Thursday, April 28, 2005

EPA underestimates benefit of mercury cleanup

Hot off the AP press:
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in an internal report as much as $2 billion in yearly benefits from cutting mercury pollution just in the Southeast — 40 times the value the agency projected publicly for the entire nation.
Ok, this is simply unacceptable. Omitting conflicting reports should have been bad enough, but this takes it to another level. Will the mainstream press please pick up on this story and let the public know that their health has been bought out by the coal industry?

1/2 of Americans now believe that they were misled about WMD's in Iraq

Editor and Publisher reports that a recent Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans feel that the Bush administration misled them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I'll go a step further, they didn't just mislead, they lied.

For instance, remember those aluminum tubes that the administration said were part of a nuclear arms program?

While a CIA report advocated the administration's view that the tubes were to be used for developing nuclear weapons, a set of technical experts from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge, Livermore, and Los Alamos national laboratories reviewed the CIA analysis and disagreed with its findings. Independent investigations by the State Department's intelligence branch and the International Atomic Energy Agency also concluded that the tubes were unsuitable for uranium enrichment.

This information was presented to Secretary of State Colin Powell and others prior to their remarks on the topic. Yet Powell embraced the discredited CIA report and downplayed the collective scientific position, testifying that "Most U.S. experts think [the tubes] are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium."
- From Skeptical Inquirer Reports: policy, not science drives Bush administration

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Scientific satire

Obviously irked by his state's flirtation with stickering high school biology texts with a label cautioning that evolution is "a theory not a fact" Ga. Tech professor Loren Williams created the viciously clever Chemical Periodicity warning label as a spoof of such labels. The Chemical Periodicity label is part of a larger site, the reDiscovery Institute, which is itself a parody of the design movement.

The importance of clear language

In politics (and life in general) language is used in order not only to simply communicate, but also to shape and, yes, control thought. I'm not sure I know of anyone who has not at some point expressed frustration at what is commonly known as politician talk, aka political rhetoric that is either devoid of content or deflects or distorts the truth.

The problem is that in our everyday lives we do not pay all that much attention to the proper use of language. This leaves us particularly at a disadvantage for recognizing deceptive language because we often use it ourselves without awareness of it.

No one was more aware of the potential dangers of the misuse of language as a means of manipulation than George Orwell whose principles of Newspeak have escaped the confines of his dystopian book 1984 to take on a life of their own. Less known , though, is an essay written by Orwell entitled Politics and the English Language - which in my opininon should be a part of every citizens education - in which Orwell discussed the ability of vague and ambiguous language to corrupt thought. Orwell, the 20th century's most acute critic of the misuse of language, warned that "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." The advice he offered was to actively seek to improve your own use of language: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."

With practice and concentrated effort it becomes easier to see through imprecise language; this is something that every citizen should always strive to be aware of since, afterall, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Blogging hiatus

I will not have access to the internet until Wednesday of next week so this will be the last update until then.

So in the meantime, click here for a daily dose of Calvin And Hobbes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Superstition threatens infant life

From the Reuters report:
Indian police have charged 80 people for burying children alive in an ancient Hindu ceremony known as “the festival of pits.”

The ceremony, in which children — some less than a year old — are buried alive briefly and then dug up, was held on Monday in southern Tamil Nadu state, The Asian Age reported on Thursday.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It's all a liberal conspiracy

Ann Coulter was on Hannity and Colmes tonight to talk about the recent Time magazine cover story that was done on her. The article was quite favorable to her, and yet she still managed to find another instance of "liberal" bias. The problem? She found the cover picture unflattering, and feels that it was chosen deliberately to make her look bad because she is a conservative. Nevermind the article which neglected to note the instances of her hate-mongering and the fact that its not at all uncommon for someone to be unhappy with seeing themselves in print, in Ann world it's evil liberals strike again.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Thomas Paine - Forgotten Father

Thomas Paine, born in England in 1737, emigrated to the United States in 1774 and quickly became an outspoken champion for the rights of the colonists and of the slaves. Paine helped draft legislation in Pennsylvania that led the state to be the first in America to allow for the emancipation of slaves. He was the first man to argue for American independence, and in his work Common Sense, he managed to convince the then discontent colonists that the only soluble outcome was a complete break from England. Paine was the man who coined the phrase "United States of America" and it was Paine that first drafted the Declaration which was later revised by Jefferson; Paine's version had to be revised because it was too radical, as he actually called for America to renounce slavery.

During the revolutionary war, Paine served as both a soldier and a writer of pro-American tracts (refusing to accept pay for his writings) that inspired the colonists to fight on when their spirits were nearly broken. George Washington famously read these words to his troops on Christmas eve 1776:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
After the war, Paine eventually went to England where he wrote the Rights of Man in defense of the French Revolution and the principles of individual liberty. For daring to attempt to spread the principles of the American revolution to England, Paine was charged with sedition and barely escaped to France with his life.

In France, Paine served in the National Convention and protested the execution of King Louis XVI. For daring to prevent the violent radicalism that the Revolution would soon devolve into he was locked in prison and sentenced to death. The American ambasador denied that Paine was an American citizen and if not for the replacement of Morris with Monroe he would have died there.

While Paine was in prison awaiting his death he wrote The Age of Reason, a deistic critique of religion in which he sought to put an end to superstition, dogma, and intolerance.

Paine finally returned to America in 1802. He was met with little enthusiasm because his reputation had suffered much as a result of the publication of The Age of Reason. He spent his remaining days in declining social standing until he passed away in 1809.

"He had lived long, did some good and much harm."

This was the obituary that the nation saw fit to give Thomas Paine when he died in 1809, and it is one of history's great tragedies that only 6 men honored America's debt to Thomas Paine by attending his funeral.

This man, more than any other man, emodied what it meant to be an American. The "some good" that Paine did was to articulate the argument for American independence, to argue against slavery, to argue for the rights of man, to attempt to spread the prinicples of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to England and France, and to try and prevent senseless blood shed.

In The Age of Reason, Paine wrote: "I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy."

This sentiment earned Paine the label of infidel and atheist. This was the "much harm" that Paine did: he sought to reform religion and demanded that his fellow man live up to the American ideal of equality. He was scorned for his honesty and his unwavering devotion to human rights, and because he dared to doubt orthodoxy his legacy has nearly been forgotten.

Additional Information on Paine:
Wikipedia entry on Paine
Robert Green Ingersoll speech 'Thomas Paine'
Christopher Hitchens tribute to Paine
On-line writings of Paine

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fake news update

In response to public outcry against the use of fake video news segments the FCC issued a statement calling for the disclosure of the origin of all video news releases by broadcasters. The FCC cited a petition jointly circulated by Free Press and the Center for Democracy and Media which was signed by 40,000 citizens as impetus for the release.

The Congressional Government Accountablity Office had previously declared the administration's use of video news releases as illegal "covert propaganda," but the administration dismissed the GAO's charge when the Justice Dept. ruled that there was nothing wrong with the releases.

You can read more about the release at Freepress and the Center for Media and Democracy.

EDIT - Not sure how I missed it, but on the same day the Senate voted 98-0 to approve an amendment that prohibits all government agencies from using tax money to support prepackaged news releases unless the source of the releases are clearly identified.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

American theocrats

The threat of American fundamentalism is real, and the sooner Americans realize this the better.

From a recent Rolling Stone article:
"Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost," Kennedy says. "As the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors -- in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

And the political influence of these people is growing.

Run evolutionary tests from your home computer

One of the most interesting but little known about means of testing the theory of evolution is by use of computer programs that simulate the evolutionary process by creating digital organisms. One such program, Avida, is available free for download.

For more information about Avida, check out Carl Zimmer's article that he wrote for Discover.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Some thoughts about Jeff Gannon's National Press Club panel appearance

Fake journalist Jeff Gannon could be seen on C-span today during a National Press Club discussion on journalism and blogging.

One thing that particularly bothered me was Gannon using the panel as a forum to attack other journalists such as Maureen Dowd and David Corn, where in both instances he distorted the truth.

In the case of Dowd he claimed that she was misleading people about the press corps credentialing process by telling people she can't get a hard pass, and then he went on to explain why she does not meet the requirements of hard pass access. Dowd does have access and here is what she actually said in the column Jeff was alluding to
At first when I tried to complain about not getting my pass renewed, even though I'd been covering presidents and first ladies since 1986, no one called me back. Finally, when Mr. McClellan replaced Ari Fleischer, he said he'd renew the pass — after a new Secret Service background check that would last several months.
And from David Corn's response to Gannon's comments
Now he's saying that my appearance in the White House press room somehow justifies how he seemingly scammed his entry into this den of spin. I truly don't want to engage in a debate with Ganon/Guckert, but since this panel has gotten more attention than it deserves, I feel compelled to respond -- briefly.

Unlike Gannon/Guckert, I have been a fully credentialed member of the Washington press corps for almost two decades. During that time, I have had a congressional press pass, which is the main press pass for working journalists in the nation's capital. Gannon/Guckert was turned down for such a pass. As a holder of such a pass, I can call the White House press office whenever I wish to attend a press briefing there--which is not often--and request a day press and expect to receive one.
But perhaps what was most frustrating was hearing Gannon defend the administration paying Armstrong Williams to shill for No Child Left Behind by claiming that the administration had to pay Williams just to get some coverage without a "filter." Thats what Jeff said he does, he bypasses the "filter." Words can't express how badly I wanted to be on that panel or in the audience at that moment. The words came to me instantly. Here's what I would have said to Jeff if I had been there:

You're right Jeff. There is a filter. Its called the truth. I wouldn't expect you to understand, but thats what journalists do: they take what the government says and they scrutinize it to see if the government is telling the truth. Thats why the press is so important to a democracy, Jeff. In a government "of the people, for the people, by the people" the government has to be held accountable.

"Who watches the watchmen?" We do. The press is our watchdog, or at least its supposed to be. You're no watchdog Jeff ... you're a lap dog.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Quote of the month

"I'd hardly call Fox [News] conservative" - Jeff Gannon during a National Press Club panel discussion on journalism and blogging

And he said that with a straight face.

Massacre in Rio de Janeiro

What a terrible thing it is when the police are the criminals; from the Reuters report :
Brazilian authorities have arrested 11 police officers over the killing of 30 people in a shooting rampage on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, the state security chief said on Monday.

The Thursday night slaughter, which is suspected of being a response to a crackdown on corrupt police officers, was the worst massacre in more than a decade in the violent seaside city.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

We should be thinking about oil

Oil's role in shaping global politics is only going to increase, so its time to start educating ourselves about it. So with that said, here are a few links to get started with:

What peak oil means
Peak oil presentation given to Congress
Peak oil links
The role of oil in Sudan's conflict - a case study of how oil can drive global politics

A prayer for our times

God grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 - 1971)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Texas Sen. Cornyn rationalizes judicial violence

Two days ago Sen. Cornyn commented that recent violence against judges was a response to judicial activists, aka judges who make decisions that conflict with the wishes of conservative theocrats. Cornyn's comments are simply disgusting. He has attempted to exploit the tragic death of judges in Atlanta and Chicago, whom were killed for reasons that were clearly not related to judicial "activism," in order to further promulgate anti-judiciary sentiment.

On the same day, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called for the impeachment of Supreme Court justices and similarly distorted the truth to attack the judiciary.

EDIT - Reflecting on this post I think I should make something clear. Although Tom Delay and John Cornyn can be classified as theocrats, and the charge of activism is relegated mostly to fundamentalist issues, not all politicans who use the phrase "judicial activists" are themselves theocrats. Judges that have made decisions unfavorable to industry, business, or administration have also been labeled activists. Basically, the term has been used to attack any court that makes a decision that the person making the charge of activism finds unsavory.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Deepak Chopra - voice of reason?

I am typically fairly critical of New Age movements, but I must give credit where credit is due, as amidst the horible debate surrounding the death of Terry Schiavo, Deepak Chopra stands out in my mind as one of the most level headed voices to speak on the subject. From last Thursday's episode of Scarborough County:

CHOPRA: Well, life begins when your father has a gleam in his eye for your mother, goes for a picnic, and you come back. You know, today it all depends on our culture, it depends on our religious beliefs, it depends on the hypnosis of social conditioning, it depends on our mythology. There‘s no clear-cut answer. Biologically, life is always there, even in the sperm. You know, the sperm is a living structure, a living cell. It is moving. It takes in nutrition. Life is there when the ovum is fertilized. Life is there when the fetus is born. Ultimately, I think for practical purposes, we have to define life as consciousness, consciousness which is awareness, which is also perception, which is cognition, which is moods, feelings, emotions, social interactions, relationships, behavior, and biology. When you put all of that together, we have a living being that can express their consciousness through the five senses and respond to the world. And that‘s the only definition we can go by because otherwise we will be arguing forever.

I think we go into a deep self-examination. That‘s her legacy. Are we going to collectively, honestly examine these issues? What is life? What is quality of life? What is quality of death? What is dignity in living and dying?

Michel de Montaigne - the patron saint of bloggers

"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think." - Montaigne, paraphrasing Cicero

Michel de Montaigne, the humanist and skeptic creator of the personal essay, was a man who lived his life with the single purpose of self-reflection and education, and whose inquisitive mind drove him to write about nearly every aspect of the human experience in his masterpiece Essays.

The reason I cite Montaigne as being the spiritual father of blogging is that he intended for the use of the essay, which means "an attempt," to be attempts to communicate some aspect of his experience, not only to others, but to himself as well, in order to engender thought and reflection.

Some time ago I had worked on a draft to publish here which I had titled "The meaning of death" in which I attempted to explain how a humanist faces death. The main gist of it went

"Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not" - Epicurus

There is nothing to fear from death because there will be no "you" to worry about being dead - you simply won't be. Fear of death is in itself something of a premature burial (a point which did not escape Edgar Allan Poe) because it wastes the time we do exist by worrying about time that has no relevance to us. This isn't to say one should not avoid death, but the best way to do such is to concentrate on living your life and utilizing every moment that you do exist.
But I never published it, partly because this same sentiment echoes and is more eloquently elaborated in Montaigne's essay "That to study philosophy is to learn to die"* which had already been written many hundreds of years ago. In it Montaigne found that "the value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them." Patron saint indeed.

*The quotes in the text are in their original language. If you feel inclined to further read Montaigne I suggest making sure you find an edition that translates his quotes.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Proof that tv news stations have lost all sense of integrity

The news channels are still continuing Pope death watch coverage, but I just saw MSNBC take a few minutes to cover some other news. One story that was mentioned was that the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had come under attack by insurgents and that 18 American casualties resulted - this is major breaking news right? Apparently not, as MSNBC quickly cut back to Pope watch and Fox and CNN will not interrupt their "breaking" story about the imminent death of the Pope to give us this news.

Fox, MSNBC, and CNN on news hiatus

For the last 24 hours Fox, MSNBC, and CNN have given us non-stop death watch coverage of the Pope at the expense of all other news. Their coverage of this story has been obsessive.

Is the imminent death of an 84 year old man whose health has been failing for years now really a story that merits a moratorium on all other news? For example, Robert Mugabe, one of the world's most terrible dictators, stole another election from the people of Zimbabwe yesterday and will now attempt to rewrite the country's constitution so that he can appoint his succesor rather than allow another election, yet these three channels couldn't be bothered to break away from the shot of the ouside of the Pope's apt for long enough to make mention of this.

Yes, the death of the Pope is certainly news worthy. It is not, however, a story that merits such disproportionate coverage at the expense of all other news.

Friday, April 01, 2005

UN will send Sudanese war criminals to the ICC

Yesterday the UN voted to send war criminals from Sudan to the International Criminal Court after the US withdrew its opposition to the resolution once immunity for American peacekeepers from the court was granted.

The passage of this resolution represents the removal of one of the main obstacles to international efforts to end the violence in Sudan.