Sunday, September 30, 2007

Another Bush war?

For months, Seymour Hersh has been reporting on the efforts of the administration to start a war with Iran (most recently here). I wish I could ignore this, but Hersh has a painful record of being right. Lately, with the stealth attempt by Sens. Lieberman and Kyl to slip a declaration of war into a budget bill as an amendment, we have to take this possibility more seriously.

We might hope that the Democrats in Congress might stop such a thing from happening, but that isn't the case. Bush can make the decision to commit troops to war unilaterally. Then he can hold those troops hostage and blackmail congress into supporting his war, just as he has done so far in Iraq. The only power congress has against a commitment of troops is to withhold funds for their mission. But as Bush has shown in Iraq, that is politically impossible once the troops have been placed in harm's way. As soon as bullets begin to fly, all a President has to do is accuse Congress of not giving the troops the tools they need to defend themselves. The accusation of not supporting the troops is stacked in favor of the the President.

The decision to go to war with Iran would be made with the assurances by the administration to congressional Republicans that a new war would rally the country and assure them victory in 2008, which it might. Voters are easily manipulated in the short term. A large enough number congressional Republicans are short-sighted enough that they would go along with the administration and kill any timid opposition the Democrats might manage.

A third war, against a country more populous than Iraq and Afghanistan combined and far better armed, would destroy our army, unify the Middle East against us, isolate us in world affairs, collapse our economy, and end our democracy. The Republican Party would be the first to pay the price; the Democrats would not survive much longer. I firmly believe this. There is no guarantee that our form of government will survive forever. As Eastern Europe showed, when change comes, it comes quickly. The name and territory of the United States would probably survive such a catastrophe, but out real values and system of government would not. If Enlightenment democracy in the US were to die, it would also die in many other parts of the world. This war could be enough to start that domino theory.

The Democrats alone cannot stop Bush from starting another war, even if they had the will. However, if Republican leaders in congress (especially the Senate) made it clear that they would join the Democrats in resisting Bush even to the point of impeachment during a presidential campaign, the war plans would be off the table and burned. Basically, Orin Hatch and Arlen Spector have the power to prevent this war.

Should we count on the patriotism of Hatch and Spector to save us, or should we start sending pictures of puppies to Bush hoping to distract him till his term is over? My money is on the puppies.

The last line of defense for Western Civilization.

The subject of breasts makes boobs out of us all

Orac and Tara, over at ScienceBlogs, both have stories on the work of Dr. Patrick Mallucci, a self-proclaimed expert on the "perfect" female breast. He is, of course, a cosmetic surgeon.
Patrick Mallucci spent many hours poring over photos of topless models in lads magazines and tabloid newspapers to formulate his theory.

In his opinion, the celebrity with the best pair is Caprice [Bourret] - and the woman with the worst is Posh Spice [Victoria Beckham].

This range would indicate that he limited his research to overly tanned, bleached blond, British, white women. That in turn indicates the flaw in his sampling.
Mr Mallucci said: "I studied a wide variety of photographs of the most popular topless models to work out the various proportions they had in common and what made those particular features attractive.

"These findings allowed me to form a template around which to plan a breast augmentation, and set a standard of aesthetics.

"Obviously personal interpretation and expression has to be accounted for, but this has allowed me to develop a template that I have been using successfully for some time."

The key aesthetic elements are nipple position and the proportion between the upper and lower halves of the breast, he said.

"The ideal is a 45 to 55 per cent proportion - that is the nipple sits not at the half-way mark down the breast, but at about 45 per cent from the top."

He is not so much defining the "perfect" breast, but the breast possessed by the most popular models among a subset of British men: the producers and consumers of lads magazines and tabloid newspapers. These men, presumably, do look at more than just breasts (though not necessarily much more). Legs, hair, abs, skin tome and a come hither stare all contribute the success of a mens' model.

Another article on Dr. Mallucci states, "The new research is sure to be useful in Hollywood, where starlets are constantly on a mission to improve their physical appearance in any way they can." Considering his flawed methodology and inflated claims, I hope they do not.

Tara, who has a daughter, points out the danger of giving body conscious teenaged and older women yet another unatainable ideal to measure themselves against. Imagine these poor women in the bathroom with a tape measure, protractor, and pair of calipers trying to figure out where to measure from. If she chooses the wrong starting point, she's doomed to be imperfect and undesirable.

Claims like this are viscious and destructive. They also have pernicious effects far beyond young women. The very idea that ther is just one "right" standard of phsical attractiveness, crushes those who fail to attain it, alienates those who can't even attempt it, and convinces those who admire another standard that there is something is wrong with them. I don't need to pursue a reducto ad absurdum argument of suggesting that a eugenic holocaust of all women who are not blond beach bunnies is in the offing. This homogenising ideal crushes art and is reactionary at its core.

The very idea that there is one right standard in anything regarding aesthetics or taste is the worst kind of conservatism. Mallucci's claim that there is a "perfect" breast not only denies women the right to be proud of who they are; it denies men the right to be proud of what they like. Mallucci is openly serving the forces of lowest common denominator commercialism. What he may not realize is that he is also crushing individualism, self-determinisation, and all of the freedoms that are at the core of Renaissance and Enlightenment values. While the shallowness and hedonism of his cause may make him appear to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, he is actually a close ally of the anti-modern program of fundamentalists and the worst anti-democratic right wing nuts.

In case there was ever any doubt in anyone's mind, I ally my self at the opposite end of the spectrum from Mallucci. I favor freedom, individualism, reason, and the Enlightenment. I, for one, do not want to live in a world of cookie-cutter blonds. My personal motto is: Don't celebrate diversity; practice diversity.


I just got back from shopping. They have started putting out Christmas stuff. I blame Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson for this.

Friday, September 28, 2007

McCain panders and displays ignorance

In an interview with Dan Gilgoff of Belifnet, John McCain panders to the religious right while displaying his ignorance of both the Constitution and of the Bible.

First the pandering: in answer to the question, "Has the candidates’ personal faith become too big an issue in the presidential race?" he responded, "I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?'" He goes on to say that a Mormon is okay for that, but he would be uncomfortable with a Muslim, unless they were the best candidate, of course. That should satisfy everybody.

When asked whether he believes along with fifty-five percent of Americans that the Constitution established us as a Christian nation, he replied "I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." Gilgoff, being a rather softball interviewer, doesn't put his guest on the spot and ask him where in Constitution it does that. I guess we'll never know. Perhaps someone should send Sen. McCain a copy of the Constitution so he can see for himself that the words Christian, Christ, Jesus, and even God never appear in that document. The claim that the US is in any way a Christian nation, is a bogus one based on trying to interpret the inner wishes of the founders and translate their culture into modern terms. Whether or not some of the founders wanted a Christian nation is open to debate, but whether they actually did create one is not. The Constitution in no way establishes a Christian nation.

Whoever sends McCain a new Constitution might also send him a new Bible, since his memory of what is in it is just as flawed as his memory of the Constitution. Gilgoff gave McCain a chance to reminisce about his POW days, when his cell mates chose him to be the house chaplain.
I'll never forget that first Christmas when I gave--when I read from the Nativity story from the different Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And I looked in that room around and there were guys who had already been there for seven years and tears were streaming down their face, not out of sorrow, but out of joy that for the first time in all that captivity, we could celebrate the birth of Christ together. It was a scene I will never ever forget.

It probably was a touching scene, but McCain didn't read the nativity story from all four gospels. It only appears in Matthew and Luke, gospels that are believed to be largely based on the same earlier source. Mark and John both begin with the adult Jesus being baptized by his cousin John and beginning his ministry. Perhaps, since this interview is for a religious audience, McCain thought he could impress them by naming all four of the gospels in the right order. If so, it's a rather childish attempt and not likely to be successful.

McCain really has become an embarrassing shadow of his former self.

Mammoths in the news

An international team has developed a new technique for recovering genetic data from extinct species. Naturally, they chose to test it on the noblest and most scientifically minded of extinct species, the mammoth.
Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller of Penn State, working with Thomas Gilbert from Copenhagen and a large international consortium, discovered that hair shafts provide an ideal source of ancient DNA -- a better source than bones and muscle for studying the genome sequences of extinct animals. Their research achievement, described in a paper to be published in the journal Science on Sept. 28, includes the sequencing of entire mitochondrial genomes from 10 individual woolly mammoths.

Before this study, only seven mitochondrial genomes from extinct animals had been published: four from ancient birds, two from mammoths and one from a mastodon.

"DNA in bones and muscle usually degrades and becomes contaminated with genetic material from other sources such as bacteria, limiting its usefulness in scientific studies," Schuster explained. Because only a tiny proportion of ancient bones and muscle are preserved in such a way that uncontaminated DNA can be recovered, research with such materials has involved laborious efforts, sometimes spanning as long as six years for a single study. In contrast, Miller said, "Once I get the data from the genome sequencer, it takes only five minutes to assemble the entire mitochondrial genome."


"We realized that the keratin in hair could protect the DNA it contains from outside influences and hence from the sorts of degradation that affect DNA in other parts of the body, such as bone," Gilbert said. Hair also can more easily be cleaned of environmental contaminants, such as bacteria. The researchers discovered that, even if the hair is washed in a solution that kills and washes off external DNA, the genetic material within the hair is unaffected.

This technique opens up the possibility of recovering lots more information about the genetics of extinct species, such as their relationship to other species, as well as population dynamics within a given species, which could answer important questions about extinction and survival during times of shifting climate.

In a sad turn of events, publishing this genetic data led to three of the ten mammoths losing their health insurance after their carriers determined that they might be at risk of developing potentially expensive medical conditions later in life.

(Thanks to Coturnix for pointing this one out.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pace's new career

General Peter Pace, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went before the Senate yesterday to clarify his statements about immorality and gays in the military.
Pace, who retires next week, said he was seeking to clarify similar remarks he made in spring, which he said were misreported.

"Are there wonderful Americans who happen to be homosexual serving in the military? Yes," he told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing focused on the Pentagon's 2008 war spending request.

"We need to be very precise then, about what I said wearing my stars and being very conscious of it," he added. "And that was very simply that we should respect those who want to serve the nation, but not through the law of the land condone activity in my upbringing is counter to God's law."

Before going any further, everyone should notice the very distubing implication of his last stement. Pace is firmly endorsing the Religious Right position that American law should not be allowed to run counter to their sect's interpretation of Biblical law. This position is firmly embedded in their revisionist "Christian Nation" theory of American history. That Pace would use his position and an official forum to endorse this idea is both disturbing and dangerous. I suppose, since he is retiring, he was advertising his availability for a new career on the lucrative far right speakers' circuit.

Just wondering

Am I the only one who is really tired of the self-conscious use of "teh" in blogs? It was clever at one time, but now it strikes me as about as stale as "all your ______ are belong to us." But then, I'm a geezer, so what do I know.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gibson's America

Bill O'Reilly has been back in the news lately for being a racially insensitive, self-absorbed, and combative idiot. So, what else is news. This round seems to have gained a little more traction outside the usual media-watching blog circles, but O'Reilly has survived too much for me to really think he'll go the way of Don Imus. I suspect we'll have Bill O'Reilly to kick around for a bit longer. Whether or not Bill goes, this might be a good time to remind ourselves that O'Reilly isn't the only racially insensitive, self-absorbed, and combative idiot at Fox News. We also have his well-coiffed colleague John Gibson to cringe over.

This week, while O'Reilly has been expressing astonishment that Negroes can sit down and quietly enjoy a meal, just like normal people, Gibson has been stressing over "black devils stalking [the] streets" of our cities. As with O'Reilly, no one is surprised that Gibson would say something this tone deaf; it's part of his normal act. And also like O'Reilly, Gibson is upset that someone might have the temerity to publish an accurate transcript of his foolishness. Insulting a whole demographic group and then crying that they are being persecuted, is a normal day at the office for Fox's stars.
GIBSON: I have been targeted, now, by the left. Media Matters for America, the George Soros-funded operation that feels it can criticize everybody in the media -- is that who attacked me?


GIBSON: They attacked me over this.


AUDIO CLIP: The War Against Gibson Continues!

GIBSON: They launch a war against me. Did I get called a racist again?


GIBSON: How many times in a given week am I called a racist these days?


GIBSON: More days than -- more times than there are days in the week, right?

It's hard to sort out how much of this is an act and how much they really are paranoid, crybaby loudmouths. What I find interesting this time, is how Gibson characterized Media Matters. It's not that he incorrectly called it "the George Soros-funded operation"; that lie is the party line at Fox. It's the next phrase that caught my attention: the operation "that feels it can criticize everybody in the media." Media Matters can criticize everybody in the media. So can you. So can I. It's called free speech.

Does Gibson feel that he should be exempt from criticism, that it is somehow presumptuous of a group to actually exercise their First Amendment rights by calling him a nitwit when they think he is being a nitwit? I suppose that in the America that the Fox crowd dream of they report the GOP talking points and we shut-up and listen. That's an ugly and scary dream. Fortunately, I'm still allowed to say that.

Mean and incompetent

Although cruelty to animals is something that is guaranteed to get a rise out of me, I have no use for animal rights activists. This story from Spokane is a perfect example of why I dislike them.
Students at the Community Building Children’s Center arrived at their downtown preschool Monday morning to discover that their pet rabbit Sugar Bunny had been kidnapped over the weekend. Teachers found anti-circus flyers in his hutch.


The half-dozen flyers left behind advertised protests against the Ringling Brothers Circus, which was in town Sept. 20-23. The flyers showed a picture of a forlorn-looking bear, trying to escape underneath the bars of its cage. Animal rights groups PETA and the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN) were listed along the bottom.

I hate bullies. The most contemptible kind of person in my book is someone who uses their power or position to inflict pain and humiliation on those less powerful. It doesn't matter whether the person on top is a playground terror beating up on smaller kids, a frustrated consumer berating service workers, an office tyrant having a temper tantrum, an oblivious executive assigning nicknames to his staff, or a high-paid jock organizing dog fights, they are all bullies and they all deserve to be condemned and shunned. Those who justify their bullying with pious moral positions are the worst kind.

Stealing the pet bunny from a bunch of pre-school kids is just mean. It is also not isolated behavior. When Rudy Giuliani had prostrate cancer in 2000, PETA used his face on billboards that read "Got prostate cancer? Drinking milk contributes to prostate cancer." Over the years, in a perfect imitation of the outer fringe of the anti-abortion movement, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has moved from "liberating" animals, to attacking property, to intimidating workers and families of companies that use lab animals. It's only a matter of time before they kill someone.

It's only fair to point out that no one has officially taken responsibility or been charged for this action. PETA, in not quite a denial, issued a statement saying that "stealing a pet bunny is not something the group would endorse." NARN hadn't said anything when the article went to press. But, if the bunnynapping turns out to be the responsibility of someone inspired by PETA and NARN, rather than an official action blessed by their leaders, it won't dilute their responsibility.

This action manages to hit the trifecta of offensive activism: it's mean, it's self-righteous, and it's ineffective. No one will be won over to their cause by making a class full of pre-schoolers cry. Just the opposite. When the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin, was killed filming a stingray, misguided fans went out and killed stingrays, an act that would have horrified him. This bunny liberation is exactly the sort of thing that could provoke a stupid reaction. It's entirely conceivable that some nut will feel justified killing bunnies "to show those animal rights nuts."

And what about Sugar Bunny? Mark Hoofnagle sums up the final ineffective irony of it all. "I can just imagine the liberation of this 8-year-old, probably overweight, pet-bred bunny into the wild. What do you guys think the survival time would be? 2 hours? 4? Morons." Or, as another famous bunny might say, "What a bunch of maroons."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Passed over again

The MacArthur Foundation just announced their genius grants for 2007. Once again, I was overlooked. Clearly, they did not ask my mother who deserved a grant this year. Oh well, I'll be a good sport and send my best wishes to the winners and take satisfaction that an Alaskan, Sven Haakanson, executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, made the cut this year.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Autumnal Equinox

Early this morning the Earth passed the point during which the day and night are of equal length. It just gets darker from here on. Today is New Year's Day of the year CXV according to the French Revolutionary calendar. It's also Mabon, or Alben Elfed, according to the Celtic calendar of my ancestors. I'm sure you can find a way to celebrate that fits your cultural background and political inclinations: steal some cattle, make love under the harvest moon, burn down a manor house (not recommended), prepare the garden for winter, or stand an egg on end.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This is surprising

A new study just published in the journal Neuron describes how the brain handles surprise. Exploding is far less common that you would expect.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stop picking on Belgium - or not

Two weeks ago, The Economist ran an editorial saying it might be time to do away with Belgium. They argued that Belgium had had a good run; they gave the world "Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate" in their years on the stage; and that 177 years, as countries go, isn't anything to be ashamed of, especially when Germany keeps trying to annex you (The Economist failed to mention that Belgium was created after repeated attempts by the French to annex it). Now, like Czechoslovakia, it might be a good time for them to retire while they are ahead of the game, whatever game that is.

Yesterday, Ebay had to stop an attempt by a Belgian journalist to auction the country off, whole or in parts. The spirited bidding had reached ten million Euros before the plug was pulled. The AFP story on the auction didn't quote any of the bidders, so we don't know if they were German or not.

The latter story explains why everyone suddenly seems to have it out for Belgium.
The spoof sale was offered while Belgium is mired in a political crisis which has led to discussion over the country's future as a federal state.

Tuesday marks 100 days since the country's general election with no sign of a coalition government being formed by the political parties in Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

There are many observations one could make about this situation. I'm sure many anarchists, federalists and libertarians will want to point out that the parts of the country are doing just fine without a central government. It's a valid point.

When the European Union finally started to become a reality fifteen years ago, after two centuries of talk, I wondered what kind of future the classical European nation-state had in a larger federation. A graduate school friend of mine had a wonderful wallmap of the various micro-nations in Europe that got me wondering about this.

In the nineteenth century, certain large nationalities in Europe organized themselves as countries based on the sovereignty of an ethnic group--a nation--rather than in countries based on the sovereignty of a monarch. It took a century or so to sort this out, and for a time their were countries that used both definitions, depending which was the more convenient at the time. By the early twentieth century, the nation-state idea was supreme. Even though most modern countries are not true nation-states, the idea that the will of the people matters has become unavoidable. The days when the president of Mexico could sell a province to pay a few bills has long passed.

A quick digression: Americans tend to elide the concepts of citizenship and nationality (or country and nation) into one, while in most of the world the two are seperate. Citizenship describes your legal status as a rights holding member of a country. Nation describes your self-identification as part of a historical community defined by some ethnic characteristic, usually language, but sometimes religion, geography, or some combination. For those having trouble making the distinction, think of Central Europe in the 1930s; German speakers in Poland and Czechoslovakia were part of the German nation but Polish or Czech by citizenship. If Hitler went on the radio and was said to be "speaking to the German nation" it would have been understood that he was speaking to the population of Germany as well as the German speaking populations in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Central European countries. In a more modern example, there is no Iraqi nation; there is a Kurdish nation in Iraq and an Arab nation (at least). Finally, for those who still speak Stalinist Marxism, I do not accept the distinction between nation and nationality and use the two words as near synonyms.

Moving along: Due to the predatory nature of European politics in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, the nation-state was considered as an option only open to large nationalities. For centuries, possibly millennia, Bismark, Darwin, or Nietzsche were born or before the before the terms "realpolitik", "Social Darwinism", or "will to power" were coined, international affairs were governed by a cynical abdication to power and violence. The neo-conservatives represent a retreat to these traditional values. Regardless of their right to do so, small countries were seen as incapable of existing. The same was true for small nations. As the nation-state ideal evolved, the concensus wisdom was that the only future for small nations lay in assimilating into their larger neighbors, or in federating with other small nations.

This idea that some places are to small to be countries continues today even though the security justification no longer is as valid (at least in Europe). This then is my question, what value do the large countries of Europe offer to their minority populations? Yugoslavia only existed as long as the small nations within it were threatened by Germany and the Soviet Union. Once the Warsaw Pact dissolved, Yugoslavia's days were measured in weeks. Does Spain within Europe offer any value to Catalonia, that a direct relationship with Europe couldn't fill better? Or Bavaria to Germany? Or Scotland to the United Kingdom? Or Corsica to France? These territories have some provincial autonomy in their mother countries, but is a three level federalism really necessary. Why not eliminate the middleman and make each territory a full member on the European Union. Some in Scotland have already started muttering in this direction.

When areas that already have some autonomy claim their place in the sun, the next step will be for those tiny nations who have been trampled for centuries to claim their place. This might be the best chance for the Lusatian Sorbs, the West Frisians, the Bretons, Basques, Sammi, Kashubains, Szeklers, and Arumans to preserve their identities. This week, National Geographic released a study on the fate of small languages worldwide. For years experts have predicted that half of the languages spoken worldwide will go extinct this century. One of the best justifications for this kind of administrative balkanization would be to save endangered cultures.

If France and Germany are finally behaving themselves, what is the point of Belgium? I'm not saying that I think Belgium should go. But I think the question should be asked. Maybe there is a very good reason to hold Belgium together having to do with chocolate. After all, an efficient and just management of the means of chocolate production is far more important than any piddlining national asperations.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The most corrupt

CREW just released its annual report on the most corrupt members of Congress, this year entitled Beyond DeLay: The 22 Most Corrupt Members of Congress (and two to watch). The Republicans managed to lock up twenty of the most corrupt spots, leaving only four for the Democrats. The entire congressional delegation of the state of Alaska managed to make the list. True, Alaska only has three members in congress (Ted Stevens, Lisa Murkowski, and Don Young), but that's still quite an accomplishment for a small state. No one else managed that. Washington is represented by my mother's member of congress, Doc Hastings. Hastings offense, which is connected to the US Attorney firings, is pretty small beans compared to what the Alaskans have been up to. The full report is pretty entertaining reading as we start to think about next year's elections.

Update: The honors keep on rolling in for Alaska. The Hill just named Ted Stevens the king of earmarks in this year's budget process. Stevens managed to add $189 million in project requests to this year's defense appropriation bill.

Friday, September 14, 2007

It's a family affair

A woman who claims to be a niece of immigrant bashing presidential candidate Tom Tancredo was arrested in New Castle, CO for assault on a peace officer, resisting arrest, harassment, disorderly conduct, and--wait for it--ethnic intimidation.
According to an arrest affidavit, a New Castle Police officer heard loud voices and swearing as several people walked from a patio near the bar at the Burning Mountain Bowl to its parking lot. He told them to "knock it off" and identified himself as a police officer.

"I believed that a fight was on the verge of breaking out," the officer wrote.

The officer separated the parties, two of whom turned out to be Crystal Tancredo and her boyfriend....

The affidavit says while the officer was waiting to hear back from dispatch, Tancredo was yelling at the man police believe [she had earlier] pushed, calling him a "(expletive) wetback" and saying that he and the others don't even have their immigration papers....

Tancredo was instructed to leave or she would be arrested, when she yelled, "What, you are going to take the wetback's word over ours? We are Americans," the affidavit says.

The Tancredo campaign says they have never heard of her. It would be quite a coincidence if she wasn't related to him, comsidering how much she sounds like him.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I'm -yawn- outraged

Yesterday, in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Rep. John Boehner, the Republican minority leader in the House, defended staying the course in Iraq with these words.
We need to continue our effort here because, Wolf, long term, the investment that we’re making today will be a small price if we’re able to stop al Qaeda here, if we’re able to stabilize the Middle East, it’s not only going to be a small price for the near future, but think about the future for our kids and their kids.

A few bloggers picked up on the fact that he was calling 4000 Ameican deaths "a small price." When liberals or Democrats call those same 4000 deaths "wasted" we exprerience a tsunami of of media and pundit outrage. But for Boehner... not so much.

Today, after reading the blogs and noticing what they should have been paying attention to, a few Democrats and pundits are jumping on board.
Now the first Democrat has stepped forward to fault Boehner for the remark: John Kerry. The Massachusetts Senator has posted a piece over at The Huffington Post responding to our story and demanding an apology from Boehner. Kerry writes:

"What a stunningly cavalier statement about the lives of the young men and women who serve our country.

"Whether you support or oppose the Bush escalation, no American should ever for even a moment think the cost of war is small.

"A single life is a large price to pay for any endeavor. Sometimes, in our national interest, we choose to pay that awful price, but we must always make sure that the policy is worthy of it.

"Visit our wounded warriors at Walter Reed hospital and ask whether the price they paid was small. Talk to the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives of those who have been killed and ask them to measure the price of war. Young lives stopped short, children who won't have a mother or father there as they grow up, when they graduate, when they get married -- that loss is many things, but it is not small.

"Where is Representative Boehner's apology?"

And here:
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Chris Van Hollen, who oversees the 2008 House races for Dems, has just emailed over this statement demanding that Boehner apologize to the military and their families:

"To belittle the sacrifice of more than 30,000 brave Americans killed or injured in Iraq as a ‘small price’ is reprehensible. Clearly, Minority Leader John Boehner will say anything to justify George Bush’s stay the course approach, but this damaging rhetoric has no place in the debate about the new direction needed in Iraq. Minority Leader Boehner owes our military and their families an apology for his hurtful comments that minimize their tragic loss."

And here:
"Boehner’s comments yesterday are deplorable and he should apologize immediately," Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean said in a statement emailed to Election Central. "Bohener’s comments show how truly out of touch the Republicans are. The loss of a son or daughter is never a small price to pay, especially for a policy which was initiated by Republicans who misled the nation about why we are there."

While I'm glad Boehner has been called to the carpet, I'm a bit disappointed in the formulaic manner in which it has come. "I'm outraged that _____ said _____ about _____ and demand that he apologize to _____" has become one of the great cliche's of recent political rhetoric. The press release could be issued as a fill in the blank form letter using the text I just provided. Faux outrage is the laziest form of gotcha politics. And the outrage is phoney. Outrage requires surprise, a sence of "how could you say that." Who is surprised that Boehner said that? He is a silly, shallow man (with a great tan) with a history of saying silly, shallow things. His message is one that the right have been pushing for years. A "small price" is no different than comparing Iraq deaths to American traffic statistics or the murder rate in Washington, DC. Hearing this insensitive message one more time from the right should suprise no one.

Worse, as a rhetorical tactic, it is no longer effective. Who believes these demonstrations of faux outrage? Who cares about the carefully parsed non-apologies? Unfortunately, news, politics and blogging thrive on the mini-drama of the moment. The saddest point is that constant repititions of faux outrage deprive real outrage of its effectiveness. If the public can no longer tell the difference between the truly outrageous and the merely stupid, we have only ourselves to blame.

Free at last

Orac just made the final payment on his student loans from medical school. He has asked for others to share their stories of loan repayment. The numbers mentioned by some of the medical students are truly amazing. But medical students aren't the only ones to finish school in debt servitude. My degrees were in History. Although my debt was much smaller than those of a medical student, my earning potential was also an order of magnitude smaller. I finished paying off my loans a few days before my 49th birthday.

Whether or not you have a story to share, you should go congratulate Orac.

Nice try

One of the regular schticks on Law and Order is people in all kinds of professions--hair-dressers, brokers, bar tenders--claiming the same sort of confidential privilege that is usually only given to attorneys, clergy and mental health professionals. I have often wondered how real that is. Apparently it has some basis in fact.

Ed Brayton brings us news of one of the more interesting arguments for suppressing evidence that I've seen in a long time.
In one of the more unique religious freedom cases to come down the pike in quite some time, a unanimous 6th Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected an appeal from a Michigan woman convicted of attempted murder, ruling that entries in her journal were not protected by the clergy-penitent evidentiary privilege even though they were addressed to God. In the case of Varner v Stovall, Janniss Varner was convicted of attempted murder against her abusive boyfriend.

The police seized copies of her journal, wherein she admitted to having hired someone to kill him, and used them as evidence to convict her. She appealed the conviction, arguing that because she addressed her journal entries to God, they should be protected under Michigan's clergy-penitent privilege.

The judge in the matter cut to the core of the issue.
The privilege requires the communication to be directed to a member of the clergy just as the other privileges require the communication to be directed to an attorney or doctor because it is the clergy who may be subpoenaed to testify against the individual. The same possibility does not exist with private writings to God, who may be petitioned but never subpoenaed.

The key point is that Varner never mailed her letters to God. As long as they stayed in possession, they were not privileged. If she had mailed them and they were in God's possession, they would have been privileged. I'm going to assume we can use this as a precedent for letters to Santa.

How to read a closed book

I love hearing about new tools and techniques for research. Many areas of science and history can only be expanded by squeezing more information out of the same evidence. Unfortunately, many research techniques are destructive.

For example, Carbon 14 dating requires burning up a sample of the object to be dated. When the technique was first developed, few museums were willing to carve off chunks of their collections to be tested. As a result, it took years to build up a large enough database of tested objects to properly calibrate the technique. This lack of a solid baseline is the reason why so many dates from the early days of C-14 dating have had to be revised, much to the glee of creationists and other C-14 skeptics. Fortunately, as time went by, the technique was improved to need smaller and smaller samples and now the curators of most ancient finds are willing to send in enough material for dating.

Another problem lies in old manuscripts. We all know the scene in the movies where the intrepid archaeologist has just a second to read something before it turns to dust. In real life, this usually occurs when archaeologists or historians try to open a scroll or old book. For a variety of reasons, many old manuscripts cannot be flexed in any way. Sometimes the problem lies in the nature of the paper--papyrus is woven grass and becomes hopelessly brittle. Sometimes the problem lies in what has been done to the paper--iron gall ink, used since the Middle Ages actually burns through the paper. For these reasons, many libraries and museums have collections of scrolls and books that they are afraid to open.

Now the University of Cardiff has come to their rescue. According to a piece on today's BBC, U of C scientists have developed a technique, using their Diamond Sychrotron, that can read manuscripts without opening them. The technique uses a sort of souped up x-ray to find traces of ink in a closed document. The results are then subjected to a computer algorithm which can sort out the different layers and present them for our reading pleasure.

The technique is still in the early stages of development, and a Diamond Sychrotron costs about a half billion dollars, so it's not something your local small college department of library science will be purchasing soon. I also doubt that it will stop archaeologists and historians from wanting to open certain documents. There are many other things to learn from a document than simply what does it say. I expect the early use of the technique will be to establish a backup copy of high value documents, for insurance, before opening them. It will also be useful in deciding which documents are worth the risk of opening. Still, it holds great promise for opening new directions of research. And Diamond Sychrotron is an irresistibly cool name. Look for it show up in forensic cop shows this season.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Accidental honesty

This is a surprisingly honest answer.
Senator Warner (R - VA): Are you able to say at this time if we continue what you have laid before the congress here,this strategy. do you feel that that is making America safer?

General Petraeus: Sir, I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

Warner: Does that make America safer?

Petraeus: Sir, I don't know actually.

Didn't he get the memo that the script for today is "9/11, al Qayda, 9/11, al Qayda, 9/11, al Qayda, 9/11, al Qayda"?

This should be the leading clip on all of the newscasts tonight. And yet, I don't really expect to see it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Second Science Blogging Conference

I just received the schedule for the Second Science Blogging Conference to be held in Durham, NC on January 19, 2008. It looks like I'll be co-chairing a session with Martin Rundkvist of Aardvarchaeology. Our session is called "Blogging about the Social Sciences and Humanities." I'm looking forward to the conference and meeting other bloggers and blog readers. It will also be my first trip east of the Mississippi, so I hope to see a little of the country, too. I'll post more information as it emerges.

Re: Gen Petraeus' testimony

This is not an improvement.
The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday recommended cutting American troops by about 30,000 by next summer, ending the so-called surge of forces but not fundamentally changing strategy in the unpopular war.

Gen. David Petraeus, facing Democratic lawmakers and many voters demanding a quick end to the U.S. engagement in Iraq, suggested the force could fall to about 130,000 by August without jeopardizing modest recent security improvements.

That would return the U.S. troop strength to roughly the same level it was before an increase ordered by President George W. Bush between February and June.

In retail, when you raise a price just so you can lower it back to the old price and call it a sale, you are committing fraud. I expect most Republicans running for Senate, House, or President to be committing fraud over the next few months. I also expect most of Right Blogistan to be doing some serious stocking up at this sale.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gentlemen, we've got to stop this phony baloney epidemic!

Just in case you were running out of things to panic about, The New York Times comes to our rescue.
The number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003, researchers report today in the most comprehensive study of the controversial diagnosis.

Experts say the number has almost certainly risen further since 2003.


In the study, researchers from New York, Maryland and Madrid analyzed a National Center for Health Statistics survey of office visits that focused on doctors in private or group practices. The researchers calculated the number of visits in which doctors recorded diagnoses of bipolar disorder and found that they increased, from 20,000 in 1994 to 800,000 in 2003, about 1 percent of the population under age 20.

At this rate, everyone in America under the age of twenty will be bipolar by the year 2014 and many of them will be unable to contribute to my Social Security.