Archive for the 'politics' Category

Ha! — Obama should read Benedict Carey

July 7, 2009

Sounds like Obama is focusing too hard on not thinking of Putin as Russia’s president:

Mr. Obama lavished praise on Mr. Putin, while stumbling for the second time in as many days over his titles. “I’m aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minister — as president, but in your current role as prime minister.”

Read the post on how pressuring yourself can backfire.


1-2-3: Southern gun culture on the skids

July 7, 2009

Add it up:

1. Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor

Three experiments examined how norms characteristic of a “culture of honor” manifest themselves in the cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and physiological reactions of southern White males. Participants were University of Michigan students who grew up in the North or South. In 3 experiments they were insulted by a confederate [nice one — Ed.] who bumped into the participant and called him an “asshole”. Compared with northerners–who were relatively unaffected by the insult–southerners were (a) more likely to think their masculine reputation was threatened, (b) more upset (as shown by a rise in cortisol levels), (c) more physiologically primed for aggression (as shown by a rise in testosterone levels), (d) more cognitively primed for aggression, and (e) more likely to engage in aggressive and dominant behavior. Findings highlight the insult-aggression cycle in cultures of honor, in which insults diminish a man’s reputation and he tries to restore his status by aggressive or violent behavior.

2. This scene from Barry Lyndon.

3. Williamson [TN] County Seeks To Ban Guns In Parks

A new resolution seeks to bar gun owners from bringing weapons to any Williamson County-owned park, trail or historic site.

Beginning Sept. 1, handgun owners who have carry permits can bring their guns to all local parks in Tennessee, unless leaders in local governments choose to ban them. The General Assembly passed the new law a few weeks ago.

But the resolution sponsored by County Commissioners Mary Brockman, Mary Mills and Judy Hayes would prevent gun owners from bringing their guns to all public parks owned and operated by Williamson County. That would include nature trails, waterways, greenways, historic parks and other similar places.

Jeremy on Facebook commented, “i remember when i first moved to TX there was a huge uproar over the attempted ban of handguns… at the state fair.”

The kicker: Handling a gun boosts testosterone.

Did I accidentally kill Robert McNamara?

July 6, 2009

[I wrote this in as an update to my self-love post, but really it’s a stand-alone post, so I reproduce it here, slightly modified.]

If ever there was a guy who needed to calibrate his self-love, it was Robert McNamara, the much-vilified defense secretary who was forever tarnished by his role in the Vietnam War. This weekend I re-watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary in which McNamara very nearly breaks down with regret for his mistakes (see video below).

Today I learn that McNamara has died. By Jenny McCarthy’s logic, I am partially responsible for the death. I regret my involvement. To atone, I will practice forgiveness, starting with McCarthy and McNamara.

Full video here.

North Korea finally cooperating

July 5, 2009

Pyongyang wants to help us test our missile defense system, says the L.A. Times. Their Jedi training is almost complete!

Though military officials said a clash between missiles of opposing nations was unlikely, preparations for possible action are at the most advanced stage yet. That is in part because of fears that a North Korean test as early as this weekend could involve a missile directed toward Hawaii.

Pff, “unlikely.” Let’s blow shit up!

Citing a potential threat to Hawaii, the U.S. last month deployed a gigantic sea-based radar system that officials say can guide underground interceptor missiles in Alaska and California toward long-range missiles in flight. The military also has intermediate-range land-based missiles, as well as specially equipped ships from which interceptors could be launched.

Wow, this is like reading Tom Clancy.

The system is known as sea-based X-band radar, a reference to the electromagnetic frequency at which it operates.

Now this is some Death Star looking shit right here:

Developed at a cost of about $900 million, the system looks like a giant white ball mounted atop a modified oil-drilling platform that can be moved around. The X-band system is based in Alaska and has made previous trips to Hawaii.

Ok, already, I want to blow shit up!

Still, many experts and critics of the missile defense system think the confidence is misplaced. “It is completely unwarranted, and it is a wild speculation based on assumptions that are almost certainly untrue,” said Theodore Postol, an MIT professor who has studied the system.

Wait, what?

Despite Pentagon claims of technological advances, for example, Postol argued that the U.S. interceptors would have a difficult time telling a missile warhead from “countermeasures” — decoys or other debris meant to fool the interceptors.


Critics also consider the North Korean threat overstated, especially given the long-standing inaccuracy of Pyongyang’s missiles and the fact that they are not equipped during test launches with any kind of warhead, nuclear or nonnuclear.

Whatever, L.A. Times writer person. The first part of your article was way cooler.

“Why would you want to shoot at it? It is not armed with a nuclear weapon, and it is going to land in the ocean,” Postol said. “What we are talking about is shooting at a missile that is not a threat with a missile that can’t intercept it.”

Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Blow. Shit. UP!!

The climate bill you’ve maybe heard about

June 28, 2009

Now’s as good a time as any to begin a bittersweet game of catch-up on affairs of the climate. On Friday, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), by a vote of 219 – 212.

What is ACES?

At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy. [The New York Times]

"grumble grumble"

"grumble grumble"

Bullet points!:

  • “The final bill has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the United States to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by midcentury.”
  • “When the program is scheduled to begin, in 2012, the estimated price of a permit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide will be about $13.”
  • “The bill would grant a majority of the permits free in the early years of the program, to keep costs low.”
  • Next up: it goes to the Senate.
  • But first, these words from Climate Progress:

    For climate-politics realists, the vote today is a staggering achievement.  Today was the first time the U.S. House of Representatives has ever voted on climate legislation.  This country hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans. And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn’t dead set against any government led effort to reduce pollution.

    Yet Waxman-Markey did get 8 Republican votes, which is 8 more than the stimulus bill got!  This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate.  The closeness of the House vote — with 44 Dems voting No — makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

    Apparently Democrats from coal-producing states don’t like to support measures that could disrupt (or be spun as disrupting) their constituent’s livelihoods, which means the bill could face a tough fight in the Senate.

    The main point I take from Emily Gertz is that although ACES isn’t particularly ambitious compared with EU policy, the U.S. has to pass something like it to have credibility going into U.N. climate change talks in December.

    Without concerted action, you can’t do much to mitigate climate change; it’s too deeply connected to global economic development. Here’s Andrew Revkin on his Dot Earth blog:

    The bottom line remains, as the International Energy Agency warned in its  2008 World Energy Outlook, that 97 percent of projected growth in emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use through 2030 (without aggressive action) will come in developing countries, with three-fourths of that growth in China, India and the Middle East.

    The pace of emissions and long-term warming largely will be determined by how the Obama administration and other leaders of industrialized powers handle that reality.

    Ask a materials scientist: Will Iran have democracy?

    June 25, 2009

    It’s a dream of mine to start a column called, “Ask a condensed matter physicist.”

    Muhammad Sahimi is a materials scientist, and that's close enough for me.

    Close enough: materials scientist / chemical engineer Muhammad Sahimi

    This would be sort of like Slate‘s advice column, “Dear Prudence,” except the answers would always begin by framing the ethical problem at hand in terms of a generalized Ising model, sort of like when Steven Strogatz blogged about the differential calculus of love.

    My unsatisfied longing may explain why I was charmed by the following passage from Declan Butler’s Nature News story, “Iran diaspora responds to protests.”

    Despite the repression, researchers are surprisingly optimistic about the eventual outcome of the protests. “I am completely optimistic that Iran will be a democratic state sooner than many think,” says Muhammad Sahimi, a materials scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, “The path will be difficult, but I have complete faith in the Iranian people’s courage and willingness to continue the struggle.”

    I’m a little disappointed Sahimi didn’t mention reaction barriers or glass transitions, but at least it’s a start, y’know?

    Here’s Sahimi on Iran’s nuclear program circa 2003; on why we shouldn’t attack Iran; and the hidden complexities of the election drama.

    Nicholas Kristof has my (old) number

    June 2, 2009

    In my early 20s, you couldn’t get me to swig from somebody else’s drink. You also couldn’t get me to call myself a liberal.

    Nicholas Kristof connects the dots: “People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.”

    Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily

    See also: Conservatives are more easily disgusted.

    Who enforces safety in academic labs?

    May 27, 2009

    Good question.

    The major federal funding agencies, which set the priorities for research on campuses across the country, don’t even ask about a scientist’s safety record before awarding funds, and neither do tenure and promotion committees. At most colleges and universities, the responsibility for lab safety falls to an office of health and safety that has little power over professors who are bringing in millions of dollars in grants. Even serious mishaps rarely damage lab chiefs’ careers.

    Read Beryl Lieff Benderly in Slate.

    The new McCarthyism

    May 12, 2009

    I finally broke down and got some antibiotics from the Wal-Greens clinic on Sunday to kill off this ear-sinus thing of mine. My illness has hindered my commenting on a far more insidious disease: Jenny McCarthy’s wrongheaded campaign against childhood vaccination, now brought to you by Oprah.

    With any luck, given Oprah’s sway with the disconnected masses, this new alliance means kids will soon be dropping in great numbers from measles, whooping cough and other diseases of the Oregon Trail days. I mean, you saw what happened with Oprah’s KFC coupons, right?

    Here’s Jenny’s story in her own words. As Slate points out, she doesn’t give a shit about kids getting sick or dying. What she does give a shit about, in this Time snippet, is dropping the f-bomb on the vaccine-industrial complex:

    I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

    Yikes. Sounds like a lot of pent up frustration and guilt. And as my war with Steven Pinker proves — temporary ceasefires notwithstanding — you can’t fight emotion with Science. Because a) confirmation bias; b) the asymmetrical advantage of bullshit.

    Or in other words, I do sadly believe we’re in for another protracted cultural contest along the lines of evolution vs. creationism.

    Chris Mooney has a thorough run-down of how the new McCarthyism has mutated under the selection pressure of trend data such as these from California. Originally, autism was supposed to have been caused by thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, even though it had been phased out of vaccines (except for flu shots) by 2001. But that didn’t pan out.

    So, according to Mooney:

    Advocates have begun moving the goalposts, now claiming, for instance, that the childhood vaccination schedule hits kids with too many vaccines at once, overwhelming their immune systems. Jenny McCarthy wants to “green our vaccines,” pointing to many other alleged toxins that they contain.

    Naturally, the pro-vaccine camp wants to close off any avenue for debate. But you don’t want to start backtracking, which will be seized on by opponents as evidence the scientists are full of it. Mooney notes the evidence doesn’t rule out “some small subgroup of children might have a particular vulnerability to vaccines and yet be missed by epidemiological studies.”

    Which leads you in to arguments about how big that group might be, where your prior assumptions will depend on whether or not you believe in your bones that doctors are corrupt assholes. Which in turn depends on your experiences with doctors.

    I guess the root cause is a generation of parents who know that autism is a thing kids get but are struggling to cope with it and are looking to vent their pain, which is reasonable enough. And it’s easy pickings to target a public health intervention that’s more invisible the more successful it is. Plus, some doctors are insensitive jerks, and healthcare sucks (I’m told).

    Can blogger activists like David Gorski and skeptic-in-chief Phil Plait do anything to help? I think you have to present the case against vaccine refusers, partly for the sake of integrity and the public record; partly to shore up the hesitaters, concerned parents who have no axe to grind but are simply unsure what to make of McCarthyite arguments.

    It may all come down to state policies and doctors’ attitudes, and that’s terribly unsexy. Damn you, Oprah.

    Freeman Dyson gives us permission to think

    March 29, 2009

    If this profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine doesn’t make it into both science writing anthologies, there is no justice in the world. I can’t recommend it enough. The hook is that Dyson doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. But it touches on everything: life, beauty, genius, science, masculinity, war, string theory, expertise, libertarianism, Greek mythology, polar bears, the Obamas.

    I once claimed that journalists don’t play favorites. I’m forced to eat my words: Freeman Dyson is officially my favorite scientist. Bar none.

    Some immediate reactions:

    • Science is a weapon. 
    • Reasonable people – read: sides of JR’s brain – can disagree about how to frame the potential threats of climate change; or in other words, how shrill to be. (The fact that I always find myself referring to them as “potential threats” says something – to myself, if to noone else.).
    • I think the point for everyone – and by everyone, I mean “me” – is don’t let your commitment to your personal identity blind you to how you’re using “facts” against other people. Translation: I’m sorry, Patrick.

    More textually:

    On why we could have flying cars if we wanted to:

    “I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” 

    On specialists vs. informed outsiders:

    Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” 

    On how to disagree with someone:

    “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” [expert says] but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. 

    On facts vs. values:

    Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

    On coal – well scrubbed, of course:

    Dyson has great affection for [it] and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.

    On how not to become speaker for the dead:

    Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”

    On funny and less funny:

    Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. […] “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist.”

    And finally, on being Michelle Obama:

    Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. […] “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says.