Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Warrantless Wiretapping is Still Illegal

A Federal judge has ruled that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program was illegal, and ordered the government to pay damages to people whose phone calls were intercepted.

Then ruling is an obvious one, and the only reason it hasn't been given before now is that since who was being wiretapped was secret, plaintiffs were unable to prove that they had been harmed by the law. But lawyers for Al Haramain, an Islamic charity, were able to prove from public-source documents that their phones were tapped. The judge ordered the government to produce a warrant, and when they couldn't, granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.

Judge Vaughn Walker also threw out the contention, first made by the Bush administration but maintained by the Obama administration, that the case had to be dismissed because trying it would reveal state secrets.

Jon Eisenberg, the plaintiffs lawyer, said "Judge Walker is saying that FISA and federal statutes like it are not optional. The president, just like any other citizen of the United States, is bound by the law."

All I can say is, Hallelujah. In the aftermath of 9-11, it made some sense that the courts moved slowly and carefully in evaluating the claims Bush's people made about measures they said were necessary to protect the country. But the law is the law, and it applies to everyone, all the time. It was all important for the future of our democracy that the extreme claims of Presidential power made by John Yoo, David Addington, and their ilk be struck down. Slowly, gradually, their bizarre theories are being repudiated, and justice is returning to the land.

Naomi Wolf Slides off the Cliff

Jonathan Chait passes on the latest about my briefly famous and now increasingly deranged former classmate, Naomi Wolf. Once a feminist and adviser to Al Gore, she supported Ron Paul in 2008 and has now joined the Tea Party movement. Chait has a video clip of her telling an audience that the government is intercepting her mail, which she knows because she is not getting letters from her daughter at camp.

There are advantages to having a lunatic mother: "Honest, Mom, I've been writing every day! The government must be intercepting my letters!"

And to think that I used to sit behind her in Heinrich von Stadten's "Myth, Science, and Philosophy in Ancient Greece" and greedily watch her toss her beautiful hair. Even then she sometimes had only a tenuous grasp of what was happening around her, but I wrote it off as vanity. Little did I know how much madness lurked under that shining hair.

On the other hand, she is strongly anti-torture.

The Full Flower of Early Spring

Rock Creek Cemetery, today.

A Great Ruling on Genetic Patents

Finally, a Federal Judge has struck down a company's claim to own a naturally occurring gene. American legal doctrine has allowed companies to claim patents on genes they isolate and explain. Among the human genes that are "owned" are BRAC-1 and BRAC-2, two variants strongly associated with breast cancer. Nobody could test for those genes without being licensed by the company that owns those patents.

Not any more. Judge Robert Sweet ruled that genes were products of "the law of nature" and could not be patented. The ruling will be appealed, but I suspect it will be upheld. When the first patents on genes were granted, the discovery of a gene seemed like a great feat of science, worthy of some sort of reward, but now dozens of new genes are isolated and described every day. Just isolating a gene is no longer a big deal. The newer testing technologies work on dozens or hundreds of genes at once, and allowing patents on individual genes will only interfere with progress in the field.

Plus, I mean, patents are given for things people invent, not things they discover. Genes are there. Some of them have been around for a billion years. To grant somebody a patent on a gene found across most living things is just transcendentally absurd.

Unbelieving Pastors

I was much moved by this article on pastors who have lost their faith in god, by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Of course Dennett is a notedly aggressive atheist, and in a few places a bit of his smugness about religion comes through, but the heart of the piece is the interviews in which five Protestant pastors, three from liberal denominations and two from conservative, tell their stories.

Most of these men have retained a sort of faith in, or at least a fondness for, Christianity, but shifted into the metaphorical realm. One said,

I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings. As a way of dealing with the fact that we’re finite. We’re vulnerable.

Another thinks of Jesus as a social reformer. All emphasize how much they enjoy the community of the church. Only one seems to be hostile toward religion, and he seems to be a screwed-up person in a lot of ways.

One of the things they all have in common is that their doubts started or were solidified by their experience in the seminary. Being forced to study the Bible in detail, including the history of the text, made all of them doubt that it could be literally true. The study of theology showed them how many ways there are to think about God. One said, "Oh, you can't go through a seminary and come out believing in God!" They explore the gap this creates between them and their parishoners, and they assert that all pastors have to deal with this problem.

These stories made me meditate on the question of loneliness. We all crave connection, but we all have thoughts and feelings we are afraid to share. We create communities to ease our loneliness, but every community creates a pressure to conform to the values of the group. If we no longer share those values, the community can become a source of increased loneliness, rather than a comfort. We can continue to belong and keep our thoughts to ourselves, and we may even get a great deal out of such communion, but in part of our minds we will still be alone.


Here's a review of a book by Susan Pinker that advances a thesis I have been mulling over for some time: maybe women are less "successful" than men because they have better priorities:
Pinker does more than dryly discuss the biology; she provides example after example of women who have succeeded in this “man’s world” and found it wanting. As Pinker explains, let’s move on past the idea that a woman can’t do the same work as a man, and discuss why she may not want to. Any woman who has wondered if her preferences run counter to the feminist cause should pay close attention here; believing that a woman should have every right to pursue the same goals as men is different from believing that every woman should want to. Time and again, Pinker points out how women have sought those goals, attained them, and then shifted their eyes to a different prize. These “opt out” women can be found, as Pinker states, “in every major university, law, engineering, and accounting firm in North America and Europe” (p. 64). Women are 2.8 times more likely than men to leave science and engineering careers for other occupations and 13 times more likely to exit the labor force entirely. This is not because they are overwhelmed with childcare, either. They leave their careers at every age and every stage of life, whether or not they have families. Pinker concludes with what seems to be an obvious yet ignored truth, that women are autonomous beings who know their own desires. As one woman put it, “…work is not the only thing I do. I have a life” (p. 90).
Personally, I think "success" is a great goal for people who can't think of anything better to do with their lives, but something the rest of us might be better off to avoid. If you can be "successful" on your terms, doing something you like to do, great, but if making more money and climbing the career ladder means sacrificing the things you really love, perhaps you should rethink.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Things One Knew Nothing About

How about Basque mythology?

Basajaun. A benign wood spirit of the Basque, whose name means "lord of the woods". He protects the flocks and herds against predators and thunderstorms. He taught mankind the art of agriculture and forging. The spirit is mischievous, but not malignant. His wife is Base-Andre. Their characters shift considerably from story to story. In some stories Basa-Jaun is an ogre and his wife a witch (who often helps her husband's victims escape).

Ilazki. Although her image is quite ambiguous, sometimes good, sometimes evil, she is treated with uttermost respect and called Ilargi-Amandre (Lady Mother Moon). Her name means "light of the dead" (hil argia) as she lights the ghosts of the deceased. She is intimately linked to them, and them to her. Thus, to die when the moon was close to the first quarter was considered as a good omen for the afterlife, because the soul of the departed would grow with the orb. The Moon has also a great influence on plants and trees, and some should or should not be cut or collected, depending on Ilazki's phase.

Maide. This is a bad genie from the Basque folklore that usually enters a house through the chimney. Once inside, the spirit will destroy everything, so the only way to prevent its intrusion is to keep the fire burning all the time.

Mari. The supreme and foremost goddess of the Basque pantheon. She is the goddess of thunder and wind, the personification of the Earth. The thunder spirit Maju is her consort, and the benign spirit Atarrabi and the evil spirit Mikelats are her sons. She protects the travelers and the herds, and gives good council to humans. She rides through the sky on a chariot pulled by four horses, or on a ram. Sometimes she assumes the shape of a white cloud or a rainbow. Mari ("queen") is represented as a woman with a full moon behind her head, or in an animal shape. Her symbol is a sickle.

Ortzadar. The Personification of the rainbow and guide of souls. When a person dies, the soul escapes the body and, using the rainbow as a ladder, reaches the Moon. From there, the soul is transformed into rain that will eventually fall on the land. Then, the soul will reincarnate.

Ostri. The Sky primitively in Basque mythology, he became later an equivalent of Heaven. During the evangelisation of the Basque country, it was thus nearly natural that the Christian God might be related to Ostri, and thus named. This being is often represented by the "lauburu" (literally, "four heads", it is a sort of swastika), that symbolises the contrasted forces of good and evil (depending on which direction the wheel of the swastika turns).


Happiness, Continued

David Brooks summarizes the happiness research:
Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled. . . .

The United States is much richer than it was 50 years ago, but this has produced no measurable increase in overall happiness. On the other hand, it has become a much more unequal country, but this inequality doesn’t seem to have reduced national happiness.

On a personal scale, winning the lottery doesn’t seem to produce lasting gains in well-being. People aren’t happiest during the years when they are winning the most promotions. Instead, people are happy in their 20’s, dip in middle age and then, on average, hit peak happiness just after retirement at age 65. . . .

If the relationship between money and well-being is complicated, the correspondence between personal relationships and happiness is not. The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year. . . .

The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important.

My Hopes for the Large Hadron Collider

The gigantic Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running, smashing protons into each other at unprecedented energies. The goal is to learn more about the sub-atomic world, and thus about the universe.

Our models of sub-atomic physics are extremely useful but incomplete and mathematically messy. For example, in its simplest form, the "Standard Model" gives all particles a mass of 0; to account for the obvious fact that particles do have mass, physicists have conjured up the "Higgs field" and an as-yet unobserved particle called the "Higgs boson." Many physicists find the whole construction dubious. The most impressive recent attempt to make sense of the sub-atomic world, string theory, has grown more and more controversial as it remains unproved and untestable.

Observations by telescopes suggest even more problems with our models. Measurements of how galaxies interact show that most of the universe is made up of something we can't see, which we call Dark Matter. And they are moving in ways they shouldn't, perhaps impelled by a force we call "Dark Energy." These constructions are like the "eipcycles" astronomers dreamed up to make the observed behavior of planets fit into their earth-centered models of the universe; they are signs of ignorance, not understanding.

My hope for the Large Hadron Collider is that the first results will be something completely unexpected. I have a sense that sub-atomic physics has reached a dead end, or at least gotten mired in a deep bog. I think minor refinements to existing models will not get us out of the bog. Finding the Higgs boson, often offered as a major goal for the LHC, would, I think, only mire us more deeply, since it would confirm that our incomplete, messy model is correct on its own terms.

But a real surprise, a result that we cannot at first interpret, might open the way to real progress.

Body Lice are Head Lice

Today's gross news:
Body lice, which cause highly lethal epidemics (trench fever, typhus and relapsing fever Borrelia), originate from head lice, an international group of scientists reported today. . . .

Until now, head lice, which feed on the scalp and lay their eggs on hair, and body lice, which feed on the rest of the body and live in the creases of dirty clothes, were thought to be different species. However, researchers from the Emerging Infectious and Tropical Diseases Research Unit (CNRS/IRD/Université de la Méditerranée) and two U.S. teams have shown that these lice have the same origin," CNRS said.

Through genetic analysis of the louse genome, the researchers observed that "it was impossible to distinguish the head louse from the body louse at the genetic level," CNRS added.

"In addition, fieldwork has shown that, in populations living in extreme poverty, the proliferation of head lice led to the emergence of lice able to adapt to clothes and turn into body lice. These body lice were then able to cause epidemics of body lice and bacterial epidemics."

"This discovery shows that it is not possible to eradicate body lice without first eradicating head lice, which until now has proved impossible. In addition, this explains the regular appearance of body lice in areas where they were previously unknown, when sanitary conditions rapidly deteriorate.

"Head lice are therefore permanently in an endemic state. In highly unfavorable sanitary conditions, head lice proliferate, and some of them migrate into clothes, triggering a new epidemic of body lice," CNRS said.

CDC images of the head louse (upper) and body louse (lower) show the adult forms look quite different. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is another great example of the way that genes and environment interact to produce the adult form of an animal. From a personal standpoint, eeeuuw.

Photographers are Hurting

The latest profession to be hurt by the internet is photographers, especially the ones who specialize in travel or nature shots. The rise of digital photography has made it easier for amateurs to take good pictures and the internet provides a way for them to share their work. Their budgets squeezed by the recession, more and more editors are turning to stock photos posted on Flickr and similar sites. They can license these existing photos for a small fee, and they can find and purchase them right away. Getty Images, one of several firms in the business, licensed 1.4 million images in 2005 but 22 million last year. Since many of the people selling images online are amateurs or only semi-professional, they are content with any amount of money. Eventually the recession will end, but now that editors are in the habit of buying stock photos, the number of photo commissions will probably never return to the old level.

And, really, why should it? There are great photographers, but most of the shots that appear in the average Travel and Leisure article could be taken by anyone with a $1000 camera.

The Lead Coffin of Gabii

Archaeologists working in Gabii, a few miles from Rome, have unearthed a 1000-pound lead coffin dating to around AD 200 to 400. An elaborate coffin of any kind from this period would be a rare find, a lead one practically unheard of. The identity of the corpse is unknown, but since a thousand pounds of lead would have cost a small fortune, it must have been someone quite wealthy. The coffin has been transported to the American Academy in Rome, where it will be studied:
Human remains encased in lead coffins tend to be well preserved, if difficult to get to. Researchers want to avoid breaking into the coffin. The amount of force necessary to break through the lead would likely damage the contents. Instead, they will first use thermography and endoscopy. Thermography involves heating the coffin by a few degrees and monitoring the thermal response. Bones and any artifacts buried with them would have different thermal responses, Terrenato said. Endoscopy involves inserting a small camera into the coffin. But how well that works depends on how much dirt has found its way into the container over the centuries.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Not a Good Cause

Ben: I want to build a secret mansion in the sewers.
Parent: You could call yourself The Rat.
Ben: I want to be called Sewer Rat.
Parent: You could be a super villain.
Ben: I could. But I don't think evil is a good cause.

Diane Ravitch on Educational Reform

The Economist interviews educational reformer Diane Ravitch, who was once a big supporter of No Child Left Behind but has now turned against it:

DiA: Regarding No Child Left Behind and charter schools you've written, "I no longer believe that either approach will produce the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for." What will? Or is it unrealistic to hope for a "quantum improvement"?

Ms Ravitch: I believe that we need improvement across the board. We need a larger and more humane vision of what education is, to begin with. It is more than scores on multiple-choice, standardised tests of basic skills. The data we use now to judge "quality" is itself flawed and easily gamed. We need a vision of education that recognises that it consists of not only basic skills, but knowledge of history, geography, civics, the arts, science, foreign languages, and literature. We need better educated teachers, better examinations for incoming teachers, principals who are themselves master teachers, superintendents who have some experience as educators, rather than as businessmen or lawyers or military officers. We need more professionalism, not less. We need curricula that reflect the education we want. We need assessments that gauge understanding, not just guessing skills.

All of this will take time, but less time than has been wasted on NCLB and that will be wasted on Barack Obama's proposals to close thousands of schools with low scores.

DiA: Do you think Barack Obama's proposed changes to No Child Left Behind are adequate?

Ms Ravitch: No. They are too deeply rooted in the flawed assumptions of NCLB. There is no evidence that closing schools, firing principals and teachers will magically produce better schools. There is no evidence that there are 5,000 outstanding principals waiting to be called to lead these schools, or that hundreds of thousands of "great" teachers will leave their jobs to teach in stigmatised schools. This is the same punitive approach embedded in NCLB. It rests on a fundamental belief that schools need incentives and sanctions, a whiplash to improve. It is based on test scores, and it will do nothing to lift education in those schools or in any other schools.

17th-Century Virginia was a Tough Place

Henry Fleet has been trading for furs along the Potomac River in a 100-ton ship called the Warwick, dealing both with local tribes and a group of outsiders from the north called the Massawomecks:
“Divers envious people” in Jamestown had been talking since the previous winter of cutting off Fleet’s Potomac trade, and his dealings with the Massawomecks only inflamed such sentiment. As Fleet began to work his way down the Potomac, a small pinnace carrying Charles Harmon and council member John Utie intercepted him. In Jamestown Fleet was hauled before a council packed with hard-bitten 1620s-era chieftain planters, each of whom secretly proposed that Fleet form a partnership with him. Governor John Harvey, however, scooped his councilors: in September he ordered Fleet released and gave him permission to keep the Warwick (in effect stealing from Fleet’s London backers). Fleet, in a tidy quid pro quo, gave an unnamed “partner” (surely Governor Harvey) a half-interest in his vessel, kept the profits from the Warwick’s 1632 voyages, loaded up with trade goods, and sailed for the Potomac the following spring.
-- James D. Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (2009), p. 96.

Sea Anemone Armies

How did I miss this story?
Clashing colonies of sea anemones fight as organized armies with distinct castes of warriors, scouts, reproductives and other types, according to a new study. The sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima lives in large colonies of genetically identical clones on boulders around the tide line. Where two colonies meet they form a distinct boundary zone. Anemones that contact an animal from another colony will fight, hitting each other with special tentacles that leave patches of stinging cells stuck to their opponent. . . .

When the tide is out, the polyps are contracted and quiet. As the tide covers the colonies, "scouts" move out into the border to look for empty space to occupy. Larger, well-armed "warriors" inflate their stinging arms and swing them around. Towards the center of the colony, poorly armed "reproductive" anemones stay out of the fray and conduct the clone's business of breeding.
The more you know, the weirder the world gets.


No so long ago, atoms were a theory. A very powerful theory with a great deal evidence to support it, but a theory nonetheless. Now we can take pictures of them.

The latest scanning transmission electron microscope at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory can resolve small atoms like the nitrogen and boron atoms shown in these images.

Sometimes, the things we can do just astonish me.

Dark Flow

In case you were getting complacent and starting to think that we understand the universe, I pass along the latest news about a phenomenon called "Dark Flow."
In 2008 scientists reported the discovery of hundreds of galaxy clusters streaming in the same direction at more than 2.2 million miles (3.6 million kilometers) an hour.

This mysterious motion can't be explained by current models for distribution of mass in the universe. So the researchers made the controversial suggestion that the clusters are being tugged on by the gravity of matter outside the known universe.

Now the same team has found that the dark flow extends even deeper into the universe than previously reported: out to at least 2.5 billion light-years from Earth.

After using two additional years' worth of data and tracking twice the number of galaxy clusters, "we clearly see the flow, we clearly see it pointing in the same direction," said study leader Alexander Kashlinksy, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "It looks like a very coherent flow."

The find adds to the case that chunks of matter got pushed outside the known universe shortly after the big bang—which in turn hints that our universe is part of something larger: a multiverse.

Then again, maybe we just don't understand this at all.

The White House Seder

For a certain set of militaristic, pro-Settler Jews, Obama is the new enemy. He has been abused all over the place for mildly protesting the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, even though opposition to such settlements has been US policy since 1967. He has been called an opponent of the existence of Israel and even an anti-Semite. (Glenn Reynolds: "Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.") He is not much more popular in Israel; at one point, I seem to recall, his approval rating in Israel was less than 10%.

What I find weird about this is that Obama has very strong connections to American Jews. He was mentored as a community organizer by Jews, his early political career was shepherded by Jewish patrons, and he has many close Jewish friends. The only election he ever lost was to a black opponent who painted him as a tool of Jewish interests. His closest advisers include many Jews: Tim Geithner, Rahm Emanuel, and so on. This comes to mind because he is once again hosting a White House seder, where the Presidential daughters play the role usually assigned to the youngest Jews present. What gives?

The explanation, I think, is that the politics of Israel make people crazy. Israelis vs. Palestinians is one of those issues that invites us vs. them thinking. You are either for Israel or against it, for the Palestinians or against them. And if you are for Israel, you must be for everything Israel does, you must think Israel is always in the right, you must always see Israel as a tiny little kingdom of justice surrounded by huge and powerful enemies, a position that justifies every act taken by its leaders.

I have myself been accused of "believing anti-Semitic crap" for asserting that during the 1947 war, Jewish soldiers evicted Muslims from their homes by force. I regard this as a simple fact, completely irrelevant to the question of what Israel's boundaries ought to be now. The new East Jerusalem settlements are, of course, relevant to the boundary question. I regard them as stupid and immoral, which is how I feel about all the settlements. But not because I am opposed to Israel. I consider myself a supporter of Israel. I simply believe that in the long run Israel can only survive by achieving peace with its neighbors, and it can only remain a Jewish state by concentrating all of its people within a small geographic area. The annexation of Palestinian areas is disastrous for both goals.

There are only two ways Israel can survive as a Jewish state. Israel can either abandon all or most of the settlements and allow the Palestinians to form a state in the West Bank and Gaza, or it can carry out ethnic cleansing on a Stalinist scale and claim all those lands as its own. The second option would, I submit, put such a stain on its soul that it would never recover its sense of itself as a land of justice, quite apart from the reaction of the rest of the world. So the only option is the first. Every settler home makes that harder to achieve; makes it, I believe, more likely that the future of Israel will be unending violence and ever-increasing hatred. Obama, I think, understands this, which is why his positions are entirely right and his opponents are crazy.

A Book I'll Skip

Reading my way across the internet this morning I twice encountered large ads for a book called Wisdom: from Philosophy to Neuroscience, offering "Ten Fascinating Facts About Wisdom."

Intrigued by what a "fact about wisdom" might be, I was suckered into clicking on the link. Oy.

Did you know that "King Solomon wasn't so wise"? That "animals can be wise"? That "Job wasn't patient"? Maybe we need to begin with a discussion of what a "fact" is.

And here's a radical notion for you: "Paragons of wisdom are often social and political outcasts." To think! Or how about "Older people, on average, manage their emotions better."

It is quite fascinating, the recycled crud that people manage to get published by top publishers with major ad budgets.

The Bottom Line

A just society is one that shelters the homeless, feeds the hungry, and heals the sick.

--Congressman Alan Grayson, meeting his constituents after voting for the health care bill

Saturday, March 27, 2010


"Apocalypse" by Jorgi Gallego

Manhattan's Neighborhoods

Save this for the next time you're reading a novel or watching a movie set in New York, which will of course assume you know where all these places are. (click to enlarge) Now if only I could find one for Brooklyn. . . .

Boiling Cancer Tumors

"Hyperthermia" therapy for tumors means boiling them to death, inside your body:

The first step of the treatment is to precisely locate the tumour and inject it with tiny packets of magnetic nanoparticles. ‘If you’ve got a well defined tumour somewhere, you can simply squirt them into it,’ comments Kevin O’Grady, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of York. . . .
You then use powerful magnets to repeatedly reverse the polarity of these magnetic particles

‘Every time you remagnetise a ferromagnet, you waste a certain amount of energy from your magnetic field,’ comments O’Grady. And this energy is lost as heat. . .

‘Of course the nanoparticles are quite small and each generates an unmeasurably tiny amount of heat. But if you’ve got tens of billions of them, you can start to make the tumour warm up, and when you get the tumour above 45C, the cells die,’ explains O’Grady.

Of course, if you have a single compact tumor, you can just cut it out, so I suppose this would be most useful for brain or other tumors where there would be real dangers to surgery.

More Jean Nouvel

One of the geometric panels on Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. They are motorized and move throughout the day to filter light. I like them. The building is rather pedestrian (below), but given the limitations of the site it pretty much had to be a tall block.

Jean Nouvel has a terrific web site where you can watch slideshows of all of his projects, including the ones that were never built.

US to Make $8 billion from Citigroup Bailout

A pretty good investment, I'd say.

Abstract Painting

Accused of being narrow-minded about art, I respond that, well, yes, I am, but on the other hand I am not hostile to everything that might be called modernism. There is nothing by a modernist that I love like I love Caravaggio or Alma-Tadema, but there are things I find interesting. My favorite abstract painter is Yale dropout Mark Rothko. Perhaps this is not surprising, since he was explicitly trying to do what ancient art did, using images acceptable in the modern world. He once wrote,
Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy.
He found an answer in abstraction, trying to paint hope and despair as blocks of color rather than figures from myth. Sometimes, in the right mood, I think I see it. Rothko is also one of those painters whose works create an effect when you see them in person that you cannot get from a photograph. They are layered and look different from different angles, sometimes seeming to be screens behind which you can glimpse divine or infernal realms.

I also kind of like Clifford Still's jagged canvases (above), although the less said about Still and his theories of art, the better.

And Helen Frankelthaler.

But, honestly, I would probably trade the whole lot for one drawing like this one.

Herod's Temple

A new, very detailed model of King Herod's temple in Jerusalem.

Cap and Trade Fades Away

According to the NY Times, Democrats are abandoning their last year's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, "cap and trade." A cap and trade system would grant utilities and other manufacturers permits to release a certain amount of CO2, which they could then use or sell to someone else. Because they would have to buy these permits, this would amount to a sort of back door tax. It would be a lot more complicated than a tax on the carbon content of fuels, and really its only advantage would be that politicians supporting it could say they did not support a tax increase. So I am happy to see it die. At some point in the future, perhaps in the middle of a really hot summer, they may even find the nerve to enact a sensible carbon tax.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The "I Got Mine" Brigade

For months we have witnessed the disgusting spectacle of people who already have taxpayer-funded healthcare (Medicare) saying that we can't afford to insure other people.

Now Jonathan Chait looks into the other government handouts received by the Tea Party protesters who oppose health care reform. Consider
Kitty Rehberg, a 71-year-old farmer from nearby Rowley (Iowa), who held a colonial-era American flag as she protested near Mr. Obama's speech." She said the president's policies would cost her "a lot from my pocket book" to help people who "just want freebies."
It turns out that her farm has received $357,000 in agricultural subsidies since 1995.

A Medievalist Reviews "Dante's Inferno"

As described by Carl Pyrdum of the Got Medieval blog, it sounds like a really horrible game:
Breezing through Limbo, land of the unbaptized babies with scythes for arms, Dante arrives in the Circle of Lust, where he is heartbroken to learn that Beatrice and Satan are engaged to be married and that her breasts have been put into a new outfit whose decolletage resembles a spiky vaginal opening. Satan gropes the breasts again and whisks them further into Hell.

Still, Dante follows the breasts. But when he arrives outside the city of Dis, things go from bad to worse. Satan reveals to Beatrice the Arab canoodling that Dante got up to on Crusade, which causes her to finally agree to the wedding. She eats a magic pomegranate that Satan hands her, which causes her breasts to begin to glow like hot coals and burn with a fire that does not consume them. Also, she gets a sort of skull-covered corset to hold them up. Beatrice and Satan french kiss for a while, then he scoops her up and takes her further into Hell. Dante is so incensed by this that he stabs his scythe into the head of a really, really big demon and rides the demon down after them.
That's Beatrice in the images above.

The Quacks are Angry

Besides Republicans, the people most upset about health care reform seem to be certain "alternative medicine" gurus. Mike Adams:
Today the medical mafia struck another devastating blow to the health and freedom of all Americans. With the support of an inarguably corrupt Congress that has simply abandoned the real needs of the American people, the sick-care industry has locked in a high-profit scheme of disease and monopoly-priced pharmaceuticals in a nation that can ill afford either one.

And this Pharma-funded betrayal, it turns out, was led by the Democrats. Passed on a 219-212 vote that was only accomplished thanks to closed-door, last-minute secret meetings among the last holdouts, this new legislation puts America under the stranglehold of the medical mafia while doing absolutely nothing to address real health care reform. There is no mention in the bill, for example, of vitamin D for preventing cancer, or orthomolecular medicine for preventing degenerative disease. There's not even a word about protecting health freedom or ending the century of oppression that has been waged against naturopathic practitioners by the AMA, FDA and FTC.

He has another post on the bill titled "Health Care Dictatorship: a Crime Against America."

It is interesting to me the way various sorts of anti-elitist paranoia come together here. People like Mike Adams are suspicious of the "medical establishment" with its chemicals and white coats, and are looking for a more "natural", "organic" route to health. They dream about fighting disease by eating things grown in their friends gardens, or gathered by noble savages from strange growths on rare rain forest trees. They also want to be healthy by their own efforts, and they think that if they just eat well enough, exercise enough, and stay away from poisons, they will be healthy. They want to be in control of their own lives.

Tea Partiers are suspicious of Big Government, and are looking for solutions that bypass Washington; some of them are probably equally unhappy with Big Business. Their model of health care is that regular folks will talk to their regular doctors in offices insulated from both Washington and Wall Street. They also imagine that if outsiders just leave them alone, they can find their own solutions.

The pharmaceutical companies, with their vast, secret laboratories, their battalions of lobbyists, and their record of poisoning people with dubious medicines, represent everything frightening about the modern world. And, honestly, they did very well in this bill, which will expand insurance coverage for medicines without doing much to reduce prices. (Many Democrats want to take up that problem in a separate bill that would modify Medicare.) The desire to opt out of our system, with its corruptions and evasions of responsibility, is strong in several sorts of Americans.

Alas for the health nuts and survivalists of the world, it doesn't work that way. We all die eventually, and even for the healthiest that decline is usually fraught with disease and bodily decay. Everybody can get sick, and anyone can be in an accident. Your belief that your diet and exercise routine will keep you healthy is largely an illusion. You are one missed step, or one little cloud of bacteria, away from a medical disaster that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix. And when that happens to you, you will be glad to be insured against the cost.

The only way to guarantee that you will be covered when your time comes is a system that protects everyone.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Republicans Close Ranks

David Frum, one of the most intelligent conservative voices in America for the past decade, has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. Everyone assumes that his refusal to toe the Republican line was the reason, and that his attack on Republican tactics in the health care battle was the final straw.

Bruce Bartlett:
As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush's policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don't know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI "scholars" on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already.

A New Precambrian Life Form

The "Precambrian" period was originally defined as the time before multi-cellular life. But then people began to find fossils in Precambrian rocks. These are sometimes called the Ediacara fauna, after the rocks in Australia that have produced the best specimens. The weird thing is that the Ediacara life forms don't seem to be related at all to the modern branches of life that first emerged in the Cambrian (arthropods, molluscs, that sort of thing). Were they some sort of evolutionary dead end? (One of the more obvious specimens is shown above.)

Whatever they are, there is now a new type, found in Spain (below). And once again it doesn't seem to be related to any later species.

Health Care Reform in One Cartoon

Urban Archaeology

My latest project is down this delightful alley.

And we have rats, who zip in and out of these holes right in front of us.

But there are lots of overlapping features and strata, which makes the digging interesting, we are finding artifacts, and as we puzzle all this out we are entertained by the constant bustle of activity in the alley.

Those Wacky Republicans

The Senate adjourned at 2:55 AM this morning without voting on the package of amendments to the original Senate health bill that was passed by the House along with the Senate bill. Republicans are seeking to delay this vote, even though they all think that the amendments make the bill much better. You have to love this strategy of fighting tooth and nail against a bill that they think is a good idea.

Oh, and I am pleased to note that somehow the health bill has acquired a proper name, The Affordable Care Act. I am not sure where this name came from, since I am quite sure it was never read out by the House clerk Sunday night, but who am I to question these things?

The Tale of a Stray Finger Bone

Human evolution gets more interesting all the time.
A previously unknown kind of human group vanished from the world so completely that it has left behind the merest wisp of evidence that it ever existed — a single bone from the little finger of a child, buried in a cave in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia.

Researchers extracted DNA from the bone and reported Wednesday that it differed conspicuously from that of both modern humans and of Neanderthals . . .

As recently as 30,000 years ago, it now appears, there were five human species in the world: Homo erectus, the little Floresians, Neanderthals, modern humans and the new lineage from the Denisova cave.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In the Garden


The Master Thief

An incredible story by Joshuah Bearman at Wired:

Thorough as ever, Blanchard had spent many previous nights infiltrating the bank to do recon or to tamper with the locks while James acted as lookout, scanning the vicinity with binoculars and providing updates via a scrambled-band walkie-talkie. He had put a transmitter behind an electrical outlet, a pinhole video camera in a thermostat, and a cheap baby monitor behind the wall. He had even mounted handles on the drywall panels so he could remove them to enter and exit the ATM room. Blanchard had also taken detailed measurements of the room and set up a dummy version in a friend’s nearby machine shop. With practice, he had gotten his ATM-cracking routine down to where he needed only 90 seconds after the alarm tripped to finish and escape with his score. . . .

Eight minutes after Blanchard broke into the first ATM, the Winnipeg Police Service arrived in response to the alarm. However, the officers found the doors locked and assumed the alarm had been an error. As the police pronounced the bank secure, Blanchard was zipping away with more than half a million dollars.

The following morning was a puzzler for authorities. There were no indications of damage to the door, no fingerprints, and no surveillance recordings — Blanchard had stolen the hard drives that stored footage from the bank’s cameras. Moreover, Blanchard’s own surveillance equipment was still transmitting from inside the ATM room, so before he skipped town, he could listen in on investigators. He knew their names; he knew their leads. He would call both the bank manager’s cell phone and the police, posing as an anonymous informant who had been involved in the heist and was swindled out of his share. It was the contractors, he’d say. Or the Brinks guy. Or the maintenance people. His tips were especially convincing because he had a piece of inside information: One of the bank’s ATMs was left untouched. Blanchard had done that on purpose to make it easier to sow confusion.

The People vs. the Art Critics

Paul Delaroche was once a hugely popular painter, but it was his fate to represent the staid establishment of French art when the avant garde of Impressionism came along to sweep that establishment away. They were merciless to him. On seeing "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" (1833), poet Théophile Gautier wrote,
I hated Paul Delaroche, whom I had never seen, with a savage and aesthetic hatred. I could have eaten him, and thought him good eating, as the young Redskin thought the Bishop of Quebec. . . Delaroche was not born a painter. He belonged to the middle classes. He tried to be interesting, which is a matter absolutely secondary in art.
But while the art world turned scornfully against Delaroche, the middle classes never ceased to love his sentimental history paintings. Tim Adams in the New Statesman:

With this verdict still in mind, therefore, it was with some trepidation and a warning from its then keeper of paintings, Cecil Gould, that the National Gallery finally brought the painting out of storage and put it on display in 1975. "The aim," Gould suggested, "is not to rehabilitate Delaroche. The only question concerning him which is likely to interest the current generation is why he was so successful in his lifetime."

Unfortunately for Gould, Delaroche's painting once again attracted too many visitors of what might still, in 1975, have been thought the wrong sort. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey - showing the teenage queen blindfolded and groping for the block on which she was to be beheaded - almost immediately became the most popular postcard in the National Gallery shop. The flooring in front of the painting was apparently the most scuffed and worn in the gallery; the "current generation", like those that had gone before, was not about to be told what it should like and what it shouldn't.

An Atheist Confronts the Light

Interesting article on the near death experience of British philosopher and noted atheist A.J. Ayer:
According to his own account written for the London Daily Telegraph three months later, “the earliest remarks of which I have any cognizance…were made several hours after I returned to life…addressed to a French woman in French...Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated—but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”

He went on to describe what he so vividly recalled “on the other side.”

“I was confronted by a red light…Aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space...”

Somehow Ayer was aware, however, “that space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint…with the consequence that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should.”

Amphibious Insects

University of Hawaii biologists have documented the first truly amphibious insects, several species of caterpillar that are equally at home on land and under water. The caterpillars don't have gills, so nobody knows how they breathe under water; they may simply absorb oxygen through their skin.

A New Volcano in Iceland

Erupting through the ice fields, this linear lava vent is about half a mile long.

Caesarean Sections at an All-Time High

Here is a great example of what is wrong with American health care:
The Caesarean section rate in the United States reached 32 percent in 2007, the country’s highest rate ever, health officials are reporting.
This is simply crazy. A c-section is major surgery, and unless there is a crisis, turning the natural process of birth into a surgical invasion is bad for both mothers and babies. Every serious analyst thinks the rate should be no higher than 15%, and some think it should be under 10%. It keeps going up because all the incentives in American medicine are aligned toward doing more: the doctors and hospitals make more money the more procedures they do, patients like to feel cared for, and the costs are hidden.

Consider that within the US the rate varies wildly, from 38% in New Jersey to 22% in Utah and Alaska. (I suppose Mormon mothers are more inclined to patiently endure their God-given lot in life, and in Alaska they are all tough from hunting moose.) Higher rates do not lead to better outcomes.

A big part of the problem is the reluctance of many doctors and hospitals to allow a woman who has had one c-section to give birth vaginally, VBAC as it is called. This is also nutty; yes, such women have elevated risks, but c-sections are still worse for most of them.

This is one of those problems that makes me want to be the Tsar.

Non-Destructive Carbon Dating

Radiocarbon dating is an inherently destructive process, because a sample of the object to be dated has to be burned, washed with acid and base, and then vaporized. Modern techniques work on very small samples, but some destruction is always involved. And, there is a problem with using very small samples. When you are working with a pinhead of material, the danger increases that what you are really measuring is not the age of the sample itself but the age of a root hair embedded in it, or even a bacterial film on the surface.

Which is why I am a little skeptical of this new technique:

Rowe's new method, called "non-destructive carbon dating," eliminates sampling, the destructive acid-base washes, and burning. In the new method, scientists place an entire artifact in a special chamber with a plasma, an electrically charged gas similar to gases used in big-screen plasma television displays. The gas slowly and gently oxidizes the surface of the object to produce carbon dioxide for C-14 analysis without damaging the surface, he said.

Rowe and his colleagues used the technique to analyze the ages of about 20 different organic substances, including wood, charcoal, leather, rabbit hair, a bone with mummified flesh attached, and a 1,350-year-old Egyptian weaving. The results match those of conventional carbon dating techniques, they say.

Of course the technique must be doing a little damage to the object -- the carbon has to come from somewhere -- but that damage could certainly be very small. What I wonder is how susceptible the process is to corruption by dirt, oil, bacteria, or anything else that happens to be on the surface of the object to be dated. We'll see, as more tests are done. If it works, it will make it much easier to date objects for which the artistic or sacred value forbids any sampling.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Thing Getting Better

Air quality. Via Matt Yglesias.


To quote our eloquent Vice President, "This is a big fucking deal."

YouTube Fires Back at Viacom

A great look at corporate sleaze:
In their opening briefs in the Viacom vs. YouTube lawsuit (which have been made public today), Viacom and plaintiffs claim that YouTube doesn't do enough to keep their copyrighted material off the site. We ask the judge to rule that the safe harbors in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the "DMCA") protect YouTube from the plaintiffs' claims. Congress enacted the DMCA to benefit the public by permitting open platforms like YouTube to flourish on the Web. It gives online services protection from copyright liability if they remove unauthorized content once they’re on notice of its existence on the site.

With some minor exceptions, all videos are automatically copyrighted from the moment they are created, regardless of who creates them. This means all videos on YouTube are copyrighted -- from Charlie Bit My Finger, to the video of your cat playing the piano and the video you took at your cousin’s wedding. The issue in this lawsuit is not whether a video is copyrighted, but whether it's authorized to be on the site. The DMCA (and common sense) recognizes that content owners, not service providers like YouTube, are in the best position to know whether a specific video is authorized to be on an Internet hosting service.

Because content owners large and small use YouTube in so many different ways, determining a particular copyright holder’s preference or a particular uploader’s authority over a given video on YouTube is difficult at best. And in this case, it was made even harder by Viacom’s own practices.

For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately "roughed up" the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko's to upload clips from computers that couldn't be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users. Executives as high up as the president of Comedy Central and the head of MTV Networks felt "very strongly" that clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should remain on YouTube.

Viacom's efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.

Given Viacom’s own actions, there is no way YouTube could ever have known which Viacom content was and was not authorized to be on the site. But Viacom thinks YouTube should somehow have figured it out. The legal rule that Viacom seeks would require YouTube -- and every Web platform -- to investigate and police all content users upload, and would subject those web sites to crushing liability if they get it wrong.


A rock from Siberia, covered with petroglyphs, date unknown.

Desert Modernism

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, by French architect Jean Nouvel. This looks kind of cool, inside and out, and in principle I love that lattice dome, but wouldn't those speckles of light make it hard to look at art?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Torture and Lies

In the New Yorker, Jane Meyer takes apart Marc Thiessen's pro-torture manifesto, Courting Disaster: How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. "Thiessen," she writes, "is better at conveying fear than relaying facts." Thiessen makes every unsupported claim you ever heard about the effectiveness of the CIA's torture program, including the ones that were refuted years ago. Admittedly some of this history is very murky, and has been the subject of competing leaks from CIA operatives and FBI agents, but Meyer has convincing counter-stories for every one of Thiessen's claimed triumphs. And then there's this:
Tellingly, Thiessen does not address the many false confessions given by detainees under torturous pressure, some of which have led the U.S. tragically astray. Nowhere in this book, for instance, does the name Ibn Sheikh al-Libi appear. In 2002, the C.I.A., under an expanded policy of extraordinary rendition, turned Libi over to Egypt to be brutalized. Under duress, Libi falsely linked Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s alleged biochemical-weapons program, in Iraq. In February, 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an influential speech in which he made the case for going to war against Iraq and prominently cited this evidence.
Thiessen also tries to pin the ending of the torture program on Obama and the Democrats, and writes as if Republicans and the CIA were united behind the program's effectiveness. Not so. The program was always very controversial in the CIA and most of the military brass was strongly opposed. Which explains why the program was ended (or so we are told) in 2006 by President Bush, something Thiessen ought to know about, since he helped write the speech in which Bush announced the change of policy.

The amount of lying that Cheney and his acolytes are doing to promote their savage war staggers me. Is there nothing they won't say in defense of their own immorality?

Superconducting Power Lines

A great idea if they can be made to work: buried, superconducting power lines:

Scientists at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an electric industry-funded nonprofit focused on technology, said in a new report that a superconducting cable system could be ready for commercial development within a decade. Moreover, they said it’s an important technology to consider, given the challenge of greater reliance on renewable energy. Areas with great potential for wind and solar power are often in remote regions far from population centers. Super-chilled wires could efficiently shuttle thousands of megawatts of electricity from distant sites to cities, said the EPRI report. . . .

Another advantage of such a system is it would be buried underground. Proponents say that out-of-sight transmission projects would face less opposition than the traditional power towers. This month, for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power dropped plans for an 85-mile, U.S.$800 million transmission line designed to convey electricity from remote solar, geothermal and nuclear plants in the southeastern California desert and Arizona. The project faced fierce opposition from environmentalists opposed to erecting 16-foot (5-meter) pylons across the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, the San Bernardino National Forest and other preservation areas.

Of course, buried superconducting transmission lines would face their own challenges. The wires would be encased in liquid-nitrogen filled tubes to keep them cool. Refrigerators also would have to be interspersed every few miles.

One of the businessmen interviewed for this story says his company will be able to build these lines for about the same cost as conventional overhead lines, on the order of $10 million per mile.

I, for one, take great delight in imagining a future world with no overhead power lines, so if this can really be made to work, hallelujah.

I Could Look at this Picture for Hours

The Magician Steps ouf of the Closet

James Randi announces that he is gay. Or, actually, that he is a homosexual, because, as he put it, "there is not much gay about being a homosexual."

I think it was common for men of his generation (he is 81) to regard the discovery of their own sexuality as a sad thing, implying either chastity, creating a hypocritical divided life, or immersion in a subculture that would cut them off from much of our society. Randi says he has come out because "there has emerged a distinctly healthy acceptance of different social styles of living". There is something to take pride in about our troubled age.

I Should Be Working, But....

I can't stop reading reactions to the health care vote. It feels like the morning after the election.

Among the most intelligent pundits, I keep finding the idea that the magnitude of the progressive triumph owed a lot to the failed tactics of the Republicans. The Republican leadership decided early on that rather than negotiate for a compromise bill, they would go all out to stop any bill. Their members, disheartened by the magnitude of their losses in 2008, latched onto this plan as a way to restore purpose and relevance to their careers. The way the Republicans worked unanimously against this bill at every step in both houses was very impressive. But in the end, Republican intransigence only gave Democrats the added incentive they needed to forge on. Politicians hate to lose. By setting up the health care vote as an us vs. them, somebody has to lose situation, the Republicans welded the Democratic party together around a bill much more progressive than any compromise would have been.

Matt Yglesias:
We should also, however, spare a thought for the unsung hero of comprehensive reform, McConnell and his GOP colleagues, who pushed their “no compromise” strategy to the breaking point and beyond. The theory was that non-cooperation would stress the Democratic coalition and cause the public to begin to question the enterprise. And it largely worked. But at crucial times when wavering Democrats were eager for a lifeline, the Republicans absolutely refused to throw one. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other key players at various points wanted to scale aspirations down to a few regulatory tweaks and some expansion of health care for children. This idea had a lot of appeal to many in the party. But it always suffered from a fatal flaw—the Republicans’ attitude made it seem that a smaller bill was no more feasible than a big bill. Consequently, even though Scott Brown’s victory blew the Democrats off track, the basic logic of the situation pushed them back on course to universal health care. . . .

Credit for not buckling goes to Nancy Pelosi and other gutsy leaders. But it also goes to the GOP. They wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer when lots of people wanted to surrender and settle for something much smaller. Instead, whipped up into a frenzy of ideological fanaticism and overconfidence, they decided to take no prisoners. So nobody surrendered! And that’s how Mitch McConnell brought universal health care to America.
David Frum, a conservative:
At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994. . . . This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?
Josh Marshall:
If the bill passes, and should the worse befall the Dems and they wake up on November 3rd having lost both houses of Congress, they can look back on all the work in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 cycles and say, it wasn't wasted and it wasn't for nothing. This bill will be by far the most significant piece of social legislation in almost 50 years and will achieve, albeit imperfectly, something progressives have been trying to achieve for going on a century. If the Dems lose their majorities in November, they'll be able to say: we worked this hard, we built these majorities, and this is what we did with it.

Health Care!

President Obama, last night:
In the end what this day represents is another stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream. Tonight, we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenges. We overcame them. We did not avoid our responsibilities, we embraced it. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.
A few thoughts.

Couldn't they have thought of a better name for the bill than "Amendments to the Internal Revenue Act of 1986"? Perhaps the "Edward Kennedy Memorial Health Care for All Americans Act"?

The man behind me on the train this morning was scanning the headlines of his newspaper, saying, "premiums will go up, taxes will go up, benefits will go down . . . and yeah, right, we're going to save money. Huh." That is, I thought, a perfect expression of the American cynicism that has dogged all government initiatives for decades. There is in America an abiding suspicion that every government action will enrich a few insiders, provide jobs for a few thousand bureaucrats and screw everyone else, if it does anything at all.

Maybe he is right, and this bill will be an expensive boondoggle. That depends, of course, on how future administrations run it and future Congresses amend it. I am optimistic. The bill is not some radical utopian scheme. It is pretty much the same system Clinton proposed in 1993, so experts of every party have had decades to ponder all its ramifications. It is very much like the arrangements in place in Switzerland and similar to those in Germany and France. Health care in all those countries is better and cheaper than in the US. That is one reason for optimism -- the American health care system is so expensive and so screwed up that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Despite what you sometimes hear, our government does a lot of things well. Social Security is hugely popular and has a very low administrative overhead cost. Medicare is hugely popular. The National Weather Service is the best in the world. The National Park System remains the model for a worldwide movement to protect the earth's most beautiful places. Etc. There is no reason to assume that the health care exchanges will not be run well.

I am excited by this bill, because I think that everyone should have access to affordable health care, and because I think we need to get to work in a serious way to reform how we deliver medical care. I think this bill will make that easier. But I am even more excited because the passage of this bill means that it is still possible, sometimes, to do big things in America. It is still possible to do something that will help poor people. It is still possible to pursue justice, not just profit and leisure. I feel optimistic today about the future of my country.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Please Bring Strange Things

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
And the ways you go be the lines of your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
And your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well-loved one,
Walk mindfully, well-loved one,
Walk fearlessly, well-loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
Be always coming home.

---Ursula K. Leguin

Americans Are Not Into Politics

As Congress gears up for the big health care vote tonight, and Tea Party protesters march angrily around outside the capitol, I played basketball with my usual crew. They talked about the NCAA basketball tournament all morning long. No mention of health care.

Quick, Get My Translator!

Big Day Today in Washington

Huge vote today in the House on the Health Care Reform Bill. Gail Collins:
If it passes, the short-term political consequences are unknowable. But in 10 years, people will look back in amazement that we once lived in a time when Americans couldn’t get health care coverage if they were sick, when insurance companies could cut off your benefits for being sick, and when run-of-the-mill serious illnesses routinely destroyed families’ financial security.
I am optimistic; I don't think Pelosi would have scheduled the vote, or Obama called that Saturday caucus meeting at the White House, if they didn't think they had the votes. And in another NY Times story today, you can see aides for Pelosi and Obama vying to take credit for the victory, claiming that it was their boss who had to prod the other back into the fight.

America's Future Scientists

Via Tom Friedman, this is the list of the finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search who showed up to be honored at the White House this week:
Linda Zhou, Alice Wei Zhao, Lori Ying, Angela Yu-Yun Yeung, Lynnelle Lin Ye, Kevin Young Xu, Benjamin Chang Sun, Jane Yoonhae Suh, Katheryn Cheng Shi, Sunanda Sharma, Sarine Gayaneh Shahmirian, Arjun Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, Akhil Mathew, Paul Masih Das, David Chienyun Liu, Elisa Bisi Lin, Yifan Li, Lanair Amaad Lett, Ruoyi Jiang, Otana Agape Jakpor, Peter Danming Hu, Yale Wang Fan, Yuval Yaacov Calev, Levent Alpoge, John Vincenzo Capodilupo and Namrata Anand.
As Friedman says, you could not invent a better reason to promote immigration.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

How I Spent My Afternoon

Our old storm door collapsed under the stress of being repeatedly slammed open by strong winds this winter, so I put up a new one. This was three times a complicated as I expected, and it spread out over two weekends. But now it is up, and I revel in my manly competence.

Communitarian Conservatism

From an moderately interesting column by David Brooks -- who routinely makes interesting observations or points to interesting work by others, then somehow finds his way back to the blandest moderate Republican conclusions -- I discovered the interesting work of British conservative Phillip Blond. Blond says that our societies are "broken" because of the decline of community. Community has been undermined by liberalism of both the left and the right. "Left liberalism" promoted narcissistic self-expression and demolished community standards; "right liberalism" promoted a market freedom that has led only to "monopoly finance" and globalized insecurity for working people. Blond describes contemporary Britain as "a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry." The left
has produced a managerial state that has destroyed the old mutualism of the working class. And it has destroyed both middle and working class morality; in the name of permissiveness, it commodified sex and the body, creating the licentious empty pleasure-seeking drones of the late 1960s. This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite.
Meanwhile, the economics of Thatcher and Reagan has led to "the triumph of monopoly and speculation in the name of free trade and modernisation."
Thus the ability to transform one's life or situation steadily declined as wealth flowed upwards rather than downwards and a new oligarchical class, asset rich and leverage keen, assumed market freedom was synonymous with their complete ascendancy. Market fundamentalism abandoned the fundamentals of markets.
Blond's solutions involve the decentralization of power, so that each community can decide more of its own destiny, and economic policies designed to "re-capitalize the working class." He wants zoning rules that will keep mega-stores away from most neighborhoods, so small butchers, bakers, and grocers can prosper. He want the British post office to expand its banking functions, to put affordable banking within reach of everyone. He wants the big banks split, and their capital distributed among local banks that invest in their own communities.

I like many thing about this analysis. I agree that the mad world of contemporary finance is the opposite of conservatism -- the great derivatives casino is a completely new experiment, and it is working out badly for everyone but the very rich. I also have my doubts about the "anything goes" attitude toward relationships and sexuality. I agree that the two kinds of permissive liberalism -- the moral and the economic -- have combined to create a world in which the rich get richer while the poor are mired in social and economic despond. I can at least give a nod of assent to Blond's claim that "the welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures."

I think, though, that Blond has a nostalgic view of what community life was like before the 1960s. I have noticed that as soon as people from tight-knit communities -- villages, ethnic urban neighborhoods, and so on -- can afford it, they move out. A big part of what has happened to traditional communities is that the ablest people have left. Does Blond propose recreating the intense hostility toward outsiders that once kept villages united and ethnic enclaves pure? Bringing back the limits on opportunity that kept all blacks or hillbillies or Greek immigrants poor and dependent on each other? "Community" is a nice word, but in practice small communities are often xenophobic, intolerant, narrow-minded and willfully ignorant. I encounter self-proclaimed "communities" all the time in my work, when they constitute themselves as historic districts, the main point of which is often to dictate what color their neighbors can paint their houses. Is that the kind of neighborhood empowerment Blond has in mind? As for bringing more small businesses into poor neighborhood, the experience of both Britain and the US has been that this often leads to conflict between owners and their neighbors, especially when the owners are (as is usual) immigrants.

And what, exactly, does he propose to do about the breakdown in marriage among the poor? He is hardly the only one worried about this, but solutions are elusive. One thing that might work would be to provide more decent jobs for unskilled, ill-educated men. Would Blond support that, or would that be another disempowering expansion of state power?

I am not sure that our society is "broken", either. We have problems, but so has every other society in history. In some ways we have made extraordinary progress: in improving the rights of women, in reducing racism, in cleaning up the environmental wreckage left by industrialization. I would like to see curb on international finance and more efforts to help poor people start businesses, find jobs, and otherwise help themselves, but I have no in interest in going back to the 1950s. If that is the agenda of the "new conservatism", count me out.