-for-service doctors and hospitals — by removing the biggest obstacles to that system’s functioning like a competitive marketplace.
If Obama is reelected as the polls predict, Republicans will be saved the embarrassment of repealing a bill that embodies their health care goals and trying to design a replacement that would be the same thing while seeming to be something else.

Joshua Tree National Monument

By Bill Tang. From National Geographic's 2012 Photo Contest.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mitt Romney's New Campaign Issue: Lyme Disease

The Romney campaign has been sending out direct mail to Virginians with an unusual subject: Lyme Disease.
It's a disease that begins from a small bug...

But Lyme Disease has quickly become the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, devastating our families and our pets.

It's a serious problem - that demands immediate attention.

As president, Mitt Romney will ensure that real action is taken to get control of this epidemic that is wreaking havoc on Northern Virginians.

IMPROVE SYNERGY Ensure that government agencies have an open line of communication and work with patients, researchers, doctors, and businesses in an objective, comprehensive manner.

INCREASE AWARENESS Work with federal and state health agencies to support Lyme Disease awareness efforts to help prevent further spread of the disease.
So far this is what I would consider a typical Romney effort, that is, it sounds serious and talks action but doesn't actually say much. But then:
SUPPORT TREATMENT Encourage increased options for the treatment of Lyme Disease and provide local physicians with protection from lawsuits to ensure they can treat the disease with the aggressive antibiotics that are required.
Here Romney is taking sides in ongoing scientific and medical debate. Besides its acute form, Lyme disease can cause long-lasting, very serious symptoms that include persistent fatigue, crippling joint pain, memory loss, and mental confusion. The CDC says that "aggressive" antibiotic treatment does not help people with long-term, Lyme-related symptoms, and that people given the maximum safe antibiotic doses did not recover any faster than people who were left alone:
There is no convincing biologic evidence for the existence of symptomatic chronic B. burgdorferi infection among patients after receipt of recommended treatment regimens for Lyme disease. Antibiotic therapy has not proven to be useful and is not recommended for patients with chronic (>6 months) subjective symptoms after recommended treatment regimens for Lyme disease (E-I).  
A growing group of doctors and patients says that the CDC's studies did not involve high enough doses of antibiotics or go on long enough to wipe out the Lyme bacteria that burrow deeply into the tissues of infected people. This is the significance of Romney's mailer; he is calling for the government to support these aggressive treatments even when the amounts of antibiotics involved exceed the levels generally considered safe.

I wonder if he thinks insurance companies should be required to pay for these treatments.

Feathered Dinosaurs by Peter Schouten

The latest findings of paleontology have now made it to my public library, where the new crop of illustrated dinosaur books show lots of feathers. These are wonderful paintings by Peter Schouten, and they are as accurate as such things can be. Above, Deinonychus antirrhopus, one of the scariest predators, now with feathers all over. All these paintings are from Feathered Dinosaurs: the Origin of Birds, by John Long and Peter Schouten (2008), a very impressive and truly beautiful book.

Velociraptor mongolia looks quite different with feathers than it did in Jurassic Park.

Conchoraptor gracilis, one of the very birdlike forms from China.

Jackie Morris

British artist and illustrator of children's books, born 1960. This version of The Three Hares is from her web site, where there are many wonderful pictures and much else.

This is Wrapped in the Snow Leopard, a limited edition print (copies still available). The pictures below are from The Cat and the Fiddle: a Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (2011), which I got from the library and which is wonderful beyond words.






Today's Underwater Weirdness

And what, you might ask, are these strange shapes found on the sea bed off Japan?

A very patient Japanese underwater photographer finally solved the mystery by observing the creator in the act: a small puffer fish, which seems to make them to impress mates.

What a strange and wonderful planet we live on.

Friday, September 28, 2012

An Ancient Streambed on Mars

From NASA:
NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. It may look like a broken sidewalk, but this geological feature on Mars is actually exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate. Scientists theorize that the bedrock was disrupted in the past, giving it the titled angle, most likely via impacts from meteorites. The key evidence for the ancient stream comes from the size and rounded shape of the gravel in and around the bedrock. Hottah has pieces of gravel embedded in it, called clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size and located within a matrix of sand-sized material. Some of the clasts are round in shape, leading the science team to conclude they were transported by a vigorous flow of water. The grains are too large to have been moved by wind.

Whither Obamacare?

Juan Williams has an interesting column today in which he points out that a range of Republicans, starting with Mitt Romney, are moving toward more nuanced stands on the Affordable Care Act. Mitt has promised to keep the bill's most popular provisions when he brings out his own reform plan. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee recently said, "I am supportive of exchanges and ‘Obamacare’ generally."

This is very encouraging. I have no great love of the Affordable Care Act, and I am sure there are ways to improve it. I hope these Republicans will bring forward some reform ideas instead of just voting to repeal the law 33 more times.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Golden Serpent

Roman bracelet, ca. 200 CE. Now in the British Museum.

Mark Lilla Ponders Conservative Hysteria about Obama

Like me, Andrew Sullivan, and a lot of other people, Mark Lilla thinks Obama is a very moderate, even conservative sort of guy, and can't understand why he upsets people so much:
Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? 
There are really only two possible explanations for the crazed reaction to Obama. One is white people's fear of losing their dominant status. Lilla passes on this one in favor of something more subtle and historical. Reviewing I Am the Change, an anti-Obama tract by Charles Kesler, Lilla explains that conservative intellectuals have made Obama into the latest leader of a dangerous cult that stretches back 250 years. Kesler does not try to deflate Obama's self-presentation as a change agent, but exaggerates it:
Instead, it is that rarest of things, a cheap inflationary takedown — a book that so exaggerates the historical significance of this four-year senator from Illinois, who’s been at his new job even less time, that he becomes both Alien and Predator. Granted, there is something about Obama that invites psychological projection, notably by Scandinavians bearing gifts. But Kesler outdoes the Nobel Prize committee by raising the Obama presidency to world-historical significance, constructing a fanciful genealogy of modern liberalism that begins just after the French Revolution in the works of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel; passes through Karl Marx and Charles Darwin and Oswald Spengler; and culminates in . . . “The Audacity of Hope” and 2,000-plus pages of technical jargon in the Affordable Care Act.

It’s some performance, and actually quite helpful. A sense of proportion, once the conservative virtue, is considered treasonous on the right today, and Kesler cannot be accused of harboring one. But his systematic exaggerations demonstrate that the right’s rage against Obama, which has seeped out into the general public, has very little to do with anything the president has or hasn’t done. It’s really directed against the historical process they believe has made America what it is today. . . .

The thing is, the conservatives have also spooked themselves. They now really believe the apocalyptic tale they’ve spun, and have placed mild-mannered Barack Obama at the center of it. It hasn’t been easy. Kesler admits that “Obama is at pains to be, and to be seen as, a strong family man, a responsible husband and father urging responsibility on others, a patriot, a model of pre-’60s, subliminally anti-’60s, sobriety.” But that’s just a disguise. In fact, he’s the “latest embodiment of the visionary prophet-statesman” of the Progressives, someone who “sees himself engaged in an epic struggle” whose success will mean “the Swedenization of America.” Or maybe its Harlemization, given that “the black church replaces the Puritans in Obama’s chronicle of American spirituality.” In any case, Barack Obama is, without doubt, the “most left-wing liberal to be elected to national executive office since Henry Wallace.” (Take that, Hubert Humphrey!) And what is Kesler’s evidence for these extravagant claims? He hasn’t any.
My impulse is always to belittle my political opponents, to think that they are bumbling idiots or demagogues who want memberships in the Congressional gym, and to assume that history will soon pass them by. But some people seem to enjoy turning their enemies into Saurons with vast armies and dark powers. We are all only human, and our parts in history are small.

The Right to Blaspheme

Via David Frum, Hussein Ibish responds to the recent riots over insults to Islam by defending blasphemy as a core right:
If freedom of religion, conscience and speech are to mean anything, religious doctrines, symbols and assertions must be open to inquiry, criticism and, indeed, ridicule. Otherwise, the human thought process will be shut down by force of law in order to protect the sensibilities of the superstitious, and free inquiry into the most central issues facing humanity since the birth of the species will be effectively foreclosed.

These calls reflect a paranoid worldview that is widespread among Muslims that their religion is under some kind of global assault. If so—because Islam is spreading faster than almost any other religion, with the possible exception of Mormonism—it's an odd kind of siege. In reality, Islam is thriving in its countries of origin and spreading quickly into the West.

What this idea really bespeaks is a terror that most faiths contain at their core: that serious, skeptical, dispassionate evaluations of their specific claims will reveal them to be indefensible, hollow and easily debunked. Embracing modernity requires tolerating such fears without demanding the enforcement of religious orthodoxy, even of an ecumenical variety, through the power of the state. . . .

Reason and skepticism, for good or ill, are not poised to overthrow faith. Islam is thriving in the modern world, both in its traditional lands and in its new adopted homes. Its politicized devotees are acquiring increasing power in post-dictatorship Arab societies. And on top of all of this, the OIC wants to globally shut down freedom of thought, conscience and speech to further "protect" Islam from perceived slights.

There is only one appropriate response to this, in language the devout should be able to easily understand: to hell with you.

The Tragedy of Mitt Romney, Act III

I feel certain that within a decade Mitt Romney will be the subject of a tragic opera. Here we have a man who has been successful at every job he has undertaken, famously competent and driven, who decides to become President. Meanwhile, though, his party has gone insane, so to compete for its nomination he has to turn himself into an ignorant, arithmetic-challenged reciter of right-wing talking points. Fareed Zakaria notes that Romney is meeting increasing criticism from Republican critics, then writes:
Fox News anchor Brit Hume got specific in his critique, saying this month that “Romney’s got the presidential bearing down. . . . What he [hasn’t done is] dwell at length on the economic policies that he would put in place.” Why won’t Romney, an intelligent man, fluent in economics, explain his economic policy? Because any sensible answer would cause a firestorm in his party.

It is obvious that, with a deficit at 8 percent of gross domestic product, any solution to our budgetary problems has to involve both spending cuts and tax increases. . . . But every Republican presidential candidate — including Romney — pledged during the primaries that he or she would not accept $10 of spending cuts if that meant a dollar of tax increases.

So Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit. When pressed for details recently, he explained that “the devil’s in the details. The angel is in the vision.” He’s right. Were he to get specific, he would be committing ideological blasphemy. So instead he talks about freedom and capitalism.
There simply are no realistic solutions to our budgetary and economic problems that the average Republican primary voter would find acceptable. So Romney is stuck, and us with him.

To Save Money, Cut Off the Pilots' Oxygen

Disturbing piece from the AP today documenting the history of the breathing problems that have repeatedly grounded our showpiece F-22 fighters:
Years before F-22 pilots began getting dizzy in the cockpit, before one struggled to breathe as he tried to pull out of a fatal crash, before two more went on television to say the plane was so unsafe they refused to fly it, a small circle of U.S. Air Force experts knew something was wrong with the prized stealth fighter jet.

Coughing among pilots and fears that contaminants were leaking into their breathing apparatus led the experts to suspect flaws in the oxygen-supply system of the F-22 Raptor, especially in extreme high-altitude conditions in which the $190 million aircraft is without equal. They formed a working group a decade ago to deal with the problem, creating an informal but unique brain trust.

Internal documents and emails obtained by The Associated Press show they proposed a range of solutions by 2005, including adjustments to the flow of oxygen into pilot’s masks. But that key recommendation was rejected by military officials reluctant to add costs to a program that was already well over budget.
The fix recommended by the Raptor Aeromedical Working Group back in 2002 was to place a digital regulator in the oxygen generation system so the amount of oxygen reaching the pilot could be controlled, which they estimated would cost $100,000 per plane. Even if they were off by a factor of fifty, that would still have been cheaper than the mess we are in now -- but it was rejected as too expensive by the project leaders.

This is the end point, or reducto ad absurdum, of the US Air Force's obsession with building the coolest hardware. They were so determined to build every possible high tech refinement into these planes that the refused to spend the money needed to fix the pilot's oxygen supply. As if, you know, whether the pilots can breathe is just some minor technical point that can be glossed over and maybe fixed with a patch later. Faced with budget limitations, they have always opted to preserve their expensive weapons systems, even if that means cutting back on their human capital in areas like aviation health -- which is why they are now relying on experts from NASA to help fix their fighter planes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bronze

The Royal Academy of Arts in London is mounting an exhibit called Bronze, a selection of famous bronzes from many different cultures and eras. It's a truly amazing collection. Video discussion here. Above, Damned Soul, by Massimiliano Soldani Benzi, after Gianlorenzo Bernini, ca. 1705.

 The Chimera of Arezzo. Date disputed, possibly Etruscan, c. 400 BC.

Portrait of King Seuthes III of Thrace, ca. 300 BC. I put this work on this blog before and it generated some discussion, because it is quite remarkable. I noticed that while this is often called a Thracian work, the curator of this exhibit says quite carefully this it is a Hellenistic work found in Bulgaria, implying that he thinks it was made by Greek artists.

The Dancing Satyr, a classical Greek work recently found on the sea floor off Sicily.

Vulcan's Forge, Adriaen de Vries, 1611.

Danaide, Constantin Brancusi, 1918.

Thought for the Day

Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.

--John Bowlby

French Royal Ballet of the 1620s


Daniel Rabel (1578-1637) was the artist reponsible for designing costumes and sets for ballets, masques, and pageants performed at the French court in the 1620s. These drawings come from a volume published around 1630, Ballet des Fées de la forêt de Saint Germain. Above, Alizon the Surly and His Dragon.

Enter the Dowager and Her Ladies in Waiting. 

Entry of the Brave Fighters.


Perrette the Hazardous and a Cat.

Entry of the Promoters and their Pages.

These must have been something to see. From BibliOdyssey.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Digging Wells

There are three wells on our archaeological site in Delaware, one in the newer (1820-1920) part and two in the older (1770-1820) part. Today we used a backhoe to complete the excavation of two, and widen the third so we can keep digging down by hand.

The first was our nearly sterile well, We dug this all the way down with the backhoe, and it was sterile all the way down. We tried to dig half and leave the profile intact, but of course once we got down into the wet levels the whole thing collapsed. Here I try to measure the depth without collapsing the hole -- the well was about 9 feet deep.

This is the most recent well, filled around 1920. We dug this one to the bottom with the backhoe, too, and it turned out to have an interesting structure. Toward the bottom some of the brick lining was preserved, as you can see here. This brick rested on a wooden ring about 4 inches thick. Behind it was a layer of wooden boards, as if these had been set up to hold the side up when the brick ring was built. Not much in the way of interesting artifacts, though.

The last well, the second one in the old part of the site, is producing all the good artifacts. We will keep digging down in this one by hand, but to make that safe we widened the hole using the backhoe. Here you can see the remains of the wooden lining emerging, about 6 feet below the old surface.

More artifacts from this well: above, a creamware camber pot, and below, large sherds from mug and a teapot made of pearlware.

This was an exhausting day for me, but a very productive one, so it is a good sort of tired.

The President on the Muslim Riots

Obama at the UN:
I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.

There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.

More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy. Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue. Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims– any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.

However, I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.
Damn apologist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Islamic Art at the Louvre

The Louvre has opened a new Department of Islamic Art, providing a home for the more than 3,000 objects from the Islamic world in their collection. Above, Ivory pyxis of Prince Al-Mugẖīra, made in Spain in 968.

Photo from ArtDaily.com of a museum goer viewing wall tiles in the new galleries.


Some images from the Louvre's promotional videos. An Izmir bowl from Turkey, and a 14th-century brass dish made in Syria or Persia, known as the "Baptismal Font of St. Louis."

Why Are Badly-Educated White Americans Dying?

Much hand-wringing in the news over new studies showing that the life expectancy of white Americans is falling. For white women without a high school diploma, the expected life span has fallen by 5 years since 1990; for men, it has dropped 3 years. This is a dramatic drop, and several different groups of experts have looked at the data and decided that it is real. Why?
The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance. 
I'll throw out another reason: hopelessness. A deep sense that people have no control over their lives. A feeling of being abandoned by the broader community.

As lots of people have noted, poor white people have become increasingly like poor black people. Life among both groups is defined by a sense that they are outside the norm, and not welcome there. By a deep belief that nobody much cares if they live or die.

I think this crisis has two roots: first, the fading of white privilege, which made all white Americans feel better about their own lives because at least they weren't black. Second, the collapse of stable blue collar work.

This is the dark side of the Randian, entrepreneurial, scratch and claw your way to the top world that Republicans from George Will to Mitt Romney have now endorsed. The goal of conservative economics now is to let the marketplace pick winners and losers. That means, you know, that somebody has to lose, and those losers are the ones whose life expectancy is falling.

The only long-term answer is create a world in which winning and losing matter less, in which everybody gets a decent deal regardless of how badly he or she competes. Because we can't all be winners.

No Doves in this Election

Conor Friedersdorf, who has spent the past 3 1/2 years hammering Obama for his bellicose foreign policy, has a good article this week on why foreign policy has become a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans are unable to get any benefit from Obama's mistakes, says Friedersdorf, because they are making the wrong critique. Instead of attacking him for waging an unconstitutional war in Libya, using drone strikes with abandon, wasting billions and hundreds of lives in Afghanistan, and so on, they insist that he is not bellicose enough. They are desperate to accuse him of being somehow anti-American, even though this makes no sense to voters outside the conservative movement.

Friedersdorf is so incensed by Obama's needless belligerence, and his continued insistence on his right to detain terrorist suspects without charge, that he refuses "on principle" to vote for the President.

Which brings me to my stand on the matter. Like Friedersdorf I think the Afghan surge was stupid, the Libyan intervention an obvious violation of the war powers act, and our treatment of terrorist suspects an outrage. But I will vote for Obama, because I think Mitt Romney would be much worse, and because I think that given the state of America Obama is about the best any anti-war, pro-civil liberties voter can hope for.

Americans will not elect a pacifist president. True, they eventually turned against the Afghan and Iraq Wars, but only after many years of futility. They will not support a president they suspect is not tough enough to smash our enemies when they need smashing. Nor will they support a president they think values the lives of possible terrorists above the safety of Americans. As Friedersdorf himself admits, Obama is clobbering Romney on all the foreign policy questions, getting the endorsement of every non-Republicans in the country. That's because his drone strikes, his assassination of bin Laden, and his continued aggression against potential terrorists are very popular. If he was not doing these things, the Republicans could make a case against him that really might hurt him.

In a democracy, the will of the people matters. On foreign policy it seems to matter less than on some other issues, because of the strength of our military and foreign policy bureaucracies. But change of the magnitude Friedersdorf wants will only come when the voters insist on it, and I see no sign that this will happen any time soon.

In the mean time, I think that refusing to vote "on principle" is a disgusting cop-out. There is a choice to be made, whether you like the options or not, and by refusing to choose you are effectively endorsing the worst offender.

Is Writing the Key to Education?

Interesting if boosterish essay by Peg Tyre about the importance of writing in education. She starts from the experience of New Dorp High School on Staten Island, which has turned itself around using a program that stresses essay writing in every class:
New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

The number of kids enrolling in a program that allows them to take college-level classes shot up from 148 students in 2006 to 412 students last year. Most important, although the makeup of the school has remained about the same—­roughly 40 percent of students are poor, a third are Hispanic, and 12 percent are black—a greater proportion of students who enter as freshmen leave wearing a cap and gown. This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began. New Dorp, once the black sheep of the borough, is being held up as a model of successful school turnaround. “To be able to think critically and express that thinking, it’s where we are going,” says Dennis Walcott, New York City’s schools chancellor. “We are thrilled with what has happened there.”
Analytical writing is a major focus of the Common Core educational reform movement, which seems to be sweeping the nation.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

National Geographic Photo Contest 2012

As usual, an amazing array of photos, including two I have featured here. A few more favorites. Above, a full moon above the monastery of San Michele in the Italian Alps, by Stefano De Rosa.

Soldiers and abandoned ferris wheel in Beirut, by Janus Langhorn.

View of mountain scenery in the Ladakh Range, Jammu and Kashmir.