Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Evolution Works, Shit Happens

In his classic work The Structure of Evolution, Steven Jay Gould described the idea of evolutionary spandrels. Traditionally, a spandrel is the triangle formed when an architect places two arches next to each other. In medieval cathedrals, these arches were often highly decorated and could have been seen as a spot specially created for artists to present religious wonders. The reality is that the arch was necessary for stability, the spandrel just appeared, the art was an after thought.

Perhaps my favorite spandrel is the idea of memetics codified by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme is the mental equivalent to a gene;it is another word for idea but with evolutionary connotations. It exists, is passed from one organism to another, one generation to another, mutating and replicating along the way. While most memes disappear quickly, literally forgotten, extremely successful memes transmit themselves through society; some are useful – like the idea of writing – some memes serve little or no purpose, useful only for replicating themselves. An example of these might be found in this week’s Top 40 play lists – in 20 or 30 years one or two of these “hits” might still be recognisable, some for toe tapping, others cringe-worthy.

Interestingly, Dawkins hadn’t planned on creating a meme when he wrote his fateful chapter on memetics. As a matter of fact he was simply looking for an example of something other than genes that could be described as replicating itself in an evolutionary manner. That his idea would even give rise to a short-lived scientific journal wasn’t really planned. Ironically, memetics seems to be the ultimate – um – memetic spandrel. (Which in and of itself is ironically humorous seeing that Gould and Dawkins almost never saw eye to eye on much.)

But the idea of memes and spandrels leads to an interesting observation about evolution.

First a slight comment on evolution.

Despite what some people might think, evolution doesn’t necessarily always produce the best solution, it produces solutions that work best locally to solve the problem at hand, often with the tools available, mixed and matched in a slightly different ways. Those characteristics that work survive, those that fail disappear. Written memes, like unused genetic sequences can sometimes reappear if the conditions change. As a meme, Gregor Mendel’s experiments disappeared into the dusty archives of scientific literature until rediscovered years after his death. The basic genes for expressing the light and dark coloring in peppered moths (Yeah creationists – I know. Just get over it. ) were likely still available to all offspring but the dark/light trigger was expressed in different populations at different times.

Arguably as a scientific theory, memes leave much to be desired. They really don’t predict much that other theories don’t already cover. The advantage of memes is their convenient function as a metaphor for ideas and how divergent thoughts can join, move and change with time.

That’s why I’d like to use memes to describe what I think happened at the start of the Industrial Revolution and finish yesterday’s post.

Spurts in evolutionary change are almost always accompanied by a change in the fitness landscape. A species might be introduced to a new environment taking over from less efficent populations; a disease or disaster might decimate certain populations leaving room for “less successful” species to move in and fill the gaps; something that happened to the dinosaurs much to our advantage.
It is just that kind of change in the mental fitness landscape that allowed the Industrial Revolution to start.

The education meme had caught on in Europe during the 17th century with the rise of secular university systems teaching a systematic, structured study of nature. The first scientific journals were published. This caused intellectuals and the now largely literate social elite to become susceptible to even more memes which became available in larger and larger quanities.

That accelerated the pace of progress caused more and more ideas – memes – to be thrown together in more and more mental test tubes. These people in turn produced new mutations, better ideas, better inventions. Each generation of meme able to build on the previous.

Engineering, mathematics, the sciences, philosophy: each of these areas was able to advance by leaps and bounds by the end of the 18th century. Not only because there were far more people working on the various problems, the very methods being used were becoming codified and traditional. The origins of the scientific method and mechanisms of science were being laid down.

One of the most important factors was the fact that the playing field was largely empty. There were great strides to be made because there were so few prior advances; each tiny step seemed a huge milestone, something we wouldn’t even notice today.

At the same time, in England, thanks to its relative protection from the continent, was able to devote more resources in thinkers and less in fighters.

Of course the 18th century was far from calm in England. There were upheavals, famines and wars. But the advantage England held was that the most important weapon in both defense and offence was the fleet – something harder on the royal purse than on the population or the countryside. England needed more money than it needed men.

This forced England into the paradoxical situation of trying to make money to fund the fleet while using the fleet to protect the methods for making money. All that forced the English intellectuals to think about better ways of making money feeding back into the ever growing pool of memes.

That’s what I think caused the Industrial Revolution in England.

It wasn’t inevitable and the form it took would have been completely different had it started in Spain, Germany or Russia. Once it started, the memes – the ideas – set free were powerful enough to move through most of the populations in Europe and America. Those areas where enough excess wealth had accumulated in the hands of a few, and where those people were willing to spend that money to improve their lot in life from just being good to being luxurious.

In those areas where the memes couldn’t travel, where the population was largely illiterate (like Russia), where there was little excess capital and the language barriers or cultural (meme) barriers too high to be overcome, the process slowed and faltered. These areas were unable to adapt quickly to the overwhelming power produced by industrial countries thus producing a century of colonization.

And that’s the rub. Remember. Evoltion finds local solutions. It doesn’t find necessarily the very best solution. It finds a better solution than other solutions nearby. Colonization was necessary for European powers because it was the best thing available at the time. Almost unavoidable; the fitness environment required it. But wasn’t the best solution long term. The world is still being rocked by the repercussions arising from the fall of the colonial system when the fitness environment shifted.

Thus the evolution of ideas isn’t always a good thing. And that’s where I want to go tomorrow. I finally want to approach the question of whether democracy is really ideal or just another local spandrel.

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
[...]
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well... arguably, yes - but I won't go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is -

To Be Continued…

Why Bridges Fall and Radios Fall Silent

Much has been made of the recent collapse of the Saint Anthony’s Bridge in Minnesota. Today’s Washingtion Post headlines a story about how the advanced technology given to local governments in response to 9/11 has fallen into disrepair and disuse because the local governments did not have the money to fund the long term maintenance.

In 2003, the FBI used a $25 million grant to give bomb squads across the nation state-of-the-art computer kits, enabling them to instantly share information about suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction.

Four years later, half of the Washington area’s squads can’t communicate via the $12,000 kits, meant to be taken to the scene of potential catastrophes, because they didn’t pick up the monthly wireless bills and maintenance costs initially paid by the FBI. Other squads across the country also have given up using them.

“They worked, and it was a good idea — until the subscription ran out,” said Mike Love, who oversees the bomb squad in Montgomery County’s fire department. At the local level, he said, “there is not budget money for it.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the area has received more than $1 billion in federal money to strengthen first responders and secure the region. That money has bought satellite phones, radios, protective suits, water-security monitors and a host of other items.

But local officials are grappling with how to maintain the huge infusion of equipment. Like a driver whose 5-year-old luxury sedan has worn-out brakes, cracked tires and engine problems, local governments are facing hefty bills to keep their gear working.

Thus, what was an excellent idea ended up being a rather expensive flop. Excellent equipment that isn’t used or can’t be used because there isn’t enough money to continue the upkeep.

That seems to be the story of the American infrastructure. Once something has been created, all problems are solved – move along, move along.

Anyone who owns a car, knows this isn’t true. Not only do you need to purchase the vehicle, you need to continue maintaining it. As the car ages, the maintenance costs don’t decrease or remain stable, they increase until it becomes necessary to scrap the car and replace it. That will probably need to happen in the next few years with most of the interstate bridges in America.

Interestingly for all those people who would simply like to privatize the current system – fat lot of good that will do.

For those with limited historical background, it might be good to remember that all the railroads in America in the last century were either completely private or public/private joint ventures. That didn’t save them. They collapsed under the weight of increasing infrastructure costs coupled with a change in demographics. The same thing will happen to the American Interstate System.

A rail/road system might have been an option, loading cars and trucks onto trains for long distance travel. It might have even been more economical than building completely new interstates, but that wasn’t well understood at the time. The future was freedom, the future was in interstates. That’s the legacy we are now inheriting.

And even the privatised systems will walk into the maintenance trap. This can be shown in fast forward in the case of plank roads, popular in the 1840’s . The idea was to make toll roads not of rock or stone, but of a relatively cheap material, wood. You charge people to use the road and the cost of replacing the road is far enough off that it either wasn’t seriously considered or completely underestimated. This lead to a boom in plank road building. It also lead inexorably to the collapse of the system 10 years later as the planks began to rot and needed replacement.

Five years ago, the GAO produced a rather positively titled report “HIGHWAY INFRASTRUCTURE, Physical Conditions of the Interstate Highway System Have Improved, but Congestion and Other Pressures Continue.”

On the surface one would think the problem might be in the idea that there just aren’t enough highways. Systems must be created to clear up the major problem, congestion and everything else is secondary. Ah, but how relative secondary can be.

The really unnerving graph doesn’t show up until the final pages. Preceded by the following quote,

Another factor negatively affecting the condition of Interstate pavement and bridges is the age of the infrastructure. For example, half of the Interstate bridges are currently over 33 years old. (See fig. 7.) Officials from one state we visited explained that many of their state’s Interstate bridges were built about 40 years ago and are reaching the end of their estimated 50-year design life. In addition, officials in 45 states believe age may jeopardize their bridge conditions: officials in 38 states expect age to negatively affect their pavement conditions 10 years from now.

one finds the following graph (click for full size).

Year Interstate Bridges Were Built

Privatize away. Who is going to build the new bridges? Where does that funding come from?

Perhaps Rome wasn’t build in a day; neither was the American Interstate Highway System. But when a lot of things get built at the same time, a lot of things need repair and replacement at the same time. Fixing things isn’t nearly as sexy as building new stuff; there isn’t any red ribbon to cut on a newly refurbished stretch of highway. Just a sigh and the sad realisation that the next job is right around the corner. Replacing things that are worn out is even worse; it’s a thankless job to get people back to a perceived status quo. (That bridge was fine, it hadn’t collapsed yet.)

One of the problems Rome faced at the end was the fact that income was no longer able to support the infrastructure built up over hundreds of years. Ask yourself the very real question: where does America stand now? Is New Orleans back to normal? That was a challenge to the American willingness to rebuild a specific area.

As the challenges spread and the pressures increase, will the old bridges fall just as the new radios fell silent?

The Science Fiction of War

I (mis)spent a large portion of my teenage years devouring science fiction and fantasy novels. One of my favorite authors was and still is Robert A. Heinlein.

The WSJ (may she rest in peace) has a opinion piece up by Taylor Dinerman (thanks for the tip Jadxia!) discussing not the science in Heinlein’s work, but the politics.

Even though Heinlein’s political views drifted toward the Libertarian in later life, I’d have to admit that none of his works had more political meaning for me as a teenager than Starship Troopers.

For those who only saw the film and never read the book, believe me they have little in common. The book deals far more with the moral responsibilities citizens bring to a society. (BTW, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I’d recommend the synopsis here). He does a much better job of doing it than I ever could.)

Perhaps a quick excerpt will help show how extreme the book really was politically. In the course of the story, the main character Juan Rico remembers a required class on political thinking the had taken. The teacher, Mr. Dubois, explains the origin of duties and rights.

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ “

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Amazingly, I both agree and disagree with this passage which ended up being a major part of my moral and political compass. I disagree with the first paragraph, as I have said before, I think morality is evolutionarily hard wired; having moral feelings towards family groups allows species do better than ones that don’t have this characteristic. Morality is the basis for duty not the other way around.

On the other hand, I completely agree with the passage about ‘unalienable rights.’ I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that there are rights to anything. There are contracts. There are things that are moral. I can’t believe they are really rights and they certainly aren’t unalienable. (My God! Have I just outed myself as a libertarian fascist?!)

I disagree with the right to vote and think it should be a duty, it’s a moral obligation not a right. It is a moral obligation required by democratic societies; it is not optional.

It is like the ‘right’ to life. This unalienable right would seem to preclude the right to death, the right to take one’s own life; a choice I think is both important and ‘unalienable’. (But please, of course I wouldn’t argue that anyone can take someone else’s life. Personal choices are not societies choices; what works for the one does not scale to the many. Only pregnant women can eat for two for example.)

I always saw that Starship Troopers as the reaction of someone who had seen the patriotic struggle of the Second World War morph into the political morass that was Korea and would become Vietnam. I thought, and still do think, that much was right. And more was totally wrong.

And that’s why, Starship Troopers is always connected in my mind to a second novel, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Where Starship Troopers is the product of patriotism, The Forever War is the product of patriotism distorted and misused. Where the point of Starship Troopers is a just war, a never ending fight for freedom, honor and duty – The Forever War simply highlights the ultimate uselessness of conflict. Haldeman’s classic is perhaps the second pillar in my politial makeup. Together I think the two novels show both the highs and lows of societies.

Maybe if more politicians today would read Haldeman and not Heinlein, we might not be where we are – a world of ‘science fiction‘ not even Heinlein could have imagined.

If Abortion Were Illegal…

what should happen to the women who have abortions?

That question was asked of a number of abortion protesters. They seemed stumped. From the Anna Quindlen column at Newsweek

Buried among prairie dogs and amateur animation shorts on YouTube is a curious little mini-documentary shot in front of an abortion clinic in Libertyville, Ill. The man behind the camera is asking demonstrators who want abortion criminalized what the penalty should be for a woman who has one nonetheless. You have rarely seen people look more gobsmacked. It’s as though the guy has asked them to solve quadratic equations. Here are a range of responses: “I’ve never really thought about it.” “I don’t have an answer for that.” “I don’t know.” “Just pray for them.”

You have to hand it to the questioner; he struggles manfully. “Usually when things are illegal there’s a penalty attached,” he explains patiently. But he can’t get a single person to be decisive about the crux of a matter they have been approaching with absolute certainty.

Here’s that “curious little mini-documentary”

Best exchange.

Q: And what should happen to those women who have illegal abortions?

A: [pause]
A: [shrug]
A: Well…
A: I don’t know what should really happen to them. I would hope that they would in time come to see what they’ve done and be sorry for it. But, I think we need to treat them with love.

Q: If abortion is made illegal, should women be sent to jail who have abortions?

A: [pause]
A: [shrug]
A: I’ve never really thought about it.

Q: How long have you been working in this movement?

A: A couple years.

Hmm. Does anyone else see a minor disconnect here?

Of course the video, produced by AtCenterNetwork.com, might have cut out all the really amazingly clever answers outlining the exact penalty structure, but if you watch the video, you notice this is not a major theme in rallies. Only one of protesters actually managed to come up with a minorly coherent answer.

According to Quindlen, George H. W. Bush was asked the question over 20 years ago and came up with the answer, “I still haven’t worked out the penalties”. Quindlen’s full column should be read in full and needs more links, blog time and – um – links. A little love thrown at AtCenterNetwork would be nice too. Help me out here folks.

Perhaps this is something the far right needs to work on. Just a hint guys. You can use the prairie dog video for practicing “the look” but you’ll have to get ghetto blasters for the scare music…

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHjFxJVeCQs]

(Hat Tip: Wonkette)

Cheney Doesn’t Like Juries…

And he’s not too hot about the Senate or the American people either.

According to Dan Eggen in the Washington Post yesterday, the VP pointed out that he disagreed with the jury’s verdict of Scooter. One has to wonder if Cheney feels the verdict was wrong because Scooter didn’t lie or because Scooter fell on his sword for Cheney.

Eggen continues with,

Cheney declined to explain his view but said he agreed with Bush’s actions: “I thought the president handled it right,” he said during an interview with CBS Radio. “I supported his decision.”

Which is an interesting internal contradiction. If the verdict was wrong, why shouldn’t the President have completely pardoned Scooter? Or was the decision OK because Scooter really didn’t have to pay the $200,000 dollar fine himself? Please Vice President Cheney. Inquiring voters want to know.

The interview then spun completely out of control with Cheney declaring his undying love for General Giggles or “Al” as “Dick” likes to call him. Less than two sentences later he again attacked Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Republican Senator Arlen Specter (Pa) for saying that Gonzales’s credibility was tarnished. I wonder if the anaesthetic from his heart surgery was still effecting his perception. He didn’t use his typical language for speaking about Leahy.

But hey, General Giggles still has credibility? Really? It’s not like they had any difficulty finding people to defend him on the Faux News. Right? What?! They did have a bit of a problem? What did Chris Wallace have to say this weekend?

By the way, we invited White House officials and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend Attorney General Gonzales. We had no takers.

I wonder why Dick didn’t move forward for that venue?

But perhaps the most telling comment in the whole article is how Cheney views the current Capitol Hill “spat.”

“I think the key is whether or not he has the confidence of the president, and he clearly does,”

Again. It doesn’t matter if the DOJ is a motivational morass; it doesn’t matter if no one actually believes a word General Giggles utters; it doesn’t even matter whether he does a good or even mediocre job. The only thing is that he have the confidence of the president (and follows vice presidental orders).

That’s cool. Since we have long known that the president is faith and not fact based, we now have confirmation from the vice president that Gonzales is scum, pandering to the wishes of the president and only a mere puppet in the hands of a stage manager like Cheney. Thank you Mr. Vice President.

CNN’s Reality Problems

Remember the terrorist „dry runs“ that gave CNN wet panties a couple of weeks ago?

Well, it turns out they were “just kidding.” And no. I’m not kidding.

Attytood points out that on Saturday morning, ratings highpoint of the week, T.J. Holmes apparently said,

Also, you should remember all that talk earlier this week about the terrorist dry runs at airports here in the U.S. Well, just kidding. It turns out it was all one big false alarm. We’ll explain…

As Wonkette points out the original story has been – um – left entirely alone because the joke wouldn’t even be funny if they changed it. Right?

After the Paula Zahn’s atheist drive by shooting attack panel, after the Lou Dobbs’ leprosy bullshit, after the attack piece on Sicko (if it was serious journalism, why did they need scare music after some of their “statistics”?) which had little or no real meat.

CNN has gotten in the habit of making mistakes followed up by non apology apologies. Just like Fox but with nicer people and better sets.

That’t two cable “news” shows that have moved into infotainment; MSNBC does a similar job, just in a different direction; the WSJ is being sold to Rupert Murdoch and GENERAL GIGGLES still hasn’t resigned.

Is there any reason not to believe that world isn’t coming to an end? Seriously?

Don’t Try This at Home

According to AP reporter Paul Davenport, police responded to an out of control exorcism in Phoenix. It didn’t go well.

Officers responding to a report of an exorcism on a young girl found her grandfather choking her and used stun guns to subdue the man, who later died, authorities said Sunday.
The 3-year-old girl and her mother, who was also in the room during the struggle between 49-year-old Ronald Marquez and officers, were hospitalized, police said. Their condition was unavailable.

The relative who called police said an exorcism had also been attempted Thursday.

“The purpose was to release demons from this very young child,” said Sgt. Joel Tranter.

Now there are a couple of things to think about here.

I’d start by asking what rituals were being used here? Obviously we need more information to be able to avoid this doctrine. I mean, it obviously can’t be a Catholic exorcism because the child was the granddaughter of the exorcist. So, we need much more information here.

But while we’re at this. Let’s take a look at some of the possible ramifications.

Has anyone considered the idea that the exorcism was a partial success? The child was saved and the demons hopped over to the grandfather, who, unable to defend himself, died?

His death obviously can’t be brought in connection with the stun guns. I mean those folks have been telling people for years just how safe stun guns are. Wouldn’t to see want all that PR money get wasted, just because one little exorcism went awry.

But more seriously, just like skeptics always say: <b>these kinds of beliefs</b> (not to mention non lethal weapons) <b>do cause harm</b>. Sometimes the harm is immediate and causes national headlines. Sometimes the harm is low level, causing economic turmoil and unhappiness in an individual family. But these things do cause harm – every day.

When we have a president in the White House who isn’t fact but faith based; when we have an Attorney General whose only connection with reality is the point where his butt meets the witness chair; when we have newspapers, radio and television stations increasingly hammering on the idea that there are always two sides to any story and there is no objective reality; is there any question that this will happen?

I don’t really know what’s worse. The fact that the grandfather died. Or the thought of that young girl growing up in that environment.

But I do know one thing. Don’t try exorcism at home (or anywhere else) !

Voting in a Muslim Country.

Va Va Va Voom

All I can say is va, va, va, voom… and that from Al Jazeera. (Sorry, sexist I know, but every now an then I have to get a dig in.)

From the Reuters coverage (without a hottie for a draw)

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Millions of Turks flocked to vote on Sunday in a parliamentary election seen as crucial to the future direction of this large Muslim but secular democracy straddling Europe and the Middle East.

Opinion polls show the ruling pro-business, Islamist-rooted AK Party government winning a fresh five-year mandate but strong gains by nationalist and secularist opposition parties could slash its majority and result in slower reforms.

“Now the people will speak,” Sunday’s Milliyet daily said.

Newspapers splashed pictures across their front pages of empty beaches at Turkey’s coastal resorts after many people postponed or cut short holidays in order to go home to vote.

Note: The secularist opposition are doing better. That should make those who claim all muslims are evil think twice. No wait. They don’t think once so they will likely just ignore the results.

Just a Little Blue (Updated)

As part of my continuing documentation of the girl teen band – hate group. Prussian Blue, I found out they were the subject of a new documentary, Nazi Pop Twins.

Apparently, the British television network Channel 4 aired the documentary about Lamb and Lynx last night. I figured this out because once again my Prussian Blue posts got a national boost following by the amazing number of visitors from England (Hi guys!).

This one was even less flattering than the documentary by Louis Theroux, Louis and the Nazis.

You can read the original press release here and from there view clips of the show. They are worth the couple of minutes. Apparently Lamb and Lynx are starting to grow up and ask – um – unfortunate questions.

A critique of the show was posted the next day on the Telegraph web site,

My heart sank slightly during the opening minutes of Nazi Pop Twins (Channel 4), a documentary about the American “white pride” pop duo Prussian Blue. Was it to be another trip stateside to seek out a weirdo or two and add to the oxygen of publicity, to use Margaret Thatcher’s term, they probably didn’t deserve? At 14, twin sisters Lamb and Lynx Gaede have generated hundreds of column inches with Prussian Blue’s white nationalistic music. Since their singing voices are rubbish, it’s the neo-Nazi connection that’s got them noticed and the less said about that the better, unless it’s to grind it firmly into the ground. Thankfully, film-maker James Quinn didn’t disappoint on that score.

Behind every teenage performing phenomenon there’s a pushy parent and here it took the form of “white nationalist” April Gaede, the twins’ mother and manager, who described Prussian Blue T-shirts featuring an image of Hitler as “funny”, and actively promoted a telephone/pen-pal relationship between her daughters and a sick-minded white supremacist serving a 19-year term in a maximum security jail. She and the girls lived on a ranch in California with her equally vile father Bill, whose sweeping denunciations of black Americans and Mexicans were so revolting as to not be repeatable here. He branded his cattle with swastikas and wondered whether people in Britain wished that Germany had won the Second World War. It was not a surprise that he loved guns; to call him difficult to like would be an understatement. “This goddam Nazi shit has ruined my life,” said his wife Diane. “I don’t have a single friend because he’s so hateful.”

It’s a credit to Quinn that he managed to retain the family’s co-operation with filming for as long as he did. His mission was to show how April was using her malleable twin daughters as a mouthpiece for her own extremist views, and to an extent he succeeded. As Holocaust deniers they sounded uncertain about the story they’d been fed by their elders, and they admitted privately that the “politics” surrounding their music had been draining. Because “a lot of people think we’re a bunch of psychos”, they felt, understandably, like taking a break. April is taking no chances with her three-year-old daughter – named Dresden – whose ABC lessons start with A is for Aryan.

Even more interesting is the fact that April’s mother apparently goes on a major tear, hammering Bill Gaede for his White Supremacist ways. A clip can be seen on the Channel 4 page above. The quotes are amazing,

It’s all because of this God Damned Nazi shit. That It’s just fuckin’ ruined my life. I’m gonna let it all hang out boy. [...] Even though we’ve lived here 30 years, I don’t have a single friend. You know why? I don’t have a single friend because he’s so hateful.

The girls themselves seem less “brainwashed” if questioned alone.

John Quinn: So what is the family’s image, what would you say the Prussian Blue’s image is?

Lamb or Lynx, I don’t know which is which): I think that most people think we’re a bunch of pschycos to tell you the truth.

JQ: Do you ever think of winding it down with the band?

L: [nods]

JQ: Really?

LoL: Yeah, we just kind of want to take a break for a little while. You know, I’ll aways be doing this for the rest of our lives; I’ll always play my guitar, I’ll aways write songs. I just.. We’re not going to be doing this our whole lives. We’re not gonna… We have other dreams and other goals than this.

If you are lucky enough to live in England, you can watch the whole thing online. (If you do, leave a comment and let me know what you think.)

While researching this, I also found out that Lamb and Lynx were the inspiration for an off, off Broadway musical last year. James Quinn, the producer of the documentary also spent time filming the production.White Noise. It was featured on Good Morning America and got a write up in Playbill

White Noise is billed as “A Cautionary Musical,” and is described by the authors this way: “Confirming the old adage that it’s better to be a star than wear one, an adorable pair of sisters, Blanche and Eva, lead the teen band White Noise, mixing irresistible harmonies with white power rhetoric and taking the nation by storm. Their message of racial purity resonates with young people across America and the rise of White Noise coincides with a rise in the white supremacist movement which threatens to engulf the country, as Blanche and Eva prove themselves to be masters of the most terrifying and unstoppable form of Fascism in today’s culture: Top Forty pop.”

I don’t think any of this will stop Prussian Blue from coming to Europe this summer and I am still trying to find out whether they have any venues planned for Germany, I will keep you up to date if I find anything out.

Please leave a comment if you saw the documentary. I’d really like to hear some opinions.

Update:

I found a blog completely decribing the show. It does seem like April, the mother, is losing her grip in the children. (No  wonder, she lost her grip on reality years ago.) But the writer of the blog entry makes another very telling point,

What scared me, ultimately, was not the radical anti-Prussian Blue response, which is positive, but the way it manifested itself, which is just as scary as the fascist claptrap these reluctant, confused girls are now regretting peddling on behalf of their damaged mother. A young, white man says “they ought to have their asses kicked; someone should kill them” without a trace of irony. The anti-hate campaigning that follows them across America is hardly surprising, but it’s none too cleverly handled. Directing violence at those who encourage hate in a tit-for-tat attempt at revenge is pretty bloody stupid. April Gaede clearly loves nothing more than being a martyr, claiming that every death threat and protest is a “gold medal” because she’s obviously “doing something right”. We need to fight hatred and intimidation with education and contempt, not with death threats and martyrdom.

What a depressing world. *sigh*

Evolution is not just a theory!

Evolution is not just a theory.

Pass the word! Digg it! Memorize the arguments!

That is all.

(Hat tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy)

Sometimes Think-Tanks Should Rethink

The right-wing think-tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has put up a study showing the relationship between longevity and “medical innovation” defined as the overall age of drugs being prescribed.

Siting a study prepared by Frank R. Lichtenberg from Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study shows that, surprise, new drugs do increase life expectancy.

Lichtenberg then set out to examine why this “longevity increase gap” exists by measuring the impact of several factors that researchers agree could affect life expectancy. He found that, although some obvious suspects—obesity, smoking, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS—played a role, the most important factor was “medical innovation.”

Specifically, Lichtenberg found that longevity increased the most in those states where access to newer drugs—measured by mean “vintage” (FDA approval year)—in Medicaid and Medicare programs has increased the most. In fact, about two-thirds of the potential increase in longevity—the longevity increase that would have occurred if obesity, income, and other factors had not changed—is attributable to the use of newer drugs. According to his calculations, for every year increase in drug vintage there is about a two-month gain in life expectancy. These represent important findings given the fact that the costs of prescription drugs continue to receive a great deal of attention in the ongoing debate over health-care policy, while their benefits are often overlooked.

Lichtenberg also estimated impacts on productivity and per-capita medical expenditure. He concluded that states adopting medical innovations more rapidly had faster labor productivity growth, conditional on income growth and other factors, perhaps due to reduced absenteeism from chronic medical ailments. He also found that states that use newer drugs did not experience above-average increases in overall medical expenditure, which contradicts the common perception that advances in medical technology inevitably result in increased health-care spending.

I would expect this to be a bit of propaganda attempting to show that big pharma isn’t the global evil everyone seems to think it is. Pharma companies are good and only have your best interests (and sex lives) at heart. Profits? Banish the thought!
But hey, since the graphics the institute put up were a bit dull, I thought I’d go in and do a little paint by numbers.

The paper has two main tables. The first shows the states ranked by life expectancy. I simply colored the chart according to the way the states voted in the 2004 presidential election.

US States Ranked By Life Expectancy

The second table shows increase life expectancy. Here the coloring was a little easier.

US States Ranked by Increase In Life Expectancy

Interestingly, as far as I can tell the measurement being used is the vintage of drugs supplied by Medicare and Medicaid. Strange that there would seem to be that big a difference in how federal programs are being operated at the state and local level. Perhaps all those who decry the evils of Medicare shouldn’t look at the evil heartless Federal Government and spend more time looking a little closer to home at how the federal guidelines are implemented.

But it would also seem to me, that those think-tanks fighting the good fight for Republican values shouldn’t use studies showing how much better life is in Democratic states.

I guess I think they should have rethought their article.

EU and the USA – The Small Difference

According to the international version of Spiegel-Online, the EU Commision has produced a video showing its support for the European film industry.

The result shows the difference in governmental sensiblities.

:-)

Top Tip For Gun Control

“Use both hands.”

This is the first recommendation made in one of the entries from the latest in the round of wikipedia take offs, Uncyclopedia – the content free encyclopedia. This is user driven – um – drivel raised to a high art.

First there was the Conservapedia which was an attempt to combat the evil liberal bias (aka reality) so rampant in Wikipedia. You know those pesky little entries about Separation of Church and State, Mexican History or the famous Kangaroo entry

According to the origins theory model used by creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah’s Ark prior to the Great Flood. It has not yet been determined by baraminologists whether kangaroos form a holobaramin with the wallaby, tree-kangaroo, wallaroo, pademelon and quokka, or if all these species are in fact apobaraminic or polybaraminic. There is, however, no evidence of a genetic bottleneck in the kangaroo species which would be expected if all kangaroos were descended from two individuals.

After the Flood, these kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land[5] with lower sea levels during the post-flood ice age, or before the supercontinent of Pangea broke apart[6], or if they rafted on mats of vegetation torn up by the receding flood waters.[5] The idea that God simply generated kangaroos into existence there is considered by most creation researchers to be contra-Biblical.

Here is a sampling of what Uncyclopedia has to offer. As opposed to “Conserva,” any relationship to realty, persons living or dead or perhaps seriousness, would be, I’m sure, blatently denied and immediately changed.

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was a half-naked fakir. He decided to go half-naked because during his times the English rulers were terribly afraid of desi nudity. Those were days far before the desi fetishism swept the West. Thousands of desi people emulated Mahatma and the stiff English nether lips got parted in disgust and the white skinned robbers went and got themselves drowned in the Arabian Sea on the west and Bay of Bengal on the east. The theory of Ahimsa aka non-violence originated thus.

Angels

Angels are formed wherever two or more lines intersect. Angels of over 90 degrees are termed Obese whereas angels of less than 90 degrees are termed Cute. Three Angels may cooperate together to form a trinity.

John McCain

John McCain was genetically engineered in an American Research Facility. Unlike normal humans, McCain contains many organs, which allow him to fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, have terrible war flashbacks, and amass incredible amounts of strength. Most of these organs were taken from school children. See zim. McCain’s skin produced a special layer of transparent nacho cheese, allowing him to time travel without damaging his body or the space time continuum. For Food, John McCain eats the leftovers of Aborted Fetuses.

What would you look up?

Enjoy.

(Hat Tip: Stephen J. Dubner/Freakonomics Blog)

NASA Needs a New Director!

NASA Needs a New Director!

WTF! I repeat WTF!

I just listened to Michael Griffin on NPR. I’m still under shock. First, go listen.

NPR: Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?

Griffith: I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

NPR: Is that thinking that informs you as you put together the budget? That something is happening, that it’s worth studying, but you’re not sure that you want to be battling it as an army might battle an enemy?

Griffith: Nowhere in NASA’s authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I’m proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, battle climate change.

[Original bold removed. My emphasis]

Again Michael Griffin is the NASA director. He is claiming that we shouldn’t do anything about global warming because we don’t know whether this is the best climate there ever was?!

That is just… so … disingenuous. If Phil Plait hadn’t already resigned from NASA, I would expect him too.

To say that people want to change the climate is to ignore the fact that mankind is already changing the climate, in ways we can’t predict – and the NASA director says “I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.”

Is this a new Frank Luntz talking point. We don’t want to do anything about climate change because doing something might be bad?

What! WTF!

A Cowboy’s Pipedream

Today’s post is less an organized story, than merely the overwhelmed whining of someone seeing the world moving in the wrong direction.

I had planned on questioning George W. Bush’s decision to invite Vladimir Putin to his fathers “compound” in Kennebunkport Maine.

After several months of cooling relations and increasingly heated rhetoric, I found the idea that Bush thinks he can actually accomplish something in a quiet personal atmosphere to be less than realistic. Russia is retreating farther and farther into an isolationist, nationalist position that can best be compared to the position America has taken since Bush first took office; taking unilateral positions on international policies without worrying about whether diplomacy might solve the issue or if the unilateral “solution” might actually make things worse.

While I suspect the two men have much in common personally; I seriously doubt they have much common ground politically.

Take for example Putin’s press conference last week with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, due to take his turn as the EU President in June. As reported in the Washington Post,

Anti-American rhetoric has become a staple of Kremlin-controlled television and many Russian political speeches, a reflection according to analysts of both genuine grievances and a desire to assert Russia’s revival as a world power under Putin. The Kremlin views Western lecturing on democracy in Russia as an attempt to derail Putin’s carefully orchestrated succession plans.

Putin said last week that criticism of human rights is an attempt to make Russia “more pliable” on other issues. “The death penalty in some Western countries — let’s not point fingers, secret prisons and torture exist in Europe, problems with the media in some countries, immigration laws which in some European countries are not in line with the general principles of international law or democratic order — these things, too, fall under common values,” Putin said after meeting with Portugal’s prime minister Tuesday.

He went on to say: “Let’s not talk about having immaculate, white fluffy partners on one side, and on the other a monster who has just come out of a forest with claws and corns growing instead of legs.”

This needs to be put in the perspective of the American insistence on stationing 10 missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and a new radar system in Poland. A move that irritated EU members and prompted Putin to warn “We consider it harmful and dangerous to turn Europe into a powder keg and to stuff it with new weapons.”

Not to be outclassed on new weapons front, the test of a new intercontinental missile was then promptly presented by Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, widely considered to be Putin’s heir apparent. (This was also, might I note, after a failed postponed US anti-missile defense test on May 26th.)

Then I look at the G8 conference planned in Potsdam next week; what could be considered a prelude to the Bush-Putin private snuggle-up.

While largely ignored by the American press, the German newspapers have been filled with reports of measures taken to reduce the “risks” coming from anti-globalization activists. From the time worn tactics like fences, water throwers and increased police presence to new and innovative ideas.

The German Interior Minister, had supported a plan to hack and scan private computers in order to identify “terrorist” (anti-globalization) activities. (Perhaps he got the idea from Alberto Gonzales?) The idea was rejected in early May by the German Supreme Court.

Echoing Putin’s attacks on the West’s “problems with the media,” Spiegel-Online (German) is reporting today that journalists are being denied accreditation to the G8 conference or have their accreditation revoked. In some cases the reasoning seems more than suspicious,

The federal press office surprisingly refused credentials to the G8 press center to a long time editor of the Berlin newspaper taz. The journalist told SPIEGEL ONLINE, that the refusal had been made without giving any specific reason and referred to a corresponding recommendation from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation* (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA). On inquiry, the BKA refered him to the Berlin State Office of Criminal Invesigation (Landeskriminalamt, LKA). But they were surprised. According to Lee, the LKA finally admitted that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) had raised objections to the accreditation of the journalist.

Lee is responsible for right and left wing extremists and social movements at the taz. In recent weeks he has increasingly reported on the G8 summit.

The LKA had twice investigated him, says Lee. However both times a positive recommendation had been made: “I don’t even have a traffic ticket.” [my translation]

It should be noted that the taz is a left-wing, but largely mainstream newspaper. According to the article, focused around Lee’s plight, at least 20 journalists have been denied access to the summit. Of course German politicians claim that freedom of the press, even a hostile press, is one of the most important rights in democracies. Sounds like America.

While the press policies might impress the American president, Bush has now decided he needs to “lead the world” in combating Global Warming. A move calculated to irritate Angela Merkel who has been pushing for specific limits on CO2 emissions at the G8 next week.

Although the American press is largely reporting that Merkel gave “positive responses” to Bush’s ideas, Merkel is far too political (perhaps polite) to attempt a verbal bushwhacking. People living in Germany often find that Merkel’s methods for political manoeuvring are far more subtle than most male politicians. She either says nice things or says nothing; nevertheless she often gets her way in the end with her opponent sidelined, marginalized and finally forced to do what she planned.

Merkel wants concrete results from the G8 conference, Bush wants to start a new round of talks to delay the process; Merkel has a PhD in Physics, Bush occasionally reads books. Merkel got nowhere with Putin; Bush want a barbeque in Maine.

Interestingly, I would argue the West, not only America but Germany, France and Britian (who, one would assume, will “stay the course” even post-Blair) has approached Russia in recent years. The West has gotten far more authoritarian and repressive. Even as the public and NGO’s point to democratic problems, the politicians, east and west have become far more similar in recent years (see the coverage of the Condi and Sergey show).

Unfortunately the current resurgence of Russian power was largely unexpected by the White House and they seem to be scrambling to react. Perhaps that is the reason why the Iraq Czar was named; to free up Russian expert Rice and National Security Advisor Stephan J Hadley for other international problems.

Finally, does Bush even have the mindset to change things? From Georgie Anne Geyer at the Dallas Morning News in a column about Iraq as a (terror) export nation and describing Bush,

Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated “I am the president!” He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of “our country’s destiny.” [Reference to the Rapture perhaps?]

To think that having Putin over for a couple of days, with Rice at the breakfast table in pajamas and perhaps the twins gallivanting on the lawn probably won’t do more than increase the Bush/Putin personal friendship.

Anything else is just a cowboy’s pipedream.

[*Yes, the Germans have lots of investigative offices. In American terms, the BKA is like the FBI for crime, Verfassungsschutz is like the FBI tracking “political” groups (like neo-Nazis and the RAF), Finally the LKA can be seen as a local state police. I hope that clarifies slightly.]

The Blob Speaks Russian

The robot moves forward in the concrete catastrophe zone, gamma radiation high enough to mean death to any human exposed; not an instant death but a slow agonizing demise as one organ after another fails; kidneys, liver, heart, lungs with the skin finally becoming an unrecognizable rotting black mask. The mechanical explorer takes a sample of a slime the same rotting, black color, growing on the wall of the chamber; thriving in this lightless, lonely spot.

Does that sound like I’m trying my hand at science fiction? Not exactly.

A new paper published last week describes just such a scenario. But the black slime isn’t something from a 1950’s science fiction movie, it’s a fungus apparently living from gamma radiation itself in a very unreal environment: inside the concrete coffin surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

From the Eureakalert article,

Scientists have long assumed that fungi exist mainly to decompose matter into chemicals that other organisms can then use. But researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found evidence that fungi possess a previously undiscovered talent with profound implications: the ability to use radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their growth.The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or animal kingdom, so finding that they’re making food in addition to breaking it down means that Earth’s energetics—in particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy—may need to be recalculated,” says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of microbiology & immunology at Einstein and senior author of the study, published May 23 in PLoS ONE.

The ability of fungi to live off radiation could also prove useful to people: “Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets,” says Dr. Ekaterina Dadachova, associate professor of nuclear medicine and microbiology & immunology at Einstein and lead author of the study.

This isn’t the first time life forms have been found ‘feeding’ on radiation. (Who knew?) Last year researchers from Indiana University at Bloomington reported finding bacteria living in rocks over 2.8 kilometers below the surface of the earth. According to the press release,

Radiation emanating from uranium minerals in or near the fracture allows for the formation of hydrogen gas from decomposition of water and formation of sulfate from decomposition of sulfur minerals. Hydrogen gas is highly energetic if it reacts with oxygen or other oxidants like sulfate, as the Hindenburg disaster demonstrated. Firmicutes are able to harvest energy from the reaction of hydrogen and sulfate, allowing other microbes in the fracture community to use the chemical waste from the Firmicutes as food.

This new finding also has very important implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. If organisms can survive not only on sulphates and hydrogen but directly from radiation, that would greatly expand possible environments where life could form and be found.

I just hope that life doesn’t land on the earth, sealed in a meteor, near a diner in a small town – at night. As long as the fungus sticks to eating radiation and not B-Movie actors, I think this is a pretty cool find.

And on the bright side, now we know what language the Blob spoke – Russian. Doesn’t Condoleezza Rice speak Russian? All better then.

Will TB Become the Next Bird Flu?

The Washington Post is reporting today about a man being detained in Atlanta after travelling in Europe, Canada and the US even though he knew he was infected with an antibiotic resistant strain of tuberculosis – XDR-TB.

Although the CDC and the two airlines are attempting to contact the passengers who might have sat near the man on 2 separate commercial flights, health officials are playing down the possibility of transmission. While TB was present, officials are saying the man was not highly contagious.

Nevertheless, he was detained in New York City and then flown in a government plane to be quarantined in Atlanta. He hasn’t broken any laws, he is being forcibly detained and required to undergo treatment.

This isn’t the first time someone has been detained this year for the ‘crime’ of TB. Tara Smith, my go to – um – Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at ScienceBlogs, highlighted the case of Robert Daniels, being held against his will in Arizona because he refused to submit to treatment. From the AP story published in April,

Behind the county hospital’s tall cinderblock walls, a 27-year-old tuberculosis patient sits in a jail cell equipped with a ventilation system that keeps germs from escaping. Robert Daniels has been locked up indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of his life, since last July. But he has not been charged with a crime. Instead, he suffers from an extensively drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, or XDR-TB. It is considered virtually untreatable.

County health authorities obtained a court order to lock him up as a danger to the public because he failed to take precautions to avoid infecting others. Specifically, he said he did not heed doctors’ instructions to wear a mask in public.

“I’m being treated worse than an inmate,” Daniels said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press last month. “I’m all alone. Four walls. Even the door to my room has been locked. I haven’t seen my reflection in months.”

The article goes on to mention that Texas has detained 17 persons for TB while California hasn’t detained anyone this year but four persons last year.

While the rate of antibiotic resistant infections in America is still relatively low, about 2 percent of total TB cases, in some countries, such as Latvia, South Korea and South Africa, it is becoming a serious health threat. According to the March 2007 Fact Sheet from the Stop TB web site (WHO) all G8 countries have now had confirmed cases of XDR-TB.

To give you an idea of how serious this threat is, in its coverage of this story, the New York Times echoes Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, during her Congressional testimony in March,

In one outbreak in South Africa, Dr. Gerberding testified, 41 percent of the 544 patients infected with tuberculosis were found to have multidrug-resistant strains; of those, 53 met the definition of XDR TB.

Of the latter group, all but one person died, on average just 16 days after health workers had tested them.

Finally, for all those wondering whether the federal government is getting the black helicopters out of mothballs to use this to create the New World Order, might I direct them to the oh-so-official booklet The Role of Law Enforcement in Public Health Emergencies ? This outlines just how local police departments should be prepared for these kinds of things.

(If you really want to start a fuss, just call up your local sheriffs department, ask for the PR spokesperson and say, as a concerned citizen, you would like to know what plans your local police have made to combat a local contagious disease outbreak. Then just sit back and wait for the FBI to come knock on your door asking you about your religious affiliation. Want to make a bet?)

Remember, while the bird flu is still spreading around the world on the wings of birds, XDR-TB using jets. Expect to hear far more in the next weeks and years of the comeback of TB. Instead of simply being a possible danger like bird flu requiring a mutation to create a highly contagious human variant, XDR-TB is here. Now.

The lessons the public learns with XDR-TB will help cope with more serious outbreaks of other epidemics and pandemics in the near future.

Trickle Up Reality – A Difference of Opinion

Noah Shachtman, at Danger Room and my go-to guy for inside information about Pentagon shenanigans, has a post up praising an article in The Washington Monthly by Spencer Ackermann. Entitled The Bitter End and with the tagline “Democrats are right to push for an end to the Iraq war. But don’t expect the troops to be grateful,“ one can see where he is going.

Haunted by Vietnam, Democrats are determined to express support for the troops. This is admirable. The truth of the matter, however, is this: many troops in Iraq, perhaps even most of them, want to stay and fight. That doesn’t mean that we should stay in Iraq any longer. It does mean, however, that if Democrats want to bridge the divide between themselves and the military—an effort further complicated by their opposition to the war—they’re going to have to recognize that arguing in the name of the troops isn’t going to work.

If you spend as much time reading about Iraq as I do, you tend to get a very distorted image of reality (if there is such a thing).

At one level, there is the extreme devotion to duty, honor and team that is shown at the personal level. (This is very apparent if you read military blogs written by the people fighting every day. Read them now before they disappear. ) On another level, you see officers, military advisors and pundits pointing to the successes, incremental improvements across many ‘measurables.’

But you also get a sense of a football team in the last quarter, physically at the end of their chain but still willing to keep trying;. even if the game is obviously lost. (But then again the troops in the field didn’t even all know who Rumsfield is/was.)

Interestingly, most of the people quoted in Ackerman’s article are also officers. The only enlisted man seems more interested in being redeployed to Hawaii than staying in Iraq. (At least there are bikinis to go along with the sand.)

I’d contrast the view presented by Ackermann with two different viewpoints, also published in the last few days.

From a the international Herald Tribute story, With allies in enemy ranks, GIs in Iraq are no longer true believers,

But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

“I thought, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.

A small minority of Delta Company soldiers – the younger, more recent enlistees in particular – seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.

The focus of this story is on the erosion of ‘mission feeling’ when the mission is defined to be stand up until the Iraqi’s take over. Unfortunately, the lower level troops are increasingly discovering that the guys taking over are also the guys who shoot at Americans on their days off. They came with a sense of mission, but like a puddle under the Iraqi sun, that is slowly evaporating.

The other side of this is the cost on the home front. This comes from the front page feature at the Washington Post highlighting the plight of the families of the Minnesota National Guard troops attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th division.

Some 2,600 members of the Minnesota Guard are serving in Iraq, attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division. Most of the Minnesotans from the rural northern part of the state around Crookston are in Bravo Company, whose 141 men range in age from 20 to 47 and represent a cross section of the small-town Midwest. One in seven has a college degree. One in three is married.

The citizen-soldiers of Bravo Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, had been home 18 months from a tour in Bosnia and Kosovo when they mustered for war in October 2005. Reinforcing an active-duty Army stretched taut by a war longer and more ferocious than the White House expected, the Guard members checked out of their roles as students, farmers and workers.

Once deployed, they supported active-duty troops, largely in violent Anbar province, where the unit lost three soldiers to enemy explosives. After being granted two weeks’ leave and plane tickets home last year, Bravo’s soldiers returned to Iraq with the end of their mission in sight.

But shortly after Christmas, as friends and families counted the days until the planned March 28 homecoming, word came that the tour would be extended four months to support the effort to fortify Baghdad, a strategy designed to tip the balance against the insurgency.

News of the extension, which the families first heard about on television, was a rough blow. One wife likened it to nearing the end of a marathon and learning she would have to run eight more miles uphill. Another forgot that she had set her cellphone to ring on March 28, a cheerful reminder that her husband was homeward bound. When the alarm sounded, she called a friend and cursed: “Damn alarms.”

This is especially interesting because the MNG will probably become the longest serving unit in Iraq, reserve or active.

And what do these guys say about the war?

Days turn into weeks, weeks melt into months, and the months turn into a year and I am still in Iraq.

I have not yet reached a true state of apathy, but as the days pass I come closer and closer. I do my duty every day without complaint but I don’t give a damn anymore. I no longer care about the mission and I no longer care about the people I am supposed to be here to help.

I no longer give a fuck.

The above quote comes from Sixty-Six.org a milblog from an infantry man on his second deployment who was, in another world, a graduate student in Psychology. “I will not allow myself to have an opinion on the war. I have a job to do, and that job is not to agree or disagree with the politics of war. My job is to fight the war and come back to tell the story. “

Interestingly, Ackerman even quotes a journalist who had been embedded with the Minnesota National Guard, NPR’s John McChesney.

Of course, military opinion varies greatly, and the mindset of the 57th could be atypical. But other journalists have picked up similar sentiments. In early April, National Public Radio’s John McChesney visited National Guard troops in Arkansas and found that, “to a man, they were gung-ho for the mission.” One specialist told McChesney, “I am looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” And news accounts regularly carry reports of soldiers who are eager to go to Iraq, whether out of a sense of duty or a sense of adventure. (More grimly, many obituaries also mention such eagerness.)

This was something I could fact check. Was Ackermann cherry- picking? Let’s take a look the original story,

Under new policy, the 39th’s second deployment would be limited to 12 months, according to Maj. Gen. Bill Wofford, who is the adjutant general of the Arkansas Guard. That would include training time in the States, so it’s possible the soldiers could be in Iraq for less than a year.

But Wofford acknowledged that they could be extended, like what recently happened to the Minnesota National Guard. “That would be up to the Department of Defense and what’s going on in theater at that time,” he said.

Immediately following a news conference in Little Rock, Wofford jumped in a Blackhawk helicopter and flew north to Fayetteville. Wofford was going to say goodbye to some men who will be leaving soon for their first deployment to Iraq.

Command gathered a group of them to talk to NPR about the trip. To a man, they were gung ho for the mission.” I am looking forward to it,” said Spec. John Martell. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” He expects to return to be a full-time student at the University of Arkansas. In the meantime, he says, “I’ve always wanted to serve in this way.” [my emphasis]

It would seem Ackermann quoting people who are gung-ho on war. But those are officers, those recently arrived or the one’s who hadn’t gone yet. This let’s me wonder who he listened to in Iraq. Especially off the record Majors commenting in the US Embassy. If I contrast that with the feelings I read about at Sixty-Six, in the WP and the story in the International Herald Tribune, I feel a real reality disconnect here.

So while some might still support the mission. I get the impression, even under the troops who are the last to lose faith, gung ho isn’t the phrase I’d use for those on repeated deployments.

It would seem to me, those in Iraq are no longer fighting an enemy. They are fighting to support each other. They follow orders because that is what orders are for; they do their job with pride: clear an IED, search a house or help in the reconstruction; not to help the Iraqi’s, not because someone in Washington wants them to – but because there are fellow Americans doing the same thing and they need help.

Ackerman points out that the Democrats do themselves a disservice by claiming to help the troops and wanting them to withdraw. His point is that the ‘troops’ don’t want to withdraw. I think the troops want to stay together. No-one wants to be the first to leave or the last to go. But I disagree that there is still a strong feeling of mission.

Returning to the Washington Post feature,

Last winter, with her husband due home in 100 days, Modeen and the kids put 100 M&Ms in a jar. Every day, they took one out; as the pile got smaller, Staff Sgt. Nathan Modeen was closer to coming home. Sam was growing excited. Then came news of the 125-day extension.

Jennifer Modeen could hardly stand it: “We just threw the M&Ms away.”

While Ackerman may be right and the soldiers still haven’t lost hope in the mission, I’d argue that they have lost their M&Ms.

Thermonuclear Escalation

An image highlighting the dangers of nuking things…

microwavewars1.jpg

From Kathleen: “‘No Smelly Foods’ was the first one, and then it just escalated. “

(Hat Tip: passive-aggressive notes from roommates, neighbors, coworkers and strangers and BitchPhd)

Upturn in Economic Outlooks

Yesterday, Michael van der Galiën wrote a comment about an editorial which appeared in the WSJ. Even though I can’t read the entire editorial because I don’t have a subscription (recent confessions aside, the Numbers Guy is free), I’d like to point out something.The WSJ editorial starts with

It’s been a rough week for John Edwards, and now comes more bad news for his “two Americas” campaign theme. A new study by the Congressional Budget Office says the poor have been getting less poor. On average, CBO found that low-wage households with children had incomes after inflation that were more than one-third higher in 2005 than in 1991.

That sounds cheery. Michael echos Jonathan Chait from the New Republic in pointing out the disingenuousness of the editorial. While income did increase between 1991 and 2005, it seems to have peaked in 2000. I wonder what happened in 2000? Oh yeah. Katherine Harris elected George W. Bush.

But looking at the study and perhaps casting a sidelong glance at today’s New York Times might point out a few more interesting tid-bits.

Let’t start the CRS study. This is the graph shown on the very first page.

Changes in the Economic Resources of Low-Income Households with Children

While I might be a bit myopic, The total government financial aid dropped between 1991 and 2006, it seems to have remained fairly constant since George W. took office. I wonder why the Republicans don’t seem to want to lower that number since the poor are obviously earning so much? Don’t they want their tax dollars spent wisely? Aren’t the Democrats the ones who spend and run? What about the welfare queens in pink caddies?!

But wait. It gets better. Now let’s compare this with the graph on page 11. This chart shows increase in real income of households with children.

Growth in Real Income and Earnings of Households with Children, by Quintile

While the report is titled Changes in the Economic Resources of Low-Income Households with Children, [my emphasis] this chart includes all economic income brackets from the lowest to the highest. (Note: I edited the graph to include the the income levels.)

So while lower class income does seem to have improved, the over-pressured, much maligned, highest-income bracket is doing much better. Thank goodness! I was starting to think the Republicans hadn’t achieved anything.

And remember, the scale on that graphic is percent. That means not only are the top 20% doing better in an absolute sense, they are doing better in a relative sense. That means not only were the best of the best earning much more to begin with, they get even more income now. Cool huh? Bush II is my hero!

And who might these poor, deprived super-rich be?

Eduardo Porter gives us a glimpse in today’s New York Times.

As executive pay has surged in most American companies, attention has focused on the growing gap between the earnings of top executives and the average wage of workers in cubicles or on the shop floor. Little noticed, though, is how much the gap has also widened between the summit and the next few echelons down.
[…]
Few are deprived in corporate suites, of course. But the widening disparities in business, which show up in a variety of other ways, reflect a dynamic that is taking hold across the economy: the growing concentration of wealth and income among a select group at the pinnacle of success, leaving many others with similar talents and experience well behind.

In the 1960s and ’70s, chief executives running the nation’s biggest companies earned 80 percent more, on average, than the third-highest-paid executives, according to a recent study by Carola Frydman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Raven E. Saks at the Federal Reserve. By the early part of this decade, the gap in the executive suite between No. 1 and No. 3 [poor little guy] had swollen to 260 percent. [my emphasis]

Perhaps we need to change from calling these people neo-conservatives to calling them “neo-feudalists:” people creating a super rich elite able to change justice to keep them in power and suit their lifestyles .

While even those one or two titles – um – ranks down are left to deal with the unruly serfdom, the CEOs (Barons?) and Presidents (Kings?) can truely say – the economic outlook of the serfs has never been better; much better now, than under that pesky democracy thing.

An Alligator, A Pool, and News at 11:00

Even though many people complain about the amount of bad news in newspapers, if one looks closely there is an amazing amount of fluff. Take for example, The Fugitive like story of Reggie the alligator being reported in Los Angeles today,

Reggie the alligator’s two years of freedom ended this afternoon when the coldblooded fugitive left the chilly waters of Lake Machado and was taken into custody on the shore.

The 7-foot alligator was taken to the Los Angeles Zoo, where he will be quarantined for up to 60 days to make sure he isn’t carrying any diseases.

Still, by all appearances, “he’s in good shape,” said Karen Knipscheer, a spokeswoman for the city’s Animal Services Department.

The capture came as experts from Australia were meeting with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and her aides on how to capture the alligator, which had been spotted recently in the lake near the Harbor Freeway in Harbor City.

I always feel safter when duck and fish serial killers end up behind bars where they belong. I guess the CADFG feels the same way. But the media seems to think that finally putting a stop to the rampage amoung aquatic wildlife by this illegal alien is a sad tale of ended freedoms.

The Times story goes on to point out that one of the local television stations (Channel 7) interrupted normal broadcasting to broadcast Reggie’s trip to the zoo in the back of a pickup live. A stunt the Times laconically compares to “a certain chase of a white Bronco.” As a matter of fact ABC7 in LA still seems to think this was the most important thing that happened yesterday. As can be seen from a screen shot taken from their home page.

Reggie and Channel 7 - Oh, Where the decorum?

Returning to the LA Times for a moment though, they point out a couple of things the ABC reporter “forgot.” If you watch the video, the reporter mentions that the city spent about $180,000 trying to recapture just this one illegal alien. What the reporter doesn’t mention is the fact that one of the people who released Reggie in the first place is a former LAPD officer. Ouch.

But speaking of money, I wonder how much it cost ABC to cover the Reggie drama. And perhaps even more importantly, why did it take 2 reporters (with a hat tip to a third) to do the story at the LA Times?

Wouldn’t one assume a pool reporter would have done a good enough job covering a pool fugitive and the News at 11:00? Apparently not.

Time Is Going Really Slowly…

OK. You’re a Dearborn cop.

OK. You’re a corrupt Dearborn cop.

Now you bust some people with a little pot and decide to make not a booking but a batch of brownies. You and your wife do a little taste testing…

And time starts going really, really, really, really slowly. What do you do? You call 911.

I love the off camera snort from one of the anchors. These people have obviously also experienced time distortion. The really cool part? The video clip is from a Fox station.

What are they doing at Fox?!

Oh! And the cop? He and his wife got off.

Dearborn police declined to pursue criminal charges against an officer last year, even after the cop admitted to taking marijuana from criminal suspects and, with his wife, cooking it up in brownies.

Then-Cpl. Edward Sanchez was allowed to resign from the department, but he was not charged with a crime. He declined to comment Wednesday.

His wife, Stacy Sanchez, admitted to police investigators that on another occasion she removed cocaine from her husband’s police cruiser — drugs purportedly earmarked to train police dogs — and used it during a three-week binge. She, too, has not been charged criminally. Dearborn Police Cmdr. Jeff Geisinger left a phone message with Free Press reporting partner WDIV-TV Local 4 saying Sanchez resigned during an internal investigation. Geisinger did not return subsequent calls asking why Sanchez was not prosecuted.

American Justice – always good for a laugh.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish)

Sniffex – Probably Just Had Hayfever (Updated)

Update: A commenter pointed me to the very useful Sniffexquestions blog. Not that you shouldn’t read my stuff. But any Sniffexquestions you might have, will be answered there. (S)he even has the report of the test shown below.

James Randi, of JREF, Sharon Weinberger, lover of government mind control stories and Imaginary Weapons (now in paperback!) and Bruce Schneier, crypto-guy have all pointed to the Sniffex modern munitions dowsing rod foolishness.

As Sharon put it over at Danger Room

Penny stock schemes are a dime a dozen, but you gotta love ones that involve far-fetched military technology. A few months ago, I received in the mail information on Sniffex, a company touting a dream technology in the age of terror: a hand-held explosive sniffer. The company’s claims about its uses — sniffing through concrete and at great distances, sounded a bit too wonderful. I tossed the brochure — labeled “hot stocks on the street”– in my pile of possibly stupid weapons, and promptly forgot about it.

Others didn’t. Famed magician and uber-Skeptic James Randi unearthed a Navy report evaluating Sniffex, and from the snippets he published online, it’s rather damning

Bruce Schnieder picked up the story. His intrepid commenters found the more interesting stuff. One reader describes a blind test of the Sniffex ‘product’ conducted at Bob Hope airport . “Tourism and Safety 2006″, a conference for law enforcement professionals held at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel in April of 2006 [Updated: See Comments - Thanks MY]. Now the videos of this blind test of ‘detection equipment’ are up at YouTube. The test is simple. Several envelopes, 9 filled with salt, 1 filled with gun powder – now use the Sniffex ‘device’ to find the dangerous one.

It starts off with a description of how Sniffex works (like the energy source – YOU!).

Then a simple test is proposed

And they huff, and they puff, and huff again. But they can’t find the explosive.

My favourite part? Perhaps the ever-present elevator music in the background. Like some surreal cross between Heidi and 24, frantically search for the nuke while “What A Wonderful World” plays as a soundtrack. Perfect.

Despite all the negative waves being sent their way, Sniffex is still being pushed on it’s European site with a “patented method based on detection of magnetic interference.” As a matter of fact, they even have a patent number: 6,344,818. See – down at the bottom

Oh!. Maybe they don’t have that patent any more.

Status: Patent Expired Due to NonPayment of
Maintenance Fees Under 37 CFR 1.362
Status Date: 03-08-2006

So not only do they have a device that doesn’t work, they can’t even keep their patent “working”.

Voyeurism for the Truly Lazy

Got an hour?

This is just … WOW!  A map of the world showing each flickr picture as it is posted.

And for those who don’t just live in 2 dimensions… how about the world? (I’m not sure this pulls new pictures all the time though.)

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