Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cry me a river

"I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror." - Alberto Gonzales (via Glenn Greenwald)

Right, poor Alberto Gonzales ... people say mean things about him merely because he helped provide pseudo-legal rational for torture which led to persons being "interrogated" to death.

And don't you just love how one of America's Great American Hypocrites views himself as a soldier wounded in the war on terror, equating the criticism he's recieved for his role in Bush administration lawlessness with real soldiers like the ones sent into a ruinous war by his boss who came back home with severe injuries only to be met with inadequate care at Walter Reed.

Real Climate's 2008 recap

The invaluable Real Climate goes over the climate related highlights of 2008. My personal favorite is:

The S. Fred Singer award for the most dizzying turn-around of a climate pseudo-skeptic: Dennis Avery: "Global warming is likely to continue" (2006) , to global warming is "unstoppable" (2006), to "Say Good-Bye To Global Warming And Hello To Global Cooling!" (2008).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Study finds abstinence-only pledge ineffective

From the Washington Post

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.
Once again reality fails to conform to the dictates of religious fundamentalism, to the detriment of youths who are being taught ignorance of human sexuality.

The latest discount books I've acquired

Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World by Susan Sterrett (HC) for $3.20.

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald for free! Ok, this one wasn't really a "discount" so much as it was a Christmas present. I plan on reading this in conjunction with Gore Vidal's Lincoln so that I can compare the real history to Vidal's self-purported historical accuracy (which is dubious.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Blog spotlight

Here are a couple of blogs you might want to add to your bookmarks (I just added them to mine.)

Science Insider -This is Science magazine's new blog. It features "Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy."

The Pump Handle - "A water cooler for the public health crowd." From the About page

The Pump Handle is a place for people interested in public health and the environment to discuss the issues that interest us, particularly when they’re not getting the treatment we think they deserve in the mainstream media.

The story of the pump handle is familiar to any first-semester public health student: During the London cholera epidemic of 1854, John Snow examined maps of cholera cases and traced the disease to water from a local pump. At the time, the prevailing theory held that cholera spread through the air, rather than water, so Snow faced criticism from others in the science community – not to mention resistance from the water companies. He finally convinced community leaders to remove the pump’s handle to prevent further exposure.

More than a century later, thousands of people still die from cholera each year, and providing clean drinking water to the world’s entire population is a far-off goal. The Pump Handle symbolizes both a public health victory and the challenges facing the public health and environmental fields today.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Eastern Tennessee gets coal in its stocking for Christmas

R.I.P. clean coal.

On Monday, toxic coal sludge burst through a retention wall in eastern Tennessee, causing massive property and environmental damage. Federal studies have shown that coal ash contains “significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems.” The incident — already being called the “largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States” — may now be even worse than originally anticipated. Tennessee Valley Authority officials “initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled” in the disaster. Yesterday, however, they “released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.”
Of course, "clean coal" was supposed to be a response to global warming, so the coal industry might maintain that it's still "clean" in that regard, but this is of course also untrue, as Sheldon Rampton at the Center for Media and Democracy points out

David Roberts, an environmental writer for, has written a great critique of the coal industry's "clean coal" campaign, pointing out that "it's an obvious scam -- easily exposed, easily debunked. Just because it's obvious, though, doesn't mean the media won't fall for it. Indeed, the entire 'clean coal' propaganda push is premised on the media's gullibility."

Roberts notes, as have others including a recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), that "the companies funding 'clean coal' PR aren't spending much on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research." They have therefore made no progress in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that make coal a potent cause of global warming. The concept of "clean coal" was invented to answer concerns about global warming, and its advocates play a rhetorical game of bait-and-switch on precisely this topic. When pressed about how coal can be clean, Roberts observes, "they revert to the other definition of 'clean' -- the notion that coal plants have reduced their emissions of traditional air pollutants like particulates and mercury (as opposed to greenhouse gases)."

Friday, December 26, 2008

The top 100 science stories of 2008

Discover magazine's Top 100 list for this year is now online. As always, the list is full of fascinating science info ... here's a sample from the #100 story.

For the first time, scientists have calculated the force of the bite of a white shark. The bite of the largest of white sharks turns out to be not only the most powerful for any living species yet measured, but probably among the most powerful even for any extinct species.

Quote of the day

"There can be no scientific dispute with respect to faith, for science and faith exclude one another. Not that one makes the other impossible, or vice versa, but rather that belief has no place as far as science reaches, and may be first permitted to take root where science stops." - Rudolph Virchow, "On Man" (1849), collected in Disease, Life and Man (1958)

Virchow appears to have been an early proponent of Stephen Jay Gould's "nonoverlapping magisteria." Although I don't agree with either that religion and science don't conflict or overlap (the real world demonstrates that they actually and often do), I do appreciate the sentiment expressed by both, as it is far superior to that of fanatics who believe that "science" should only exist to the extent that it can be put in service of their beliefs.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

One of the greatest cult Christmas movies ever (abridged)

I have to say, I think this might have been my all-time favorite episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The whole episode - MST3K 0521 - can be viewed in 9 parts at YouTube.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In addition to dishonest, he's also delusional

Think Progress notes that when questioned by David Shuster about his bogus anti-global warming list, Sen. James Inhofe asserted that the majority of scientists do not "believe" in anthropogenic global warming.

I defer to New Scientist

Climate change sceptics sometimes claim that many leading scientists question climate change. Well, it all depends on what you mean by "many" and "leading". For instance, in April 2006, 60 "leading scientists" signed a letter urging Canada's new prime minister to review his country's commitment to the Kyoto protocol.

This appears to be the biggest recent list of sceptics. Yet many, if not most, of the 60 signatories are not actively engaged in studying climate change: some are not scientists at all and at least 15 are retired.

Compare that with the dozens of statements on climate change from various scientific organisations around the world representing tens of thousands of scientists, the consensus position represented by the IPCC reports and the 11,000 signatories to a petition condemning the Bush administration's stance on climate science.

The fact is that there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community about global warming and its causes. There are some exceptions, but the number of sceptics is getting smaller rather than growing.


Of course, just because most scientists think something is true does not necessarily mean they are right. But the reason they think the way they do is because of the vast and growing body of evidence. A study in 2004 looked at the abstracts of nearly 1000 scientific papers containing the term "global climate change" published in the previous decade. Not one rejected the consensus position. One critic promptly claimed this study was wrong - but later quietly withdrew the claim.

Mercenary science

From the Center for Media and Democracy

Source: New York Times, December 12, 2008

According to internal documents, the pharmaceutical company Wyeth "paid ghostwriters to produce medical journal articles favorable to its female hormone replacement therapy Prempro." As early as 1997, Wyeth paid the "medical writing firm" DesignWrite to publish favorable journal articles about Prempro under academics' names. "Company executives came up with ideas" for the articles, "titled them, drafted outlines, paid writers to draft the manuscripts, recruited academic authors and identified publications to run the articles -- all without disclosing the companies' roles to journal editors or readers." Wyeth previously claimed that authors had "played significant roles" in journal articles. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published one ghostwritten article in May 2003, a year after Wyeth's Prempro was linked to breast cancer (which recent findings confirmed). The ghostwritten article, published under the name of Australian professor John Eden, claimed there was "no definitive evidence" linking hormone therapy to cancer. Just before the federal study linking Prempro to cancer was published, a Wyeth executive asked DesignWrite "to increase the number of positive journal articles" on Premarin, another Wyeth hormone replacement drug.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Random knowledge of the day

From Hendrik Hertzberg

I’ve had a spate of e-mails telling me that, in my Comment on the California anti-gay-marriage initiative, I was wrong to say that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was “lynched.” Rather, they point out, he was shot and killed.

These e-mailers are under the impression that hanging is intrinsic to lynching. Not so. My desk dictionary (the American Heritage College one) defines “lynch” as “To execute without due process of law, esp. to hang, as by a mob.” In other words, while lynching always involves extrajudicial execution by a mob, it only sometimes involves hanging.

In 1844, in Carthage, Illinois, Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, and three other top Mormons were pumped full of bullets by members of a mob that stormed the jail where they were being held on suspicion of treason against the state of Illinois. Last weekend, in Brooklyn, a gang of bigots shouting anti-gay and anti-Latino epithets murdered an Ecuadorean immigrant, Joé Sucuzhañay. Yesterday, in the Times, an editorial deploring the murder was headlined “A Lynching in Brooklyn.” Sucuzhañay was beaten to death. His murder, like the murders of Joseph Smith and his colleagues, was “a savage, hate-inspired crime.” And, yes, both were lynchings.
Update: Further clarification.

Another low moment for America thanks to reactionary religion

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, The United States is the only western democracy that would not sign a U.N. resolution in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality. "There was broad opposition from Muslim nations" and the Vatican reports the AP.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference gave the same reason for opposing gay rights as our American fundamentalists give: they believed it would lead to '"the social normalization and possibly the legalization of deplorable acts" such as pedophilia and incest.'

This is, of course, Dinesh D'Souza's dream come true. "Patriarchal" Muslim fundamentalists get to join forces with "conservative" Christian nationalists to fight nefarious Liberal oppression in the form of "human rights."

In his new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, far-right provocateur Dinesh D'Souza argues that Al Qaeda really does hate our freedoms--and so does he. Forget geopolitics--Israel/Palestine, US military bases in Saudi Arabia, our support for assorted corrupt regimes, Arab socioeconomic stagnation. No, 9/11 was provoked by feminism, birth control, abortion, pornography, feminism, Hollywood, divorce, the First Amendment, gay marriage, and did I mention feminism? Muslims fear the West is out to foist its depraved, licentious, secular "decadence" on their pious patriarchal societies. And, D'Souza argues, they're right. Working mothers! Will & Grace! Child pornography! Our vulgar, hedonistic, gender-egalitarian, virally expanding NGO-promoted values so offend "traditional Muslims" that they have thrown in their lot with Osama and other America-haters. At times D'Souza sounds like he can barely keep from enlisting himself: "American conservatives should join Muslims and others in condemning the global moral degeneracy that is produced by liberal values."
Which is why he must be thrilled that America under the leadership of George W. Bush has been putting his beliefs into practice for some time now. As the Washington Post reported back in '02

Conservative U.S. Christian organizations have joined forces with Islamic governments to halt the expansion of sexual and political protections and rights for gays, women and children at United Nations conferences.

The new alliance, which coalesced during the past year, has received a major boost from the Bush administration, which appointed antiabortion activists to key positions on U.S. delegations to U.N. conferences on global economic and social policy.

But it has been largely galvanized by conservative Christians who have set aside their doctrinal differences, cemented ties with the Vatican and cultivated fresh links with a powerful bloc of more than 50 moderate and hard-line Islamic governments, including Sudan, Libya, Iraq and Iran. "We look at them as allies, not necessarily as friends," said Austin Ruse, founder and president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a New York-based organization that promotes conservative values at U.N. social conferences. "We have realized that without countries like Sudan, abortion would have been recognized as a universal human right in a U.N. document."

The alliance of conservative Islamic states and Christian organizations has placed the Bush administration in the awkward position of siding with some of its most reviled adversaries -- including Iraq and Iran -- in a cultural skirmish against its closest European allies, which broadly support expanding sexual and political rights.
Here's something I wrote about the implications of D'Souza's book a while back

Despite D'souza's presentation of himself as just a controversial thinker who is hated for stating unpleasant truths, I consider him to be a hate-monger on par with the likes of Father Coughlin or Henry Ford. In the book, D'Souza says that if you're a member of the ACLU you are part of an organization that is at least as dangerous as Bin Laden's American sleeper cells, for example.

And then that becomes fodder for the noise machine "liberal" bashers to continue their demonological scapegoating of "liberals" as an Eternal Enemy of the United States. But to illustrate the full implication of D'Souza's book, let's take a look at what prototype-of-what-an-American-fascism-might-look-like Christian nationalist Republican Mark Noonan, of Blogs for Bush, has to say about the book.

D'Souza is arguing, essentially, that the Islamo-fascists have a point - that our cultural depravity, exported by our seductive popular culture, is viewed as a threat in traditional societies, especially the very socially conservative Islamic societies. While deprecating the concept that the enemy hates us for what we are, D'Souza asserts that the enemy does hate us for what they think we are - a Godless society sunk into the worst sort of pagan iniquity.I really can't argue with that - anyone looking at us from the outside would see a Godless society sunk into moral depravity ...
Over the past 40 years or so, our society has been ripped to shreds by the cultural left - a body of people who have probably never exceeded 20% of the American population, but who have been very successful at imposing their worldview upon American civilizaiton.
Please note,that this a plainly fascist motif. The decay and fall of the nation due to secular liberal decadence. Noonan continues

What remains of the Judeo-Christian west (70% of America, 40% of Canada, 20% of Europe) is under double-siege: beset on all sides by Islamo-fascists and leftist who, for varying reasons, want it destroyed. Caught between these two fires, it is often hard to figure out whom to fight first. As for me, I reckon that the external enemy is the greater threat, but in the by and by we must finally confront the domestic left and force it out of power and influence.
Like I said: fascist. Considering that Noonan believes that we should be fighting an all-or-nothing war to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth and that he has in this passage equated "Islamo-fascists" and "leftist(s)" the bit about confronting the left and forcing it out of power and influence certainly takes on an ominous tone.
Like the "Islamo-fascists" Noonan so despises who can make no distinction between the state and their religion, for him his religion is a political faith in which the notion of a good and true American is inseperable from his particular brand of reactionary "conservative" Christianity. Witness Noonan's most recent palingenetic rant against liberalism. Notice how Noonan talks of unity but in fact is busy branding a large segment of the American population as not merely, un-American, but as enemies of civilization.

And so, the problem is not how to mesh conservatism with Christianity - they are essentially one and the same - but how to mesh conservatism with a society damaged to its core by liberalism. All who adhere to conservatism have a role to play here, so let us all leave off ... all talk of whom to purge. We need to unite on what we agree on, and battle against those who war against us all, the Jews liberals.
Ok, I added in the striked out part.*

[Blogger's Note] - Slight editing since first posted

*Note for grammar cops. The html code is "strike", hence the use of striked. Strangely enough, I suspect that were the code simply an "s" I'd feel inclined to use struck.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Does Inhofe's dishonesty know any bounds?

Following up on Sen. James Inhofe's pathetic attempt to recycle his bogus global warming denialist list from last year and pass it off - again - as a Senate minority report, Deltoid has written several more posts further demonstrating how lacking in intellectual standards Inhofe is.

Both times that I've written about this list I've mentioned that Inhofe employs the same poor reasoning and dishonesty that creationists use when they create similar lists about evolution. Tim Lambert points out that Inhofe's list is actually more dishonest than the anti-evolution list at the Discovery Institute (home of ID Creationism.) And 5 names appear on both lists.

Another post notes that there are 618 Working Group 1 authors of the IPCC report, but merely 3 of these names appear on Inhofe's list. Of the three, two were quote-mined and do not belong on the list.

And another example of quote-mining

Reporters seem to have wised up to Inhofe's game and the list has been mostly ignored in the media. Here in Australia, that means that all the AGW denialist columnists will write about it, and sure enough, here's Miranda Devine in today's paper

They include Japanese scientist Dr Kiminori Itoh, who was an expert reviewer for last year's United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, who declared global warming the "worst scientific scandal in [history]". Former NASA atmospheric scientist Dr Joanne Simpson is quoted: "Since I am no longer affiliated with any organisation nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly ... As a scientist I remain sceptical."
OK, let's look at those two. I wonder what Inhofe hid with that ellipsis? Here's a fuller quote from Simpson:

What should we as a nation do? Decisions have to be made on incomplete information. In this case, we must act on the recommendations of Gore and the IPCC because if we do not reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and the climate models are right, the planet as we know it will in this century become unsustainable. But as a scientist I remain skeptical.
And she goes on to talk about how NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission can provide more complete information by testing the predictions of climate models. Simpson is skeptical, but she's using the word with its original meaning, not the way that "global warming skeptics" use it.
It is true that Itoh was an IPCC reviewer - which he means he did not contribute to the science of the report - and Lambert points out that the changes he proposed were relatively minor given the grandiosity of his claims. Regardless, Itoh is not a climate scientist and has not published peer reviewed materal on the subject (although he has written a denialist book.)

It's also probably worth noting that the compiler of the list - Marc Morano - was previously employed by America's king of misinformation Rush Limbaugh.

Update: Lambert took a look at an HIV denial list and found five names that appear on both lists.

New study replicates findings of the Milgram experiment

From 80beats

In a new study, most people willingly pulled a lever to deliver pain to others when instructed to do so, showing that little has changed in the near half-century since psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Milgram’s experiment revealed our propensity to do harm when encouraged by authority, a topic of great interest in the post-World War II years. A new iteration of the experiment (with added precautions) revealed that seven out of ten people will give painful electric shocks to another person as part of what they are told is a scientific investigation. “What we found is validation of the same argument—if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways,” [Reuters] says researcher Jerry Burger.
The post goes on to point out that "Burger believes his study demonstrates not only the power of blind obedience, but also that certain situations normalize immoral behavior. In this case, the gradual incremental nature of the task—administering slightly more painful shocks each time—may have eased the shift from normal behavior, he suggests."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Washington on torture

From The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

In the Revolutionary War, George Washington and the Contintenal Army were regarded by the British as treasonous, “illegal combatants” undeserving the protections of legitimate soldiers, the same category into which the Bush administration was casting terror suspects. As a result, the British freely brutalized and killed American prisoners of war, in conditions considered scandalous even in that day. In contrast, Washington ordered American troops to take a higher road in keeping with the ideals of the new republic. He insisted that enemy captives must be given food and medical attention and be housed in conditions that were no worse than those of the American soldiers. In directives still eloquent today, he ordered his troops to treat British war prisoners “with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of us copying the brutal manner of the British Army … While we are contending for our own liberty we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case, are they answerable.”

Washington’s orders, which became the backbone of American military doctrine until 2001, were not simply gestures of kindness or even morality. They sprang also from a shrewd calculation that brutality undermines military discipline and strengthens the enemy’s resolve, while displays of humanity could be used to tactical advantage. As David Hackett Fisher wrote in Washington’s Crossing, his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, the superior treatment of enemy captives by American soldiers bolstered their morale and fomented desertion among the British and Hessian soldiers. In so doing, he wrote, “They reversed the momentum of the war. They improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. They chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.”

President Bush sacrifices your health to his religion

From The Wall of Separation

The lame-duck administration has issued sweeping guidelines that allegedly “protect” the religious freedom rights of health-care workers.

What the new regs really do is infringe on your rights. As The Washington Post reported, “The far-reaching regulation cuts off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in care they find ethically, morally or religiously objectionable. It was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.”

Translation: If your pharmacist doesn’t want to fill a birth-control prescription given to you by a doctor because it offends his religious sensibilities, he doesn’t have to. If you’re a gay woman exploring in-vitro fertilization, a worker at the lab can bring the process to a screeching halt by refusing to assist. Catholic hospitals can refuse to provide certain types of critical care, such as morning-after pills, to rape victim.
Once again we see religious freedom defined as the right to impose one's religious beliefs on others with the power of the state. As I've said before, that ain't religious freedom:

Freedom of religion is not the freedom to become a pharmacist and then deny patients legally prescribed medication because of your personal moral objections to the patient's life choices. That's not freedom of religion. That's the freedom to oppress others ... sorry, fundamentalists, you don't have that right.
Heck, what's next? Some junior Falwell-type pharmacist thinks HIV is a punishment from God and won't fill prescriptions to gay men, gets fired then maybe the entire state gets its funding cut? Are you kidding me? This is why Republicans do not deserve to win an election for a very long time ... for at least as long as they continue to want to March to Gilead.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good old fashioned journalism

Jim Lippard reminds that the Center for Public Integrity has been busy publishing new investigative reports (several of which he provides links to.) Right now I'm reading through the report on the industry campaign to manufacture pseudo-doubt about the science of global warming.

Enron'ing the Iraqi reconstruction

Enron'ing: using deceptive tactics to create the illusion of prosperity in the face of severe decline or failure
From the New York Times (via dday)

An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.


Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the United States government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program on anything approaching this scale.
The entire draft is available in a searchable online version at the Times.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quote of the day

"I feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake." - Helen Keller, describing Mark Twain in her autobiography The Story of My Life

Enough with the "czars" already!

The Wall Street Journal writes about the rise of appointed "czars" within the White House.

On Monday, Mr. Obama will name former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner as a White House energy czar, along with other officials to head the Energy Department and EPA. Over the weekend, he announced New York City housing commissioner Shaun Donovan as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and he is also planning to name an urban-affairs czar to work out of the White House, likely Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion.

He has already named an economic czar, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, to look at big-picture economic issues -- while he also has a Council of Economic Advisers, a National Economic Council and a large Treasury Department right next door.

He has made former Sen. Tom Daschle a health czar of sorts, in addition to making him secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Congress came close to creating a car czar, and even though that legislation died, the idea could return. And public interest groups are lobbying for a consumer czar.
And there's also "the drug czar, The Iraq War Czar, a proposed Import Czar and let’s not forget the AIDS Czar" and Clinton's call for a poverty Czar.

Ok, look. "Czar" is a derivation of the imperial title of Caesar. It makes about as much sense to be appointing Czars in America as it would to appoint Kings or Dukes. Indeed, the revolutionary founders of this nation as children dreamed of being Roman statesmen and considered the ending of the Roman Republic by Julius Caesar to be one of history's greatest tragedies - and Ceasar one of history's greatest villains! From Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

The Roman Republic was so idolized, in fact, that the moderns considered Julius Caesar (who, they believed, ended it) one of the greatest villain in world history, a tyrant so vile that the most painful epithet hurled at Washington during his tumultuous second term as president would be "American Caesar!"
These founders decided against regal titles for the new nation's elected officers in order to signify a move away from aristocracy towards democracy and meritocracy: a proposal of a title of "czar" - and most especially a war czar - for any position would have been unthinkable, blasphemous.

This stuff is important because it conditions the way we think about ourselves in relation to government and its function; we shouldn't be getting used to the idea of having people with the title of an emperor running various aspects of the federal government. The WSJ notes that 'the problem is that "czars" are meant to be all-powerful people who can rise above the problems that plague the federal agencies, he said, but in the end, they can't.' The "problem" alluded to is one of functionality, that the czars aren't able to do their jobs, but to me the real and larger problem is that we've gotten to a point that we're expecting "all-powerful" persons to solve problems in the first place. That's the sort of expectation that has its place under autocratic rule of priests and monarchs, not democratic rule of Law and Reason.

The article also states that the rise of the "Czar" is concomitant with the centralization of governmental power in the office of the presidency; a problem which Gene Healy wrote about at length in The Cult of the Presidency.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

December 10th marked 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - an underappreciated global Bill of Rights - was adopted by the member states of the UN. AC Grayling honored the occasion with a ten day series of blog posts about the importance and significance of the UDHR.

"A revolutionary statement"
"Building a base of liberty"
"Freedom without borders"
"Our debt to Magna Carta"
"We know where you live"
"The return of Jix"
"A place called home"
"Speak for yourself"
"A provocative aspiration"
"Rome was not built in a day"

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sen. Inhofe's absurd list: new and improved with more absurdity!

Last year Sen. James Inhofe released a phony list of 400 "scientists" who dissent from the global warming consensus. As I pointed out in that link, Inhofe employed the exact style of reasoning that creationists use when they come up with similar lists of critics of evolution. Well, as malcontent pointed out in comments, Inhofe has re-released the list with an additional 250 names added on and more disinformation and nonsense to boot.

At Climate Progress (via Deltoid) you can see how completely disconnected from reality the claims made by Inhofe are. The people of Oklahoma should be embarrased to keep sending someone so intellectually dishonest and apparently unable to reason critically to the U.S. Senate.

It is terribly disconcerting that someone who is so transparently a mouthpiece of industry and who has the mental acuity of a flat-Earther was able to become chairman of the Committee on Environment & Public Works. Thankfully, he is no longer chair since Democrats have become the majority, but he is still a ranking member.

Update: It's worth reiterating that while Inhofe's staffer Marc Morano is calling the list a "U.S. Senate Minority Report" it's actually just something Inhofe's office put together.

And I left out my favorite part from the Climate Progress post:

Meteorologist George Waldenberger is on the [original 2007] list. In response, George sent an email to Inhofe's staffers that began:

Take me off your list of 400 (Prominent) Scientists that dispute Man-Made Global warming claims. I've never made any claims that debunk the "Consensus".

You quoted a newspaper article that's main focus was scoring the accuracy of local weathermen. Hardly Scientific ... yet I'm guessing some of your other sources pale in comparison in terms of credibility.

You also didn't ask for my permission to use these statements. That's not a very respectable way of doing "research".
Yet, as Dessler notes, "he's still on the list."

And he is still on the "new" 2008 list [PDF] from Inhofe's office!

Best use of an '80s group in a satirical program

Friday, December 12, 2008

Anatomy of corruption

The AP reports on how Freddie Mac fought off regulations via lobbying and giving Congress members choice Washington Nationals seats. But my favorite part is pointed out by the Center for Media and Democracy:

Source:, December 9, 2008

In September 2008, as the U.S. Congress "was debating the first financial bailout, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Fox News to decry how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had so 'many politicians beholden to them' that no one would step up to protect the American taxpayers," notes But, as it turns out, Freddie Mac paid Gingrich $300,000 in 2006, "to push back against tough, new regulations of the mortgage company at a time the Bush administration was concerned about how big the two government-backed mortgage giants had become." After taking the money, Gingrich "talked and wrote about what he saw as the benefits of the Freddie Mac business model," reported the Associated Press. The Gingrich hire was part of an effort to woo conservatives; Freddie Mac also hired Frank Luntz and the DCI Group in 2005. Freddie Mac spent $11.7 million on outside lobbyists and consultants in 2006; 17 firms focused on Republicans, while four focused on Democrats. Freddie also hired Gingrich in 1999, "to provide strategic counsel," notes TPMMuckraker.
I guess Gingrich thinks history is bunk.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New video news site

A volunteer from The Real News Network sent me this link - which advertises the goals and purpose of the site - asking me to post it. So there it is.

The first thing that caught my eye is the series of George Monbiot video interviews they'll be putting up on climate change.

Thank you, Alaska

My latest used library book purchase is a hardcover edition of It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush by Joe Conason for 3 dollars. It's from the Anchorage library system.

I've already read this book before but wanted to have it in my collection, since before it's publication I had been wanting for some time (several years) someone to write a book with that concept (exploring the relevance of Sinclair Lewis's dystopia It Can't Happen Here to current conditions in America.) An excerpt and introduction of the book can be read, here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Pat Boone tops Newt Gingrich

"What troubles me so deeply, and should trouble all thinking Americans, is that there is a real, unbroken line between the jihadist savagery in Mumbai and the hedonistic, irresponsible, blindly selfish goals and tactics of our homegrown sexual jihadists. Hate is hate, no matter where it erupts. And by its very nature, if it's not held in check, it will escalate into acts vile, violent and destructive." - Pat Boone, apparently fearing an impending rampage of gay terrorism

And I thought Gingrich's charge of a "gay and secular fascism" sweeping across America was about as bad as it could get. Not only does outclass Gingrich in terms of hysteria, but also in stupidity: my favorite part is when he says violence was only incidental to the ending of slavery.

I defer to Jeffrey Feldman on what Boone is arguing

It is worth pausing for a moment to describe in our own terms exactly what Pat Boone is arguing. If we accept his logic, we are supposed to believe statements that look can be reduced down along these lines:

1. Californians protesting the organizations that funded and passed an anti-equal-rights ballot measure are the same as terrorists who tortured and murdered hundred of innocent people in Mumbai.
2. Protesters who speak out against the sponsors of discriminatory ballot measures are the same as terrorists who kill innocent people.
3. Protesters who speak out are the same as terrorists who kill.
4. Protesters are terrorists
This is about the most absurd extension of the Christian persecution complex that one can possibly imagine: merely protesting discriminatory legislation originating from religious bigotry is redefined by Boone as an act of impending violence and terrorism.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Quote of the day

"Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that, in the administration of the criminal law, the end justifies the means -- to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal -- would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this Court should resolutely set its face." - Justice Lewis Brandeis, Olmstead v. United States (1928)

Jane Mayer used a shorter version of the quote in The Dark Side, which is where I got it from. It's worth noting that this dissent from Justice Brandeis was in regards to the government having unlawfully wiretapped citizens.

Kentucky law states fictional entity responsible for state security

You can't make this stuff up.

My first thought actually was that the article was a hoax, but sure enough, Kentucky Code 39G.010(2)(a) requires the Executive Director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security to:

Publicize the findings of the General Assembly stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth by including the provisions of KRS 39A.285(3) in its agency training and educational materials. The executive director shall also be responsible for prominently displaying a permanent plaque at the entrance to the state's Emergency Operations Center stating the text of KRS 39A.285(3)
If you're wondering what KRS 39A.285(3) says, here it is:

The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln's historic March 30, 1863, Presidential Proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy's November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: "For as was written long ago: 'Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'"
I was going to bother writing something explaining why this is about a clear a violation of the First amendment as you can have, but I see that Austin Cline has already done so.

The provisions here are religious on a number of levels. First, it requires official endorsement for belief not just in the existence of "a" god, but belief in the existence of a very particular god: the god of western monotheism. The references to "Almighty God" and Pslam 127:1 prevent this from being an endorsement of a very general sort of deity that might theoretically include anything from deism to strict monotheism.

Second, these provisions promote a particular relationship with this deity: people are told that they must trust and rely upon this deity for their security and safety needs. Although it's not made very explicit, the traditions of western religious monotheism teach that this reliance requires absolute submission to the will and desires of this god. It is absolutely necessary for people to have "faith" in God and submit to God in order to receive the "blessings" of security and safety.

Third, a civil servant is co-opted into performing religious duties. When church and state are separated, religious duties are performed by religious authorities within the churches. This would necessarily include promoting the idea that we must be dependent upon God for our security. Here, the state government of Kentucky is assuming the authority to provide people with religious instruction about what sort of relationship they should have with what sort of deity.

Citizens are thus being instructed to become dependent upon and submissive to some alleged god for the sake of their safety rather than become proactive and assuming responsibility for their own well-being. Since there are no gods around speaking to us and giving us instruction, the only way for people to receive instructions from God is through human beings who assume the authority [of government] to speak on behalf of God.
This is why secularists - people believing in a secular government which respects freedom of conscience - should be opposed to such things as "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as a national motto. They are used by Christian nationalists to lay the ideological groundwork for subverting democratic government into theocratic government. It's easy to see how once you link state or national security to "reliance upon Almighty God" one could then start making arguments that banning abortion is a matter of national security because otherwise God won't protect the nation (recall Robertson and Fallwell blaming 9/11 on secularists and abortion).

Such provisions and so-called harmless symbolic acknowledgements are a step away from democratic government and a step towards theocratic authoritarianism. That in itself should be enough for alarm, for, paraphrasing Madison, we can see in the principle itself all the consequences, and thus avoid the consequences by negating the principle.

I'm reminded of Roger Ebert on vertical vs. horizontal prayer

This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer--vertical and horizontal. I don't have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot ... Although some of the horizontal devout are sincere, others use this prayer as a device of recruitment or intimidation. If you are conspicuous in your refusal to go along, they may even turn and pray while holding you directly in their sights.

This simple insight about two kinds of prayer, which is beyond theological question, should bring a dead halt to the obsession with prayer in public places. It doesn't, because the purpose of its supporters is political, not spiritual.


Under Bush we have had a great deal of horizontal prayer, in which we evoke the deity at political events to send the sideways message that our enemies had better look out, because God is on our side. This week's Newsweek cover story reports that the Bush presidency ''is the most resolutely 'faith-based' in modern times.''

Because our enemies are for the most part more enthusiastic about horizontal prayer than we are, and see absolutely no difference between church and state--indeed, want to make them the same--it is alarming to reflect that they may be having more success bringing us around to their point of view than we are at sticking to our own traditional American beliefs about freedom of religion. When Ashcroft and his enemies both begin their days with displays of their godliness, do we feel safer after they rise from their devotions.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A man unhinged

Sitting on my bookshelf is a large collection of thoughtful and intelligent essays titled Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004. It's written by former Carter presidential speechwriter and New Yorker political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg. I read through the collection thinking I was reading mainstream liberal thought (because I was.)

Yet when Hertzberg saw fit to criticize - as I did - Bill O'Reilly and Newt Gingrich for fabricating a "gay and secular fascism" sweeping the country in the aftermath of an Obama victory he became a "far left zealot" - according to Bill O'Reilly. Here's the section that set off O'Reilly:

Like a polluted swamp, anti-gay bigotry is likely to get thicker and more toxic as it dries up. Viciousness meets viscousness. “Look,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said the other day (on the air, to Bill O’Reilly), “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence. . . . I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion. And I think if you believe in historic Christianity, you have to confront the fact.” For diversity’s sake, he added that “the historic version of Islam” and “the historic version of Judaism” are likewise menaced—which is natural, given that gay, secular, fascist values are “the opposite of what you’re taught in Sunday school.”

This sort of sludge may or may not prove to be of some slight utility in the 2012 Republican primaries, but it is, increasingly, history. A couple of days before the California vote, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wildermuth noticed a “No on Prop 8” sign on a front lawn. The lawn and the sign belonged to Steve Young, the football Hall of Famer and former 49er quarterback, and his wife, Barb. Steve Young is a graduate of Brigham Young University, which is named for his great-great-great-grandfather. The Youngs still belong to the Mormon Church. “We believe all families matter and we do not believe in discrimination,” Barb Young said. “Therefore, our family will vote against Prop 8.” It wasn’t enough this time. But the time is coming.
Wow! You can cut the "far left"-ishness of that with a knife!

Sarcasm aside, O'Reilly's problem with this is that he asserts it's taking Gingrich out of context because Hertzberg does not explain that Gingrich and O'Reilly were discussing an incident of gay activists running into a church during a service and proceeding to protest. Fair enough so far as that goes ... it would have been beneficial to add a sentence or two to provide the context.

But this is just an after the fact quibble that O'Reilly came up with to rationalize criticism, something that he is apparently pathologically unable to tolerate. Because Hertzberg is exactly right about Gingrich's statement being bigotry: an isolated incident of gay protesters interrupting a church service is hardly indicative that there is a "gay and secular fascism" trying to impose its will on America. What's more, I watched that exchange between O'Reilly and Gingrich and the impression I was sure that many of the viewers would get is that gay marriage was being imposed on America by a "gay and secular fascism!" Indeed, re-watching the footage in context that is the impression Gingrich gives - that the protesters are part of a gay/secular fascist movement trying to legalize gay marriage by intimidation. And of course, Hertzberg could have just as easily have chosen Bill O'Reilly's catergorization of gay marriage in Massachusetts as fascism - a claim which completely inverts the history of fascism* - as an example of irrational bigotry.

O'Reilly sent out his stalker producer to confront Hertzberg and Hertzberg's reaction is exactly the sort of response you'd expect: befuddlement. After getting over that initial response, Hertzberg cuts right to the heart of the matter, making the stalker producer look like a fool. O'Reilly, however, center of his own universe, seems to think the video demonstrates "all you need to know about the New Yorker magazine"(which had already been part of O'Reilly's enemies list for "defamation" (aka for linking to or relying on Media Matters' accurate and in context quoting of him.)

Hertzberg recounts the encounter here, and maintains that contrary to the assertion of O'Reilly, he was never invited on The O'Reilly Factor in the first place.

*The courts finding rights for minorities despite popular prejudice otherwise was not exactly the core of fascism, as practiced in, say, Nazi Germany.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tormentum insomniae

From The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

The effects of sleep deprivation ... were well known to be serious. Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister from 1977 to 1982, who was tortured by the KGB as a young man, described it as so difficult to withstand that it led quickly to false confessions. In his book White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia, he wrote, "In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep. Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.

"I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them - if they signed - uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days."

A former CIA officer, knowledgeable and supportive of the terrorist interrogation program, said simply, "Sleep deprivation works. Your electrolyte balance changes. You lose all balance and ability to think rationally. Stuff comes out." But even in the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae, professional torturers eschewed sleep deprivation, recognizing that the illusions and delusions it caused were more apt to produce false confessions than real ones. Historically, it was the favored choice only of witch hunters, who believed it accurately revealed evidence of pacts with the devil. For decades, it was defined in the United States as an illegal form of torture. An American Bar Association report, published in 1930 and cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, "It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired." But it became American policy in 2001, and continues to be.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Quote of the day

"To paraphrase David Riesman only slightly, in a world of printing, information is the gunpowder of the mind; hence come the censors in their austere robes to dampen the explosion." - Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Darwin and Marx led the Soviet Union?

Charles Darwin died in 1882, Marx in 1883. A mandatory presentation that was given to 1000 air force officers in England and e-mailed to 5000, however, asserted that Darwin and Marx were leaders of the totalitarian Soviet state - decades after their deaths! - and that's why the ideology of America is "theism." I am quite nearly speachless. Here's a key graphic from the hate-session, which was given under the pretense of being about suicide prevention

This is one of the most mind-numbingly dumb graphics I may have ever seen. First, evolution was rejected in the Soviet Union as being capitalist/fascist science in favor of Lysenkoism. Secondly, the contrast between the "ideology" of America and the Soviet Union is not Atheism/Theism but No freedom of conscience/freedom of conscience.* Thirdly, if you're trying to build a propaganda case for America being a theistic society Lincoln and Washington are hardly the best choices!

Lincoln was not a formal member of any religion and was theistically skeptical while Washington was basically a unitarian quasi-deist, as were many of the founders. [Source]

But more importantly, as Alonzo Fyfe puts it

This is a classic "us" verses "them" propaganda piece. Where "us", the "good guys", the ones who have lives worth living believe in God, and "them", "the enemy", "those the good guys are truly at war against", are those who do not believe in God.

As it stands, the people who used their air force authority to command attendance at this presentation should be treated no differently than if they had given a presentation in which "them" were the Jews and the nation of Israel, or "them" were blacks corrupting the pure and wholesome blood of the white race.

This case represents an abuse of authority and, unless it is punished, delivers the message that the official government position (the position that the government has the right to order those in uniform to learn) is that atheists are, in fact, the enemy, and deservedly regarded as such by all military officers.

We have a right to demand that the prestige and authority of the U.S. government not be put behind a message of hate such as this – and to punish those who use their authority as officers in the military to execute such a campaign of hate.
*Apparently, the person responsible for the graphic lacked the intelligence necessary to make the more obvious point of identifying Marxism as an ideology of the Soviet Union, which would at least have had the benefit of being true.

Update: I was remiss in not pointing out that one should read Chris Rodda's original post on this presentation for more on the context of this graphic.

Monday, December 01, 2008

How misinformation spreads

I already noted that Neal Boortz eagerly spread to his audience global warming denialism from the very non-credible David Bellamy. Despite Bellamy having made assertions that are demonstrably false, Boortz's audience will likely not become aware of that because those inclined to listen to Boortz in the first place are already deliberately tuning into a medium that is specifically designed to give listeners an alternative view of reality, where the non fact-checked opinion and beliefs of radio stars goes unchallenged as the authoritative view on any given subject, as an answer to what they perceive as the "liberal bias" of more credible sources of information.

I expect that from AM radio, but I expect better from print news, which should hold itself to a higher standard of intellectual honesty and objectivity. Yet we see the same creeping relativism at work. Case in point: Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate wondering why a columnist for the San Fransico Chronicle -Debra Saunders - was allowed to write a piece which was full of factually false claims about global warming that should not have survived fact-checking. Indeed, two of the main bogus points she makes are the same two false claims that Bellamy made. This is not surprising, given that she is using Bellamy as a source.

Why is Saunders able to pass along bogus information at odds with the science of the issue? I don't know enough about this particular instance to say for sure, but I can generalize that there is now a tendency in the press to blur the distinction between facts and opinion, categorizing assertions - whether they be facts or opinions - as either "liberal" or "conservative" and then granting each equal legitimacy be virtue of a person holding the view. As Molly Ivins put it

The American press has always had a tendency to assume that the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press presents the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its journalistic duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject.

Promoting murder

From The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

One year of the Afghan prison operation alone cost an estimated 100 million, which Congress hid in a classified annex of the first supplemental Afghan appropriation bill in 2002. Among the services that U.S. taxpayers unwittingly paid for were medieval-like dungeons, including a reviled former brick factory outside of Kabul known as "The Salt Pit." In 2004, a still-unidentified prisoner froze to death there after a young CIA supervisor ordered guards to strip him naked and chain him overnight to the concrete floor. The CIA has never accounted for the death, nor publicly reprimanded the supervisor. Instead, the Agency reportedly promoted him.