Oct 31, 2011

GG Herman

He's done.

Book review: KBL

One of the great things about working at the Monthly, which I assume is also true of most other such publications, is that people randomly send you free books. Here's a review of a really bad one I did just for fun.

Back in May, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:
As the details of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden [come out], it was inevitable that somebody would observe (as many people did), that the operation was going to make a really fantastic action movie. Such a movie would be really hard to get right: it could easily be a cheap action picture, when this coda to the brokenness of our last ten years deserves a profound piece of art.
It was thus with some trepidation that I picked up Kill bin Laden, by John Weisman. Not knowing anything about the author, I had no idea what to expect. Would this be the profound piece of art the last miserable decade deserves?

That would be an emphatic no.

If, as Roger Ebert says, Nicholas Sparks writes "soft porn for teenage girls," this is right-wing murder porn for America's battalions of armchair commandos. The same vapid, predictable structure and cardboard-cutout characters as Sparks would have constructed, but more poorly written and with less imagination. 

It's written as a novel, which I suppose is cover for the titanic amount of masturbatory fantasy the book contains. A man who in reality was a Pakistani-American translator, who came in with the SEALs on the night of the raid, is turned into a multiple amputee Pashto-speaking Iraq War veteran working undercover as a beggar. This man is at one point captured by a released Guantanamo Bay inmate, set loose by an Attorney General who spends "most of his time trying to indict CIA officers for doing their jobs but turned terrorists loose so they could kill more Americans," but he escapes, kills the terrorist in gruesome detail, beheads the guy with his own knife, and tosses the head into a river. I suppose the Pakistani-descent man—who was critical to the actual operation—had to be edited out, as Weisman routinely refers to Pakistanis as "Pakis," at one point even saying they "lack India's entreprenurial spirit."

The whole story is like that—the rough edges of reality smoothed over with sludge dredged up out of a right-wing fever swamp. The protagonist SEAL is a fervent Christian with a pregnant wife. The politicians are all spineless, opportunistic cowards who routinely leak sensitive intelligence—Obama is bullied into the operation by a CIA analyst, and a thinly veiled John Kerry nearly gets a (fictional) CIA man killed talking to the media. (The CIA man is, by the way, a fervent Christian with a pregnant wife.) All American consulates and embassies are riddled with host country spies. And the legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke is smeared by name as a "sieve-like leaker" used to seed the media. Is it not libel if someone is dead?

The killing itself is depicted as a straight-up premeditated assassination. Some people "just deserve to die." Bin Laden's corpse is rendered in gruesome detail:
Whoa, Crankshaft'd taken a wholesome burst dead-center mass. Four, maybe five, maybe more rounds. Turned most of his chest cavity into squishy, bloody-colored jelly. Faint fecal scent told the Ranger maybe they'd even nicked the colon.
At least Nicholas Sparks isn't a necrophiliac.

And the writing sucks. It's an amateurish imitation of Tom Clancy (no Proust himself, but at least not distractingly awful), with a lot of macho details elaborated at great length, barrel diameters and gun brands and ALLCAPS military acronyms, stamped out like license plates in what had to be a feverish rush. No one drinks anything, they "take a pull." No one looks at anything, they "eyeball." Even the (only) sex scene is similar: "Secure your weapon...I'll be up to conduct an inspection in exactly six minutes."

Most bizarrely for a novel with this amount of military leg-humping and nightmarish imagery, the word fricking is used to preposterous excess. It's a weak, unrealistic word, and seriously undercuts the testosterone-drenched tone of the book. Anyone who's been around soldiers for more than ten seconds can tell you they don't bother much with words like "fricking." That's a word better-suited to a Presbyterian minister who has dropped a bowl of potato salad.

In short, you're better off with the latest Twilight fan fic.

It's a shame, because I agree with Alyssa. The country could use some help processing the last shameful decade. A one-dimensional revenge fantasy like this might have passed muster back in October 2001, but now it just feels pathetic.

Oct 30, 2011

Quote for the day

On the subject of climate change deniers, Paul Krugman nails it: "Think about climate change. You have various right-wingers simultaneously (a) denying that global warming is happening (b) denying that anyone denies that global warming is happening, but denying that humans are responsible (c) denying that anyone denies that humans are causing global warming, insisting that the real argument is about the appropriate response."

Oct 29, 2011

Saturday museum report

It is freezing cold here in DC; you might be able to see that it's snowing outside. We spent the afternoon hanging around the Natural History and Air & Space museums. For me I think the latter is cooler.

If I can make a recommendation, the "How Flight Works" display, though it's a bit cheesy and sponsored by Boeing, is actually pretty interesting. Someone with a serious science background clearly designed and fact-checked the displays. They avoid a lot of the usual myths about flight and even dispel some of my pet peeves (the "equal transit time" explanation, for example). Good stuff.

Oct 27, 2011

How the Pill works

I was a bit confused recently because I saw this on Rachel Maddow, but Amanda Marcotte clears it up for me:
I don't know if you want to have some staff look into this, but hormonal forms of birth control work a little differently. They actually prevent implantation, not conception.
I saw this exchange posted everywhere with absolutely no correction of this blatant (if unintended) misinformation. Even Jezebel’s write-up unfortunately implied that killing fertilized eggs is an evidenced mechanism of the pill, and that it happens frequently, which it doesn’t. They made it worse by making fun of Mitt Romney for not knowing how the pill works. The problem with that is he actually showed a better understanding of it than either the woman asking him a question or the Jezebel writer. If you make fun of someone for being wrong, but they’re actually right, then you’re the one with egg on your face.
I get why feminists are allowing anti-choice misinformation to find home in our mouths. We want to tell people that personhood amendments are intended to ban the pill, because they are! The easiest way to say that is to accept the false premise that the pill kills fertilized eggs. And that will win us a short term victory, but lose us the long term war. Plus, bad science is bad science, and you shouldn’t give air to it.
Now that I hear this, I remember it being explained to me by my mother long ago, but just to repeat: the Pill works by preventing ovulation, not by preventing implantation. I'll remember that in the future.

And yes, even though it does prevent fertilization, Rick Santorum still wants to ban it.

See here for more.

Happy Halloween!

Ok, not quite. But this is awesome:

Oct 26, 2011

Department of WTF, geothermal bureau

According to the Great Gazoogle, there are geothermal resources in the United States with approximately 10 times the energy potential than all currently existing coal-fired power plants. No, really:
As part of that effort, the Mountain View, California-based company’s philanthropic arm, “Google.org,” on Tuesday published a new Google Earth map of the geothermal resources in the continental United States, created from data collected by the Geothermal Laboratory at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, which received a $489,521 grant from Google for the project.
The new map, an update of a running one that SMU scientists prepared in 2004 and 1992, estimates that the technical potential of geothermal in the U.S. is nearly 3 million megawatts (2,980,295), or 10 times the capacity of all the installed coal power plants in the country today. It’s available to view in an image format and also as a downloadable KML layer file for Google Earth.
Ok, apparently it would take 10-15 years to get even a demonstration plant open for some of these technologies. But dammit, let's get on this! It took less than 10 years for us to go from Kennedy's famous speech to a man on the moon. We clearly have the capacity.

The Iraq that could have been

One of the things that most depresses me now about the Iraq War was that, regardless of how things turn out in the future, it seems pretty likely that Saddam would have been toppled by some kind of home-grown revolt in the Arab Spring; or if that didn't work, then we could have given the rebel movement the kind of support that seems to have worked in Libya.

I was against the Libyan intervention for two big reasons. First, I was afraid that we'd get sucked into another ground war in a Middle Eastern country (see the "regime change ratchet"). Second, there was no authorization from Congress, and pretty much no debate beforehand. The President seems to have, now, an almost completely free hand in foreign affairs, and I think that sets dangerous precedents. For reasons laid out in The Origins of Political Order, dictatorships tend to fail because they have trouble surviving crappy leaders. As it turns out, Obama is a straight killing machine who is too cunning to get sucked into that kind of morass, but there's no guarantee that the next guy will be so ruthlessly effective. In fact, it's a given there will be a lunatic sooner or later with the GOP the way it is. In any case, I'm glad that, in this particular instance, it wasn't a complete disaster for everyone involved.

Moreover, though it was probably mostly luck, the actual support methods we used in Libya seemed to work fairly well. Obviously Libya is still in a precarious position, and it would not surprise me at all if it collapsed into civil war, and I think the smart money is on it remaining a corrupt petro-state for the foreseeable future. But as far as the actual tactics we used to support the rebels, I have to say I was surprised at their effectiveness.

Indulge me in a quick historical counterfactual. So it's 2002, and the Iraq vote fails narrowly in the Senate. Big controversy, but ultimately the war isn't started. Saddam hangs on throughout the Aughts, but he's broke and inspectors keep him from developing nerve gas or other biological weapons. Fast forward to 2010, and revolution is sweeping the Middle East. Saddam is already one of the most weak and isolated dictators in the region, and galloping rebellion breaks out in Iraq with broad Shia support, but based in Kurdistan. Fighting is intense, but with Saddam's large stock of conventional weapons a stalemate looks imminent. Now Obama (lets say with the support of Congress) and the UK, and with somewhat reluctant support from France and the rest of Europe, push through a UN resolution authorizing military intervention. We support the rebels with strategic bombing and supplies, and ultimately the tide is turned in about a month. It turns out that casualties are about 50,000 on both sides.

After a quick power struggle, an interim government emerges. They secure the streets, more or less. They don't dismiss the army. They get oil pumping and set a date for elections. Sanctions are lifted. Chinese and Russian investment money pours in. A government is elected. They're moderate Islamists, corrupt, somewhat brutal, but things look quite a bit better than they did under Saddam. Sunnis howl at their loss of power, but stay put for the time being. Iraq remains a bit of a basketcase.

But Iraq's sizable middle class remains. Fifty thousand is a lot less than 650,000. The war, and the political struggle to determine who is going to take power, is over quick. There is no years-long grinding insurgency. Economic growth, based mainly around oil but way better than a total collapse, returns. There aren't 4.7 million refugees. For a time, the US is stupendously popular in Iraq, and though that quickly fades, our reputation in the Islamic world is considerably improved for much longer.

Man, George Bush really was an idiot for the ages.

Again, I think the long-term trend toward total lack of restraint on the executive branch when it comes to war is extremely troubling. I'm just thinking, given that lousy premise, what could have been.

*Margin Call*

WARNING: A few spoilers ahead. So far, this is the best movie qua movie on the financial crisis. It's a tense little drama, only encompassing about 24 hours, with mostly excellent characters, writing, pacing, acting, and directing. I won't go into too much detail; others have already done that better than I could.

I will say a few words on the actual nature of the crisis, which is revealed in some very subtle and pleasing ways. First is how the further up the food chain you go, the less people in the firm understand how their business actually works, and as a consequence don't really have a good grip on what kinds of risk the firm is taking. The CEO tells the financial wizard who figures out what is going to happen to speak to him like a "small child." On a related point, when one of the few characters with a flickering of a conscience (the same wizard) lays out his impressive background in physics, we get a glimpse of how Wall Street has, through preposterously high salaries, strip-mined America for her best minds. And these geniuses, in the end, end up engineering financial Armageddon. The CEO makes a great speech trying to justify his huge sell, laying out 400 years of repeated financial crises and saying "We can't help ourselves."

However, there were a few details one might include as a footnote, to make sure people don't take away the wrong impression. The first, and maybe most important, is that no large bank in America would have survived the crisis alone. Margin Call sort of implies that the (fictional) firm has saved itself by starting a financial panic, but in reality all the big banks had to be rescued by the government. The one that didn't, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt—actually, that is what touched the whole thing off. Second is that the collapse of the subprime mortgage bond market is portrayed as a complete surprise. That may have been the case in some firms, but a lot of them saw it coming, at least a bit in advance, and tried to profit from it. Finally, I don't think it would have been possible to make the big sell shown near the end. Like when Long-Term Capital Management went down in the 90s, these guys were such a large part of the market that if they had tried to unwind in a single day it would have been flatly impossible.

Really niggling details though, especially for a Hollywood drama. Overall, highly recommended.

Oct 25, 2011

Herman Cain's new ad

On first thought, you might expect that a kind of Darwinian mechanism operating between the press and presidential candidates these days would weed out all but two classes of political advertisements: the bland, anodyne type, and the dishonest, viciously negative type. A candidate would want to avoid even the faintest whiff of strangeness. After all, the press hounded Howard Dean from the campaign back in 2004 just for making a funny noise.

You would be wrong.

To be sure, the 2008 presidential season had its share of bizarreness. (Remember Mike Gravel's ad featuring him hurling a rock into a pond?) But the 2012 season has a bad case of The Strange, and not just for fringe candidates either. First we have Lucas Baiano, who made Michael Bay movie preview-style ads first for Tim Pawlenty and then for Rick Perry, and now Herman Cain comes out with this gem:

I can't believe someone paid money for this. We've got a droopy, mustachioed Mark Block, clearly unaccustomed to the camera, making a lot of awkward, easily mocked statements ("America's never seen a candidate like Herman Cain"). Then he takes a drag from a cigarette (???), and we cut to Cain himself, his head taking up the entire right side of the frame. We can't see his neck, so when he turns towards us, it has a creepy disembodied feel to it. Then he smiles, and, well, you'll just have to watch. Let's just say it's not surprising Kevin Drum was rendered helpless with laughter.

James Fallows says, half in jest, that this is a kind of bank shot making fun of Obama for his failure to quit smoking. Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s awesome. I don’t buy it. If it’s a snarky dig at Obama, it’s not one that most voters are going to catch— nobody cares if Obama smokes or not. If it’s a sincere ad, if Cain is really that clueless, then he is on the short road to national laughingstock.

By the way, Mr. Cain is now leading in the polls.

(Cross-posted at Ten Miles Square.)

Count me out on this one

Garrett Rhodes, an old South Africa Peace Corps guy:
Whether it be to save money, live greener, or to cultivate a sense of self-reliance, washing your clothes by hand can be a satisfying and easy experience and can be successfully accomplished by almost anyone.
Satisfying and easy? Not for me. It's not satisfying, it's actually quite difficult, and takes the better part of the day. As I said earlier:
Reading Noah's comedic masterpiece about handwashing stuff made me appreciate once again what a magnificent appliance the washing machine is. I bow down and give thanks to the mines, the iron smelters, the steel foundries, the (probably) Chinese manufacturers, the 104,400 ton freighters, and the national transport system that makes it all possible.

Collected links

1. The Iraq War in photos.

2. Herman Cain's new ad is...words fail.

3. Our political moment, distilled to its essence.

4. Ex-FBI agents a little concerned about the new J. Edgar Hoover biopic.

5. Best Romney profile yet.

Trendy monetary policy

The latest thing in the world's most glamorous subject is nominal gross domestic product (NGDP) targeting. What in heaven's name is that? Well, Kevin Drum is here to help out all the non-econ majors. This post, which seems about right to me, is great because he isn't an econ major either, so he's thinking it out as he goes, and doesn't go too fast or lay down too much jargon.

If you make it through that, Steve Randy Waldman has more.

Today in horseshit

1. Amanda Marcotte on altie-woo nonsense at HuffPost.

2. Pat Buchanan, still a racist asshole.

3. BIS embraces liquidationism.

Oct 24, 2011

How Martin Litton and David Brower saved the Grand Canyon

This line may have piqued your curiosity: "Most people don't know that the whole of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon was very nearly dammed from top to bottom back in the 60s." Here's the story:

Introduction to Martin Litton from "River Runners of the Grand Canyon" 1994 from Don Briggs on Vimeo.

What are parks for?

I'm not sure the world agrees with us, but, yes, in the US we seem to lean a bit too much towards parks as pockets of "nature" rather than as pleasant public spaces where people are actually welcome and human activities are encouraged and enabled. A nice park can have performance spaces, caf├ęs, sports fields, etc.
He's talking about city parks, and how in DC they often don't seem to have much to offer in terms of recreation. As far as cities go, I heartily agree. The whole place is built entirely for people, and any existing "ecosystem" is completely centered around people anyway, so you might as well go whole hog and try and make the thing as attractive and useful to city residents as possible, in addition to being spots with growing green things.

There is a real tension here, though, especially when we're talking about state and national parks with actual wilderness. After all, to provide development for people to enjoy a park more readily in the way Atrios describes almost always involves cutting back on the "wilderness" aspect of the park.

A chapter of my favorite book deals with this issue:
The Park Service, established by Congress in 1916, was directed not only to administer the parks but also to “provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This appropriately ambiguous language, employed long before the onslaught of the automobile, has been understood in various and often opposing ways ever since. The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions. The Developers, the dominant faction, place their emphasis on the words “provide for the enjoyment.” The Preservers, a minority but also strong, emphasize the words “leave them unimpaired.” It is apparent, then, that we cannot decide the question of development versus preservation by a simple referral to holy writ or an attempt to guess the intention of the founding fathers; we must make up our own minds and decide for ourselves what the national parks should be and what purpose they should serve.
(The whole book is worth a read, by the way.)

One example is the most famous natural wonder in America: Grand Canyon. Most people don't know that the whole of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon was very nearly dammed from top to bottom back in the 60s. It's probable that this would have greatly increased the number of people down in the canyon—something like 20,000 people take river trips down the Colorado through Grand Canyon every year, as compared to about three million that visit Lake Powell (a reservoir upstream). Of course, more than five million visit the Grand Canyon in total, but most of those are driving and hiking, which could largely still be done in a dammed Canyon, while a reservoir would have drastically increased the powerboat and jetski population.

Yet I for one would regard having dammed the Grand Canyon—and the actual damming of Glen Canyon—as an ecological and moral catastrophe.

I'm still chipping away at The Power Broker, but in it we see Robert Moses's vision of a state park, basically the highly-developed one, and how he clashed with a lot of old rich conservationists, who were mostly defeated. I do have to appreciate the way he made some kind of recreation possible for the vast hordes of New Yorkers. I'll concede that some large state and national parks, particularly the ones on the East Coast where the original ecosystem is already basically destroyed, should in the interest of the greater good be made into giant city parks.

But there should be a place for unspoilt wilderness to be preserved as much as possible. People should be allowed to see it, of course, but on dirt roads and bikes and their own two legs. Abbey again:
What does accessibility mean? Is there any spot on earth that men have not proved accessible by the simplest means — feet and legs and heart? Even Mt. McKinley, even Everest, have been surmounted by men on foot. (Some of them, incidentally, rank amateurs, to the horror and indignation of the professional mountaineers.) The interior of the Grand Canyon, a fiercely hot and hostile abyss, is visited each summer by thousands and thousands of tourists of the most banal and unadventurous type, many of them on foot — self-propelled, so to speak — and the others on the backs of mules. Thousands climb each summer to the summit of Mt. Whitney, highest point in the forty-eight United States, while multitudes of others wander on foot or on horseback through the ranges of the Sierras, the Rockies, the Big Smokies, the Cascades and the mountains of New England. Still more hundreds and thousands float or paddle each year down the currents of the Salmon, the Snake, the Allagash, the Yampa, the Green, the Rio Grande, the Ozark, the St. Croix and those portions of the Colorado which have not yet been destroyed by the dam builders. And most significant, these hordes of nonmotorized tourists, hungry for a taste of the difficult, the original, the real, do not consist solely of people young and athletic but also of old folks, fat folks, pale-faced office clerks who don’t know a rucksack from a haversack, and even children. The one thing they all have in common is the refusal to live always like sardines in a can — they are determined to get outside of their motorcars for at least a few weeks each year.

UPDATE: See here for more.

Quote for the day

Matt Yglesias, talking about the origins of Occupy Wall Street: "This isn’t about the gini coefficient per se, it’s about the fact that people were asked to swallow a wide range of social trends in the name of economic growth and got a turd sandwich instead."

New issue online!

Many people, when I told them about the magazine I'm working for, hadn't the slightest idea what it was about. Well, here's your chance! Check out the online table of contents. I fact checked about half of those pieces.



Oct 23, 2011

They think we're stupid

One of the things that most bothers me about American advertising is the blatant contempt that companies have for their customers. Check out this picture. They're basically saying either a) that they don't assume that people can understand that 18 is a larger value than 12 or b) that they think people are so stupid that we'll be impressed by a slogan that says, in essence, "this box has more taco shells than a box with fewer taco shells!"

I'm going with b). I mean, they didn't even make the qualification font very small!

Quote for the day

"They somehow managed to get a pretty decent picture of my jump. This is deceiving because it looks like I am going to push out with my knees at this point and do a nice dive but in actuality I got the Fear at this point and my legs locked up and I just kind of dropped in that position." --Old man Prescott, in a post for the ages.

Oct 21, 2011

Skeptics vs. deniers

A new study is apparently about to come out confirming, yet again, the basic conclusions of climate science. This would be old hat, except that the guy who set it up was openly critical of the field, and a lot of the funding was provided by the Koch brothers, of right-wing fame. Of course, anti-climate activists who had promised to accept the result of the study beforehand conjured up reasons to reject it. Blah blah blah.

Here's my beef. Check out this CNN story on the report. (It's pretty good.) What's the title? "New climate study deals blow to skeptics." Why does that chafe my strap?

"Skeptic" is a word that has been highly valorized by the scientific community, and rightly so. Skepticism is one of the main intellectual forces driving the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and scientific progress generally. In the skeptic's view, everything sensible (i.e., able to be sensed) must be tested and subject to scrutiny, and no scientific theory deserves to be accepted just because it was conceived by a one person or another. Always it's the data that make for the final judgment. The history of science is filled with people who had a good idea and overturned years, sometimes centuries, of longstanding theory. Obviously most people, and even most scientists, don't always live up to this ideal 100 percent, but that's the bar standard.

However, there comes a time when doubt slides into denialism. When the data are in, and everything looks pretty solid, then the skeptic accepts the conclusion—provisionally, of course, always with the thought that conclusions have a possibility of change—and she sets doubt down for a time. Doubt is a well-worn tool for the skeptic, to be sure, faded and grease-stained, with finger marks eroded into the handle. But for every Newton or Einstein, there have been—there are—a hundred thousand paranoid cranks, trembling with belief, whose relationship with evidence is completely predetermined. These people aren't skeptics, they're deniers.

Anthropogenic climate change is now at that point. Like the subjects of evolution, the Federal Reserve, the Holocaust, the moon landing, and vaccines, if you don't accept the consensus opinion, then you are a denier. A quack. Deserving of polite explanation, then sourcing, and eventually scorn and ridicule.

Therefore CNN should have written: "New study deals blow to climate deniers."

Lewis Black on Craig Ferguson

I love the crankiness here.

A flat tax is not simpler than a progressive one

This man wants a flat tax.
Andrew Sullivan:
And my sympathy for it lies primarily in its simplicity. There is a direct relationship between the complexity of the tax code and corruption. The rich can afford accountants to keep their taxes low - shifting money and valuables around in myriad ways. The people doing that kind of work could actually be doing something productive.
I suppose a piece of paper with "9 percent" on it would be, literally speaking, slightly simpler than some kind of rate schedule—or, better yet, a mathematical formula with smoothly progressive character.  But what Sullivan's talking about is entirely a function of all the tax credits built into the system.  Yglesias:
Our tax code differs from what Perry is proposing in two ways. One is that the definition of taxable income is complicated because you can deduct home mortgage interest, non-reimbursed business expenses, a whole suite of small-bore tax credits, charitable contributions, and various other things. A second is that we have multiple tax brackets, such that a rich guy pays a higher marginal rate than a poor person. It’s changing the first that makes a tax code simpler. There’s nothing complicated about calculating how much you owe in taxes once you’ve calculated your taxable income. The second change just helps rich people pay less taxes.
It could be a one-step process. Income goes in, taxes come out. Making it flatter wouldn't change that at all.

Oct 20, 2011

Intern jams

Here's some albums that I've been blasting while formatting the new issue (coming out next week, by the way):

Gotta love the mau5 helmet.

Photo of the day


He's a handsome man, thin, in an immaculate well-tailored suit, perfect teeth, lovely olive skin, a smile not quite reaching his eyes. He looks confident, relaxed, and a maybe bit sharkish. Who is it? Answer here.

Collected links

1. A company sends a guy who pointed out a big security flaw a thank you...the cops and the bill.

2. Bernie Sanders' GAO report on the Fed Governors turned up some serious problems.

3. E.O. Wilson's theory of everything.

4. Jane Mayer on drone strikes.

5. NPR gets an opera radio show host fired for supporting Occupy DC. News flash: conservatives already hate NPR. Nothing you guys do will ever change that, or their conviction that NPR has a "liberal bias." All you're doing here is pissing off liberals for no reason.

I have the right job, ctd

I was a little star struck last night when I went to see Matt Yglesias at the GW Hillel, of all places, but it was a great discussion and a chance to meet one of my blog-heroes I've been reading since about 2005. It's all a bit fuzzy; I remember starting with Glenn Greenwald, but Matt wasn't far behind. This post is what convinced me to go for the web journalism career, and I don't think I've ever made a better decision.

In other news, Kevin Drum picked up my piece on Herman Cain!

I love this stuff.

Someone should actually do this

The Onion: SAN JOSE, CA—With funding from dozens of news outlets and media companies, the groundbreaking Outkube.com launched this week, providing an online destination where pandering and incendiary content is used to lure moronic Internet commenters away from all other websites.

According to sources, Outkube boasts thousands of articles and forums carefully crafted to draw in dim-witted web users and effectively quarantine obtuse, uninformed comments on topics such as gay rights, Ryan Gosling, the threat of Sharia law in the U.S., health care reform, whether Kobe is better than LeBron, Jewish control of the government and media, the New York Jets, the Second Amendment, and professional wrestler John Cena.

Most stories on the site are reportedly preloaded with several witless and profanity-laden comments specially designed to incite retaliatory remarks.

"Outkube provides an immensely valuable public service," said YouTube CEO Salar Kamangar, one of the decoy website's founders and principal investors. "With its unparalleled expanse of sensational content and lack of filters or character limits on postings, Outkube attracts the broadest possible spectrum of jabbering halfwits—from paranoid reactionaries to know-it-all pricks to racists to plain old dumbfucks."

Oct 19, 2011

Santorum wants to ban contraception

Via Igor Volsky, here's frothing Ricky living up to his name (about 17 minutes in):

Obviously Santorum is stone crazy.  But stepping back, this is an unusually clear explanation of the conservative philosophy behind social policy. Santorum doesn't care that 99 percent of women have used contraceptives, or that banning them would cause a flood of unwanted children. He's not concerned about the actual effects at all. He's only concerned about the law glorifying the status of his favored tribe: heterosexual married couples who only have sex for child-bearing purposes. Conversely, we'd be expressing social disapproval of people Santorum doesn't like: homosexuals, unmarried couples, and dirty hippies who only have sex for fun.

Paul Waldman may have put it better, talking about Rick Perry and his stuttering response about the failure of abstinence:
Liberals may think that conservatives support abstinence education because they believe it will reduce teen pregnancy, when the truth is that stopping teen pregnancy is at best a minor consideration for conservatives. If there’s going to be any discussion of sex in school at all, they believe it ought to express the categorical moral position that sex is vile and dirty and sinful, until you do it with your spouse, at which point it becomes beautiful and godly (you’ll forgive a bit of caricature). The fact that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex-ed isn’t something they’re pleased about, but it doesn’t change their conviction about the moral value that ought to be expressed.
Liberals, on the other hand, think sex education ought to have as its primary goal reducing teen pregnancy and keeping kids safe from STDs. And yes, they also believe that it ought to encourage a perspective on sex that leads to a healthy, well-adjusted sex life that isn’t built on 17th century puritanical notions of shame and fear. But they weigh the practical considerations more heavily than the moral considerations. 
UPDATE: Dadgum copyright. Tried to fix the embed, but it doesn't seem to be working. Here's another one from years back to tide you over:

More on Uganda

Looking back at it, this post was kind of lazy, and not the kind of thing I want to be doing on a regular basis. Let's take a closer look, first with some background from AllAfrica:
Under both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, Washington has provided "non-lethal" and logistical support to the Ugandan army in its efforts to subdue the LRA. The aid increased when Kony failed twice to sign a peace accord in 2008. Since 2008, Washington has provided over 40 million dollars in military assistance to regional armies fighting the LRA.
In December 2008, the Ugandan, DRC and southern Sudanese armies launched "Operation Lightning Thunder", a joint effort backed by U.S. intelligence and logistical support provided by Washington's newly created Africa Command (AfriCom) to track down Kony and his armed followers.
 Kony and much of his army escaped, however, and responded later that month by carrying out their own attacks against defenceless villages and civilians in the DRC and southern Sudan, killing nearly 1,000 people and forcing as many as 1.8 million others to flee their homes, according to human rights monitors.
They've also got a decent profile of the man behind the LRA, Joseph Kony:
Inspired by the words and drawn by the gripping charm of his cousin, Alice Auma Lakwena, a spirit-medium-turned-prophet, Kony established the Lords' Resistance Army (LRA), a ragtag force high on a warped blend of apocalyptic Christianity and nationalism.
In the 20 years that it has been in existence, that brutish group has killed more than 30,000 people in Northern Uganda and displaced two million others.
In recent years, their leader Kony has extended his hand across the border to several parts of Central Africa, causing chaos in his wake.
We also shouldn't forget the broader political context. Kony's group sprang out of serious persecution of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda—but in his madness, he's killed Acholi indiscriminately as well. This kind of stuff is forgotten by the US all too frequently; I'll try to stay up to date on it.

Malaria vaccine news

Speaking of Africa, apparently a fairly effective malaria vaccine is in trials:
The malaria vaccine that now appears to be within reach, following successful large-scale trials in seven African countries, is a potential game changer for the rural villagers whose children are the main victims of this ancient disease, which was named "mal'aria" for the bad air medieval Italians thought caused it.
Early results from 6,000 babies aged 5-17 months show that their risk of malaria was reduced by slightly more than half (56%) and their chance of severe malaria – the kind that affects the brain, kidneys and blood and often kills – by slightly less than half (47%).
Great news, but there's (as always) the big question of who pays. I'm reminded of something Matt Yglesias said, when he and Jon Chait got in a bit of a spat over the Libya intervention:
I see no particular reason to think that Libya will have any impact on malaria funding, but I do think the level of malaria funding is impacted over the long term by the existence of a substantial number of people (of which Chait is one) who seem to advocate for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans.
Sure, it would cost many millions to fully distribute a malaria vaccine. But how much have we spent in Libya? Probably something like a billion dollars, given we were up to at least $900 million in late August.  Malaria kills something like 780,000 people every year. Worth $900 million at least to put that problem down for good.

Americans hate foreign aid; at the debate last night the candidates talked a lot about cutting it (except for Israel's, of course). Yet our executive is so unconstrained in military areas he can send troops into Uganda with no debate whatsoever, allegedly for the same rationale behind foreign aid. I get that you can't disentangle this from the larger military-industrial-congressional complex and its outsize political power. But this is at least an argument that our discourse has seriously distorted priorities.

Herman Cain and small business healthcare

In a surprising swing in the Republican presidential field, Herman Cain has rocketed to second place, just behind Mitt Romney. Like all the other candidates, he has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and even claimed (falsely) that he would have died from his liver cancer under Obamacare. Cain actually got his start in politics helping to defeat the 90’s health care reform plan. Organizations from several different areas attacked the Clinton effort, but some of the most effective opposition came from small business organizations, led by the National Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Business. That effort to kill health care reform, coupled with the total failure of the right to pass (or even seriously propose) their own plan, ultimately hurt small businesses.

In 1994, Cain, then CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, was introduced to the country in this encounter with President Clinton:

As this Newsweek retrospective from 1994 makes clear, Cain and company were key to the defeat of the Clinton health care reform:
The Clintons would later blame "Harry and Louise," the fictional couple in the ads aired by the insurance industry, for undermining health reform. But the real saboteurs are named Herman and John. Herman Cain is the president of Godfather's Pizza and president-elect of the National Restaurant Association. An articulate black entrepreneur, Cain transformed the debate when he challenged Clinton at a town meeting in Kansas City, Mo., last April…
While Cain looks the part of a striving small businessman, John Motley, chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), looks like, well, a Washington lobbyist… Motley mobilized thousands of small businessmen, including "the Guardians" (the NFIB's 40,000 most reliable members), to work their local representatives...
The NFIB was also effective in lobbying other lobbying groups. They had small businessmen lean on their doctors -- and before long, the AMA…came out against employer mandates. The NFIB pressured the [US] Chamber of Commerce by urging small businessmen to quit in protest of the chamber's support of employer mandates. When the chamber's dues began to drop precipitously, the chamber, too, reversed its position in February.
One might have wondered what ideas Cain and the GOP would offer. After all, it was concerted opposition and a media blitz from Republicans (Bill Kristol famously told the GOP to oppose reform “sight unseen”), medical organizations, and lobbyists from the insurance industry and small business that sunk the Clinton effort. But though Republicans had a counter-proposal to Clinton in 1993 (notably including an individual mandate), during the Bush years no comprehensive reform was even proposed, and the issue festered. From 1995 to 2008 health care costs more than doubled.

Like the GOP generally when it comes to health care, Cain is a lot clearer about what he is against that what he is for. He opposed the Clinton reform, Ted Kennedy’s Patient Bill of Rights of the late 90’s, Canada-style healthcare, and SCHIP (the children’s health insurance program). He opposed both the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the House proposal to allow negotiation with drug companies in order to control the program’s increasing costs. And, of course, he opposed the Affordable Care Act.

Running for Senate in 2003, he said health care would be cheaper if it were more like a free market. While his health care policy site (at a whopping 320 words) does have some small-bore reforms (deregulating the insurance industry and a healthcare tax credit for employees), the only large-scale reform he supports is the Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare,which would save little federal money and drastically increase total health care costs.

Where has this dithering left small business? Because of rising costs, starting in the late nineties, small employer coverage was steadily eroded, down from 65 percent offering coverage in 1999 to 59 percent in 2009, compared to 99 percent of large businesses. More small firms contribute nothing to their employee plans than large firms (for singles, 35 percent versus 7 percent; for familes, 14 percent versus 2 percent), and their employees face increasingly higher deductibles (see chart below). Cain himself may have put it best in 2007: “63 percent of the uninsured…work for small businesses that cannot afford health insurance coverage because the costs keep rising faster than their profits.” (By the way, 60 percent of small businesses would have seen a reduction in premiums under the Clinton plan.)

By staving off any efforts at cost control, Cain and his allies left small businesses in an increasingly untenable position. Health care price increases disproportionately affect small businesses, mostly due to their lack of bargaining power —large companies, with their bigger pools of employees, can negotiate better prices. This is a major drag on the sector, not only making it more expensive for a small business to do the same work as a large one but also impinging their ability to attract talented employees , as large companies can offer better benefits. As Cain and others are fond of pointing out, restaurants are mostly small— according to the NRA, 91 percent of restaurants have fewer than 50 employees, so they are part of this broader trend. Survey data bear this out: a 2008 survey, ironically from the NFIB, concluded: “The ‘Cost of Health Insurance’ continues its reign as the number one small business problem, a position it has held for over 20 years.” Cain himself was interviewed in 1999:
Cain cited health-care insurance as one barrier foodservice operators face in trying to recruit and retain employees. He faulted Congress and the Clinton administration for not coming up with affordable health insurance for everyone.
Herman Cain, when he got cancer, could call up T. Boone Pickens to get him into a top-notch facility in Houston. But his efforts to defeat reform, in the end, did no such favors for small businesses or their employees, who were increasingly left twisting in the wind.

(Cross-posted at Ten Miles Square.)

Oct 18, 2011

The new Republican platform

The fact that Herman Cain is now close to the lead, and his risible 9-9-9 plan is getting a lot of attention is really amazing, and speaks to the depth of the contempt that conservatives have for Mitt Romney, but on another level it has finally breathed life into the graveyard that is conservative economic policy.

Just think of the history.  For the past 30 years conservatives have had tax cuts as their be-all and end-all remedy for every economic problem.  Stuck in a recession?  Cut taxes. Budget deficits? Well, tax cuts really raise revenue, so just cut them some more.  Got a bit of a surplus?  You guessed it, tax cuts. Alan Greenspan was even arguing back in 2000 that the primary policy problem we faced was the national debt being paid off too quickly.

But while Reagan's and Bush's tax cuts did give most of the benefits to the rich, they at least threw some scraps down the income ladder.  Nowadays, though, we've got new ideas.  We're going to drastically cut taxes on the rich...and raise them on the middle class and the poor!  Presidential candidates are actually arguing this on national television. Conservatives have convinced themselves it's a winning grassroots strategy.

Hey, give them credit for trying.  It's a bold, fresh, innovative idea that only suffers from the slight defect of being stone batshit nuts.

Collected links

1. The Great Schism.

2. Peter Beinart on Occupy Wall Street.

3. Ross Douthat on Steven Pinker's new book.

4. John Gray on the same.

5. Calvin and Hobbes on Occupy Wall Street.

Quote for the day

Half of America now supports legalizing pot. That number exceeds the approval ratings of President Obama, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and every GOP candidate running for president. --Radley Balko.

Oct 17, 2011

Quote for the day

"I could write a book and I could set it in Tombstone, Arizona, I could have cowboys and stage coaches, and the moment I put in one fucking dragon, they'd call me a fantasy writer. You can take out the fucking for the newspaper." --Terry Pratchett in the Guardian. Great man.

An intervention I can (reluctantly, provisionally) support

I've been thinking a bit about this Uganda thing, and I've gradually come around to the view that it's not necessarily wrong at this point.  First, there's a modicum of Congressional support; a bill authorizing military support of the Ugandan regime was passed back in 2009.  It was sponsored by Russ Feingold, of all people.  Obviously Congress has basically abdicated its oversight role when it comes to military affairs, but the fact that there's a fig leaf here is encouraging.

Second, this isn't about regime change.  The Ugandan government actually supports our presence; they say it's long overdue.  We're not, at this point, going to get involved in nation-building, or toppling a dictator, or whatnot.  I would have liked to see Obama push Museveni a bit more on his country's problem with anti-gay bigotry, but that's a minor issue comparatively.

Third, the Lord's Resistance Army really are some of the worst people in the world.  We're talking cartoon levels of villainy.  Random people on the street in Kinshasa are thanking Americans for this.  Fourth, it's (at this point) only 100 soldiers, and they're not supposed to be in a combat role.  The LRA is a bunch of ragtag militia, likely it won't take much more than that.  Finally, there's no obvious material gain for the US in this one.  I think the fact that we've only been "intervening" in Arab countries with huge oil reserves hurts our reputation more than some suppose.  This one, at least so far, looks to be actually mainly altruistic.

In a perfect world, I would have liked to see a bit more debate about this, but given the outrageous expansions of executive power in the last decade, I find it hard to get worked up about this one.  That's not to say it won't all go wrong, just that at this point it looks reasonable.  Lets hope it stays that way.

Oct 16, 2011

Deep thought

This will be my fourth winter since 2009.  Damn you southern hemisphere!

Speaking of Satan

Here's Rush Limbaugh on the Lord's Resistance Army:
Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them. That's what the lingo means, "to help regional forces remove from the battlefield," meaning capture or kill.

So that's a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and -- (interruption) no, I'm not kidding. Jacob Tapper just reported it...

Lord's Resistance Army objectives. I have them here. "To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people." Now, again Lord's Resistance Army is who Obama sent troops to help nations wipe out. The objectives of the Lord's Resistance Army, what they're trying to accomplish with their military action in these countries is the following: "To remove dictatorship and stop the oppression of our people; to fight for the immediate restoration of the competitive multiparty democracy in Uganda; to see an end to gross violation of human rights and dignity of Ugandans; to ensure the restoration of peace and security in Uganda, to ensure unity, sovereignty, and economic prosperity beneficial to all Ugandans, and to bring to an end the repressive policy of deliberate marginalization of groups of people who may not agree with the LRA ideology." Those are the objectives of the group that we are fighting, or who are being fought and we are joining in the effort to remove them from the battlefield.
The LRA, in case you weren't aware, are one of the deranged bands that are infamous throughout the world, and are one of the few things that regularly make it into the United States media. Mass murder? Check. Child soldiers? Check. Sexual enslavement? Check. Torture and mutilation, often by machete? Check. Really, they don't rise to the level of terrorists. They don't have much of an agenda, it's just the kind of insane brutality seen in its purest form in the person of Francisco Nguema.  This might be too much even for Rush.

Reference from Bill Hicks below. It's a grotesque bit, I warn you:

Oct 14, 2011

The week in review

Happy Friday!

Occupy Wall Street Protester’s Head Used To Ring Opening Bell at New York Stock Exchange

R2P vs. regime change

I think one of the things that drives people into the arms of the likes of Daniel Larison is this kind of thing, illustrated by Eric Martin:
Consistent with this euphemistic trend, the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine is being invoked by proponents of military action in Syria when, in essence, most are calling for regime change - a policy that, again, exponentially raises the stakes in terms of costs, risks and difficulty in managing the aftermath.
If people like Anne-Marie Slaughter could get divested of the Lieberman caucus, I'd take them a lot more seriously.

Collected links

1. Yglesias on public choice.

2. Obama's new tactic against medical marijuana. Asshole.

3. TB deaths in Africa at a new low.

4. Remember how everyone said Murdoch would corrupt what was left of the WSJ's credibility?  Everyone was right.

5. James Fallows (a Monthly alum, by the way) on internet security.

Oct 12, 2011

A modest drug reform proposal

I'd like to codify my idea to de-Schedule I the psychedelics.  The characteristics for Schedule I are as follows:
1) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.

2) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

3) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
The first qualification is preposterous for every major psychedelic save perhaps ketamine, which is already Schedule III anyway.  This should be obvious.  The minor ones (such as 5-MeO-DMT) are basically unknown in the literature, but that shouldn't give the DEA license to schedule as they see fit.  If you look at their declarations (see here for example), they usually use new drugs' similarity to existing badly-scheduled drugs as evidence toward putting them in Schedule I (by the transitive property of bullshit). The DEA, like police organizations everywhere, tends to try and maximize their own power, which means pushing for maximum restrictions.  In 1985 they overruled expert medical testimony and their own Administrative Law Judge to place MDMA (or ecstasy) in Schedule I.  These days they dispense with the expert testimony altogether, and just emergency schedule any new drug a Deputy Administrator thinks is dangerous.

The second and third qualifications have been often used as a kind of Catch-22.  No studies means a lack of accepted use, and a lack of accepted use means that no studies can be approved. Nevertheless with the memory of Tim Leary fading, there has been an unexpected renaissance in psychedelic studies in the last few years (see here and here for example, as well as this article from my post yesterday.)

So here's my proposal.  We've basically got two categories of psychedelics in Schedule I: those that probably don't belong there, and those that definitely don't belong there.  In the second category, I'd put LSD, psilocin and psilocybin (the stuff behind magic mushrooms), peyote (and pure mescaline), MDA, and MDMA.  These are substances that have been studied definitively enough to refute all three conditions of Schedule I, and at the very least should be moved down to Schedule III.  The first category is the rest of the psychedelics, mostly a bunch of analogs of the classics.  There really haven't been any good studies of those, but the DEA should allow any established medical outfit that wants to study them a license until there is an accepted judgment one way or the other.

I think the only exception I would make is for PCP, which has such a bad reputation and so few benefits it's not worth fighting over.  Thoughts?

Why South Africa's public transport is better than America's

Some time ago I made this case, and I had a pretty good discussion with my old friend Noah in the comments, so I'd like to work that up into a single post.

So: let me start with the DC Metro, since I take the Red Line to work every day.  Though, on reflection, the New York subway is probably better overall, the DC metro is still better than any single public transport system in South Africa.  It's cleaner, safer, and more efficient than everything save the Gautrain, and, comparing these two government reports, carries more passengers even than the Johannesburg metrorail network.  Given our better-educated, better-trained, and far richer tax base, it's no surprise that when we put our minds to it, we can put together a very effective transport system.

But where South Africa is crushing us into the dirt is in the most important area: capacity.   According to the South African National Household Travel Survey (pdf), fully 40% of all South African commuters use public transport (mostly share taxis), while the figure for America is about 5% (pdf), and most of those are in a few large cities.  I don't think one can really credit the South African government for being stupendously far-sighted here; they have basically the kind of system one would expect to develop naturally given their situation, but they are still in a far better position than America to respond to rising oil prices and the like.

America's lack of public transport, on the other hand, is largely due to a lot of deliberate policy decisions that look, in retrospect, stupendously shortsighted.  Yglesias had a good item on this awhile back pointing out that Puerto Rico has a much larger highway investment than any other Caribbean island.

I'm reading Robert Caro's The Power Broker now, a biography about Robert Moses, probably the biggest and most influential builder of public works in American history, and this quote stood out:
By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions. By making sure the vast suburbs, rural and empty when he came to power, were filled on a sprawling, low-density development pattern relying primarily on roads instead of mass transportation, he insured that the flood would continue for generations if not centuries, that the New York metropolitan area would be—perhaps forever—an area in which transportation –getting from one place to another—would be an irritating, life-consuming concern for its 14,000,000 residents.
Moses worked mostly in New York, and Caro's work was published in 1974, when New York was broke, derelict, and awash in crime.  Things have since improved a lot, and as this more recent New Yorker article mentions:
Caro points out, for example, how many subway improvements could have been bought with the money Moses spent on highways, but in Moses’s day cities all over the country were building highways at the expense of mass transit, and New York was far from the worst. 
Fair enough.  But this only clarifies the issue.  It was nationwide policy, and the decisions of a bunch of people, that have left America nearly bereft of public transport.  Conversely, the personal car-based system we have today has almost nothing to do with the free market.

Oct 11, 2011

Shrooms and dying

As per my earlier post on Terry Pratchett's wrenching, moving documentary, here's Dr. Stephen Ross on the end of life:
Today I want to talk about a project of ours at NYU using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat end-of-life distress in people with cancer. I also want to talk about where Americans die—generally, I think we die in the wrong place in this country—and about the domains of palliative care and what that means. Additionally, I want to discuss spirituality and the phenomenology and prevalence of end-of-life distress and the link between spiritual states as potential buffers against end-of-life distress and psilocybin as a potential modality for increasing spiritual states in patients coping with such distress.
This is via Bob Jesse, a researcher on psilocybin, who posts over at the RBC.  I find it interesting how that is Mark Kleiman's home as well—for those of you don't know, Kleiman is sort of the resident drug policy concern troll, a reliable anti-anti-drug war voice who is nevertheless fairly well-informed about the issues.

I suspect there's some room for commonality here.  Most of the action in the drug policy reform community is on the big-time drugs: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, maybe ecstasy; and rightly so, because that's where all the money, crime, and violence is.  The psychedelics, on the other hand, have never been more than a fringe topic by comparison.  They'll simply never be as popular as the big-time drugs, for the simple reason that the average person finds the experience at least unsettling, and probably rather unpleasant, especially if they're not prepared.  Psychedelics aren't the kind of drugs you do on a whim without any experience.

Yet they're jammed in Schedule I as some of the "most dangerous" drugs (note that both cocaine and meth are Schedule II, a less restrictive category), a classification that is self-evidently preposterous, flies in the face of all experience and research on the subject, and really undermines the whole classification scheme of the Controlled Substances Act.  It's obvious to anyone who looks at the issue for five minutes that the DEA has been flagrantly abusing their emergency scheduling power to jam all sorts of newer psychedelics into Schedule I regardless of effect.  I think (hope) even someone like Kleiman should be able to get behind a proposal to set psychedelics aside into their own special category where they could possible be prescribed, especially in light of all the recent studies.  As Dr. Ross notes:
There has been an unexpected renaissance in the long-taboo field of psychedelic research, highlighted by an ongoing study at John Hopkins University which recently concluded that a single dose of psilocybin (still a Schedule 1 substance in the U.S.) brought about “a measureable personality change lasting at least a year… in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas, and general broad-mindedness.” 

Occupy DC: some additional thoughts

I think my piece here is still pretty good, in that the Occupy DC folks had a ways to go last week, but I just want to second Matt Stoller (if you can translate humanities major-speak) and Gregory Djerejian in saying that there's no need for the protesters to have a poll-tested laundry list of complaints by the end of the week. My issue with the protest on Thursday was that the stage and performers gave the appearance that the leadership wasn't really connected to the Wall Street issue, something we know to be untrue. All in all, I think especially the New York branch of this movement is doing a fine job so far.  Here's Greg:
While I will readily confess I find it odd as something of a Burkean that I am sympathetic to these protesters, they are not looking to trot out the guillotines, in the main (although I did spot a "Behead the Fed" sign!), but rather, they have smelled the radicalism of the blows dealt the integrity of a representative democratic system poised by the almost unfettered oligarch-like behavior among too many elites wholly disconnected from, yes, the 99% they speak of. They are acting to secure conservative aims of re-balancing a society that is becoming dangerously unmoored and increasingly bent asunder. They want accountability and dignity and prospects. Their leaders have failed them. So they have taken to the street to lead themselves. It will not be easy in the months ahead (the encroachments of winter alone will prove a big test), but they have started something that has real potential, and should be lauded for it, and indeed urged to carry on. If so, they may accomplish something, even possibly something historic. In this goal, in my view, they should not immediately fall prey to pressure that they must issue some long laundry list of ‘demands’ that might risk ideologically ring-fencing them some and/or stealing the spontaneity of their movement, while resisting too close associations with old-line standard-bearers of the left like the unions. They have created something quite new on the American political scene, and should stoke it during these early days in a manner strictly of their choosing. 
In other news, they're apparently attempting to occupy the Senate Hart building today. Huzzah!

Happy 1000 posts!

Here's some real shoe-leather reporting I did on the Occupy DC protests to celebrate.

Inflation how-to?

Yglesias touches on something that has me frankly befuddled. One of the classic cures for a depressed economy is a bit of inflation. This does three things. 1) It encourages people and corporations with lots of money (and right now corporations are sitting on huge cash reserves) to spend it, as it will be worth less in the future. 2) Millions of people are mired in debt, the real value of which inflation will erode. 3) The dollar's trade value will fall, making our exports more competitive.

But a lot of economists, including (I think) Paul Krugman, say that in a depressed economy, it's impossible to get inflation going. Yglesias:
For starters, a little throat-clearing about the burden of proof. Many of the inflation skeptics have impressive resumes. What they don’t seem to have are empirical examples of central banks determined to raise inflation expectations and failing to do so. We don’t, unfortunately, have a directly parallel case to the current U.S. situation. But on my side I’ll cite as evidence the successful implementations of exchange rate policy by Sweden, Israel, and Switzerland during the current recession. Those, however, are small economy. So I’ll also cite FDR’s gold policy in the 1930s. That, however, was a gold standard. Then there’s QE 2. I would say we have examples of small open economies with determined policymakers doing this successfully. I would say we have an example of a large economy with determined policymakers doing this successfully under different historical conditions. And I would say we have an example of the Federal Reserving acting with only weak determination and achieving weak results. In my view that means our overwhelming presumption ought to be that a determined Federal Reserve system could increase nominal expectations, especially if the president and the treasury secretary supported that goal.
There are some sort of technical aspects to this, but on a basic level I just find it impossible to believe.  I mean, if Zimbabwe can do this:
Then shouldn't Ben Bernanke be able to get 5%?

NOTE: If I were more famous, undoubtedly some conservative jackass would accuse me of demanding Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation in the US. That is most assuredly not what I'm saying.

Collected links

1. Steve Jobs, LSD, and the drug war.

2. The ups and downs of cancer screening. This is an important point. Too many people, particularly cancer survivors, underrate the effects of overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment.

3. Al Jazeera: UN finds "systematic torture" in Afghanistan.

4. There's a pretty bad oil spill going on down in New Zealand, though not nearly as bad as the gulf spill last year.

5. Even Robert Gates is beginning to freak out about congressional dysfunction.

Oct 10, 2011

Terry Pratchett on assisted death

 Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors.  A few years back he was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer's disease, and has since become a passionate advocate of what he calls "assisted death."  One of the biggest problems with our healthcare system, both morally and financially, is our inability to face the end of life courageously.  To be able to choose when and how to die, to forestall what is in many cases completely pointless treatment, that is what he's talking about.

This is worth watching in full:

And this:

If you've got the time.

UPDATE: I can't recommend the second one there highly enough. One of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

The next Troy Davis?

The indefatigable Radley Balko:
Skinner (who has already come within an hour of execution) is about to be executed despite the fact that there is testable DNA from the murder weapon, the rape kit, hairs one of the victims was found clutching, and a jacket left at the crime scene similar to one worn by another possible suspect, all of which has yet to be tested.
And it’s even worse than that. The state started testing on the hairs a decade ago. When preliminary mitochondrial testing came back negative as a match to either Skinner or the victim, the state just decided to stop further testing.
It’s one thing to consider all of the evidence, find it unconvincing, and then proceed with an execution despite strong disagreement from the suspect’s supporters. It’s a whole other level of moral culpability to deliberately remain ignorant about evidence that could definitively establish guilt or innocence.
Skinner is set to be executed November 9. See here for more. Of course, Rick Perry is a major bad actor in this case, just like when Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham based on faulty science.

The Davis case was a major source of outrage at the Occupy DC protests last week.  Lets hope the outrage can be directed in the right direction here as well.

Lens grinding and Avogadro's number

A bunch of scientists are working on defining the kilogram using fundamental constants of physics, rather than the weight of a particular chunk of metal, as it is now.  But before they can do that, they've got to determine Avogadro's number—the number of atoms in a particular mass of an element, 6.022 x 10^23 if I'm not mistaken—to unprecedented precision.  One strategy is to make a sphere weighing exactly one kilogram, and then count the number of atoms, thereby reverse-engineering the kilogram.  The trouble is, the sphere has to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.  How is the world's most perfect sphere created?  By hand.  No, really:
To improve on the precision of his result from the 1970s and ’80s, Becker needed to reduce the irregularity of his silicon surfaces. He commissioned one of the world’s most renowned lensmakers — a German immigrant in Australia named Achim Leistner — to craft the most perfect sphere ever created, a flawless orb honed precisely to the mass of Le Grand K.
Leistner describes his job as “massaging atoms.” He works by hand because he believes — and the most advanced computer imaging has confirmed — that no machine can match his touch. Taking a 1.01-kilogram silicon ball crudely cut on a 3-D lathe to within 10 micrometers of sphericity, Leistner spends several months polishing the surface by spinning the object inside a pair of funnels — like a scoop of ice cream held between two cones — until he can feel the molecular structure of the cubic silicon crystal itself with his fingertips, 12 edges and eight corners barely protruding from the rounded surface. Then the hard work begins. Without letting the mass of the sphere drop below the 1-kilogram mass of the international prototype, Leistner must polish each of the nearly imperceptible edges and corners, removing mere nanometers of material per week. Since a several-atom layer of silicon dioxide (more familiarly known as quartz) forms on the surface whenever he stops spinning the sphere, and since quartz is much harder than pure silicon, he can spend as many as six hours a day carefully buffing off the oxide layer before reaching the silicon atoms to be shaved.

Amen to that

I just want to second this one from James Fallows:
But it's worth saying something that often gets skipped past in the political handicapping. To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity. I also think that if we were reading handicapping stories about any of those other situations, we'd be getting frequent reminders that what we were talking about was, in the end, simple prejudice.
I grew up in Utah, and yes, Mormons do have some kooky beliefs.  But (to paraphrase Jon Krakauer) the veracity of the Book of Mormon is no less dubious than that of the Bible, the origins of which are lost in the mists of history.  Furthermore, the Bible has the benefit of a long history of serious intellectuals grappling with the latest scientific results, trying to wrestle the Bible's narrative into some kind of metaphorical shape consistent with observable reality.

Basically, there's lots of reasons to reject Romney.  His religion isn't one of them.  As Al Smith said:
Let me make myself perfectly clear. I do not want any Catholic in the United States of America to vote for me on the 6th of November because I am a Catholic. If any Catholic in this country believes that the welfare, the well-being, the prosperity, the growth and the expansion of the United States is best conserved and best promoted by the election of Hoover, I want him to vote for Hoover and not for me.
But, on the other hand, I have the right to say that any citizen of this country that believes I can promote its welfare, that I am capable of steering the ship of state safely through the next four years and then votes against me because of my religion, he is not a real, pure, genuine American.