August 2010 Archives

14 years later, simple life-saving idea still in limbo

The New York Times reports on a simple solution to a problem that is killing many hospital patients. The problem:

Hospitalized patients often have an array of clear plastic tubing sticking out of their bodies to deliver or extract medicine, nutrition, fluids, gases or blood to veins, arteries, stomachs, skin, lungs or bladders.

Much of the tubing is interchangeable, and with nurses connecting and disconnecting dozens each day, mix-ups happen….

Tubes intended to inflate blood-pressure cuffs have been connected to intravenous lines, leading to deadly air embolisms. Intravenous fluids have been connected to tubes intended to deliver oxygen, leading to suffocation. And in 2006 Julie Thao, a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis., mistakenly put a spinal anesthetic into a vein, killing 16-year-old Jasmine Gant, who was giving birth.

Another tragic example:

Thirty-five weeks pregnant, Robin Rodgers was vomiting and losing weight, so her doctor hospitalized her and ordered that she be fed through a tube until the birth of her daughter.

But in a mistake that stemmed from years of lax federal oversight of medical devices, the hospital mixed up the tubes. Instead of snaking a tube through Ms. Rodgers’s nose and into her stomach, the nurse instead coupled the liquid-food bag to a tube that entered a vein.

Putting such food directly into the bloodstream is like pouring concrete down a drain.

Her baby died, “And then Robin Rodgers — 24 years old and already the mother of a 3-year-old boy — died on July 18, 2006, as well.”

The simple solution has been obvious for at least fourteen years, yet nothing has happened:

Experts and standards groups have advocated since 1996 that tubes for different functions be made incompatible…

But action has been delayed by resistance from the medical-device industry and an approval process at the Food and Drug Administration that can discourage safety-related changes.

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2010

$20/year for libraries? "No way!" says Stamford's mayor

As of September 13, Stamford’s main library hours will be cut back substantially and Stamford’s branch library hours will be mostly eliminated:

the Harry Bennett branch will open Wednesdays from 3 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; the Weed Memorial & Hollander branch will open Monday from 3 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and the South End branch will open Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Thursday from 2 to 7 p.m.

The main library isn’t much of an option for me because it’s so far away and because there’s no nearby parking downtown. Just getting there and back takes more than an hour. So I rely on the small branch library that’s a few minute’s walk or a larger branch library I can drive to and park at within ten minutes. But their hours are getting cut to the bone.

What’s especially outrageous is how little our new (Republican) mayor — I voted for the other candidate, who was much better — is saving by nearly closing our libraries:

As the library pushes for a new property tax to cover a more than $1 million budget gap, the city responded this week by denying the Board of Representatives' authority to create such a tax.

Michael Larobina, Stamford’s director of legal affairs, released a legal opinion Monday rebuffing a proposed resolution that would add the new levy, known as a library fund, to the October tax billing.

Ferguson Library board Vice Chairwoman Kathryn Emmett has said the resolution would result in an increase of $20 to $27 on the average home’s fall tax bill if it passes.

The move, if successful, would circumvent the city’s budget process, reversing Mayor Michael Pavia’s $1.2 million cut to the Ferguson’s budget request earlier this year.

Supporters of the plan, however, have said the action is permitted under a state law allowing cities and towns to set up a special tax for public libraries. According to the law, “the legislative body of any municipality may establish or operate a public library and reading room” and its facilities, “and may levy a tax annually on all taxable property of the municipality for the establishment and operation of a public library.”

Libraries offer residents so much knowledge and entertainment (including new movies) at so little cost. They also provide Internet access that especially benefits poorer residents who don’t have access at home. Cutting libraries over $20 per year is outrageous.

When my boy asked why the library will be closed so much, my wife immediately mentioned a book I recently bought him, The Very Silly Mayor, about a mayor who orders firemen to put out fires with peanut butter and tells policemen they must wear clown costumes. Except I’d rather have our mayor tell police to wear clown costumes than have him shut down our libraries.

Posted by James on Aug 26, 2010

Ability grouping in schools: Some evidence

I believe grouping by ability enables — but does not automatically cause — teachers to teach to students' abilities and current knowledge. A general principle of education is that optimal learning occurs when students are grappling with material slightly above their comfort zone. If the work is too simple, students don’t learn much. If it’s too hard, they’ll grow frustrated. Grouping by ability, then, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for teachers to teach optimally.

Here’s some evidence for my belief:

Programs that entail only minor adjustment of course content for ability groups usually have little or no effect on student achievement. In some grouping programs, for example, school administrators assign students by test scores and school records to high, middle, and low classes, and they expect all groups to follow the same basic curriculum. The traditional name for this approach is XYZ grouping. Pupils in middle and lower classes in XYZ programs learn the same amount as equivalent pupils do in mixed classes. Students in the top classes in XYZ programs outperform equivalent pupils from mixed classes by about one month on a grade-equivalent scale. Self-esteem of lower aptitude students rises slightly and self-esteem of higher aptitude students drops slightly in XYZ classes.

Grouping programs that entail more substantial adjustment of curriculum to ability have clear positive effects on children. Cross-grade and within-class programs, for example, provide both grouping and curricular adjustment in reading and arithmetic for elementary school pupils. Pupils in such grouping programs outperform equivalent control students from mixed-ability classes by two to three months on a grade-equivalent scale.

Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amount of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. In typical evaluation studies, talented students from accelerated classes outperform non-accelerates of the same age and IQ by almost one full year on achievement tests. Talented students from enriched classes outperform initially equivalent students from conventional classes by 4 to 5 months on grade equivalent scales.

Posted by James on Aug 06, 2010

A golf course even I can (kind of) appreciate

The world would be a better place — I believe — if all golf courses became public parks.

Golf pulls many men away from their families. (Admittedly, many fathers-and-sons have bonded over golf, but on net, golf is a very anti-family sport.) Golf courses hog up space and water. Even worse, they’re addicted to poisonous chemicals, which are bad enough when applied to the course itself but far worse because those chemicals leach into our rivers, lakes and oceans as runoff and are breathed in by people and inhaled and digested by animals.

I wouldn’t feel as bad about golf courses if they embraced an organic approach, as The Vineyard Golf Course on Martha’s Vineyard has:

[The grounds superintendent] has transported microscopic worms from Iowa to attack turf-ruining grubs. He has disrupted the mating cycle of damaging oriental beetles with a strategically placed scent and has grown grass that he believes is more resistant to disease because it developed without chemicals.

We have several golf courses near us, including one that abuts the end of our street. At best, they’re annoyances because I must drive/bike/walk all the way around them. I cannot stroll or jog through them because they’re fenced off. And, even if I could, I would prefer a natural park to hike through with my kids.

At worst, these courses are poisoning us. Incidence of cancer, asthma, nerve damage and reproductive problems rises with proximity to golf courses, schools and farms, which regularly use large quantities of pesticides.

Traditional golf course maintenance methods are unacceptably toxic:

Carlson recalled one of his earliest jobs in the business, in which he mixed mercury-based fungicides by hand, occasionally near the on-course house where he lived with his wife, Kathy.

“Kathy has beautiful, thick red hair, and it started to fall out,” he said. “She went to the doctor, who did some tests and was told she had heavy-metal poisoning. Obviously, I stopped using that stuff. All these years later, it has been kind of satisfying to be trying something so very different.”

Posted by James on Aug 17, 2010

America should have added 20 million jobs; instead, we lost 3.4 million

Bob Herbert writes:

Because of normal growth in the working-age population, the labor force increases by roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people per month.

America must add about 2 million jobs a year to keep pace with the growing labor force. Over the course of a decade, that’s 20 million jobs. Instead:

Mr. McMillion tells us that there are now 3.4 million fewer private-sector jobs in the U.S. than there were a decade ago.

Consequently:

Nearly a million and a half people have been out of work for at least 99 weeks…

With 14.6 million people officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job, and 8.5 million who are working part time but would like to work full time, you end up with nearly 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need.

The system is working brilliantly for Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett. It’s clearly broken for the rest of us.

We’ve got an army of 30 million frustrated, desperate people, many of whom have talents we could be using as tutors or teachers or artists. Could we please focus government spending on creating jobs? The opportunities are endless. For example, unemployed programmers could be paid to create free open-source software, esp. educational software. How about starting with software that lets Americans file their taxes without paying Intuit’s TurboTax tax?

Posted by James on Aug 10, 2010

Are some Apollo "moon rocks" really from the Earth?

At least one of NASA’s “moon rocks” is known to be from Earth:

The Dutch national Rijksmuseum made an embarrassing announcement last week that one of its most loved possessions, a moon rock, is a fake — just an old piece of petrified wood that’s never been anywhere near the moon…

The rock was given as a private gift to former prime minister Willem Drees Jr in 1969 by the U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands, J. William Middendorf II, during a visit by the Apollo 11 astronauts, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, soon after the first moon landing…

Former U.S. ambassador, Mr Middendorf was unable to recall the exact details of how the rock came to be in the U.S. State Department’s possession. It is known that NASA gave lunar rocks to over 100 countries in the 1970s, but when the rock was displayed in 2006 a space expert told the museum he doubted any material would have been given away so soon after the manned lunar landing.

Researchers from the Free University of Amsterdam immediately doubted the rock was from the moon, and began extensive testing. The tests concluded the rock was petrified wood. U.S. embassy officials were unable to explain the findings, but are investigating.

Antarctica is littered with moon meteorites, and the U.S. actively collects them: “the U.S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET)… spend six weeks of every year living in tents on the ice, searching Antarctica for meteorites.”

That’s interesting because NASA’s website says of Wehnher Von Braun — the former Nazi who headed Hitler’s rocket program and later America’s space program — “Dr. Von Braun participated in an expedition to Antarctica [in] 1967”.

What was the designer of the U.S. space program’s Saturn V rocket and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center doing in Antarctica two years before his rocket sent men to the moon? Taking a vacation?

NASA clearly put astronauts into Earth orbit. NASA also clearly sent unmanned probes to the moon. But did NASA really send astronauts to the moon’s surface and bring them back? Holes in the evidence make it a legitimate controversy. I know smart people who believe we did and smart people who believe we didn’t. I’m not convinced either way.

Recent conflicting news about “moon rocks” increases my skepticism. Two years ago, scientists told us Apollo moon rocks suggest the moon had about as much water as the Earth when it formed:

Water has been found conclusively for the first time inside ancient moon samples brought back by Apollo astronauts….

The water was found inside volcanic glass beads, which represent solidified magma from the early moon’s interior. The news swept through much of the scientific community even before being detailed in the journal Nature this week.

“This really appears to have changed the rules of the game,” said Robin Canup, astrophysicist and director of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who was not part of the team that made the discovery. “The assumption has been that the moon is dry.”

Scientists have long assumed the moon was dry because of its violent birth roughly 4.5 billion years ago. The leading theory holds that a Mars-sized planet smashed into Earth and tore off molten pieces that eventually formed into the moon. Most scientists thought that any water in the developing lunar body would have vaporized and been lost to space.

“If there was a lot of water in the early moon, then that is new for sure,” said Ben Bussey, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who also was not involved in the new study….

Saal’s group examined lunar samples brought back from the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. The glass beads range in color from green to yellow-brown to red, depending on their elemental chemistry.

Such beads formed from droplets of molten lava that spewed from fire fountains reaching down deep within the primitive lunar interior…. Saal and his collaborators then used modeling to estimate how much water originally existed in the magma within the moon’s interior, knowing some water would have escaped the molten droplets as a gas on the surface. That led to estimates that the glass beads may contain 745 ppm of water — strikingly similar to solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents (my emphasis).

In recent days, though, a sophisticated new study has shown that the moon did NOT have much water when it formed:

A new analysis of Apollo rocks backs the old idea of a waterless world.

For decades after the Apollo astronauts touched down on the desolate lunar surface, the moon was considered to be parched. But that view began to change in 2008, when researchers found water inside tiny spheres of lunar volcanic glass at concentrations calculated to be similar to those found in some terrestrial volcanic rocks.

Now, researchers led by Zachary Sharp at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque say measurements of chlorine in a dozen Apollo samples suggest that the moon’s interior has always been extremely dry, containing 10,000 to 100,000 times less water than Earth’s.

How can we reconcile substantial water trapped inside “lunar” glass beads with strong evidence that the moon was drier than bone? Perhaps the glass beads are not lunar. Perhaps they’re — as the scientists reported — “strikingly similar to solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents” because they ARE solidified lava that came up from the Earth’s upper mantle through undersea vents.

It’s at least possible Von Braun’s team collected moon rocks in Antarctica but misidentified some terrestrial rocks as lunar rocks.

Posted by James on Aug 09, 2010

Are you prepared for the solar storm that could knock out the power grid?

Me either.

NASA says a solar storm within the next few years could collapse the U.S. power grid.

Wired magazine offers some advice on how to prepare:

A Faraday cage is an enclosure of conducting material that blocks out external static electric fields. If the conductor is thick enough, and the holes are smaller than the incoming electromagnetic radiation’s wavelength, then that radiation won’t be able to pass through. This is the reason why phones don’t work in some buildings and lifts, why microwaves don’t cook you, and is why some shoplifters line their pockets or bags with tinfoil to confound RFID detectors.

So make or buy yourself a Faraday cage, and if you’ve got a computer or external hard drive you just can’t be without, then keep it inside.

I’ll certainly start storing my external hard drives in metal boxes inside plastic bags as this blog advises:

save those cookie tins; put your backups in a firesafe (which you should be doing anyway); if you have an old laptop around, wrap it in plastic and put it in a metal box; and have a plan to put your laptop, cell phone, digital camera, GPS, and 52" flat screen TV in, say, your microwave if you know an electromagnetic pulse is imminent!

The firesafe is also an excellent idea.

Wired further suggests cars, buses and trains could all grind (or crash) to a halt and the entire world financial system is at risk:

While every bank has vaults full of ingots and other valuables, your cash actually exists in a database, albeit one that’s backed up in multiple locations across the world, so that a disaster that’s confined to a local area can’t cause too many problems that won’t be resolved by a swift restoration of a backup.

However, that policy doesn’t work for global events. If that database, along with all its backups, gets wiped by a particularly nasty solar flare, then so does your money. Get it out of the bank, and in a safer, more physical, place instead. Bury it in the garden, hide it in your roof, or stuff it under the mattress. Just get it out of that database.

If the world banking system and the power grid both collapse, having stored all my cash under my mattress probably won’t save me from the ensuing global chaos. So I’m no fan of this idea. On the plus side, though, stuffing cash in my mattress would provide about the same return-on-investment as my bank accounts these days.

Posted by James on Aug 30, 2010

Are your passwords "hopelessly inadequate"?

According to The BBC:

Researchers say the growing number of processors on graphics cards will soon make it trivial for them to crack short passwords.

…The number crunching abilities of graphics cards are now comparable to the multi-million dollar supercomputers built about a decade ago, said Mr Boyd.

The parallel processing systems inside graphics cards are very good at carrying out so-called “brute force” attacks that effectively try every possible combination of letters and numbers until the right one is found….

“Right now we can confidently say that a seven-character password is hopelessly inadequate,” said Mr Boyd, “and as GPU power continues to go up every year, the threat will increase.”

A better alternative, he suggested, would be a 12-character combination of upper and lower case letters, symbols and digits.

Posted by James on Aug 23, 2010

Be great parents for 18 years... and then disappear

I’m laughing at “Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home”, which describes how universities are becoming very aggressive about kicking parents off the grounds after dropping their kids off, but I know letting go of our kids will prove quite painful when that bittersweet day arrives.

It’s easy for non-parents to say, “Just drop your kids off and leave,” but it’s not that easy:

Grinnell College here, like others, has found it necessary to be explicit about when parents really, truly must say goodbye. Move-in day for the 415 freshmen was Saturday. After computer printers and duffle bags had been carried to dorm rooms, everyone gathered in the gymnasium, students on one side of the bleachers, parents on the other.

The president welcoming the class of 2014 had his back to the parents — a symbolic staging meant to inspire “an aha! moment,” said Houston Dougharty, vice president of student affairs, “an epiphany where parents realize, ‘My student is feeling more comfortable sitting with 400 people they just met.’ ”

Shortly after, mothers and fathers were urged to leave campus….

As for Mr. Dougharty of Grinnell College, for the first time in his academic career he missed his own campus’s move-in day. He and his wife were busy Saturday, dropping off their only child, Allie, at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., to begin her freshman year.

Mr. Dougharty had made reservations at a bed-and-breakfast near the campus for Saturday night, but then his wife, Kimberly, questioned why they should stay around after dropping Allie off.

“I had to look at myself in the mirror,” Mr. Dougharty said. “I had thought, ‘On Sunday morning we can swing by and take Allie to breakfast.’ Kimberly was good and sane — ‘We have to get down the road.’ ”

Posted by James on Aug 23, 2010

Children, books and dads

This morning, a friend challenged a Harvard research study finding — that I cited in this March blog post — that “father’s expectations and background apparently had no effect on [children’s] reading [habits].” This just doesn’t match my friend’s intuition or experience. He believes he’s having a strong positive impact on his daughter, who is a very active, enthusiastic reader.

Though I was inclined to believe the study’s findings because my mom encouraged my love of reading more than my dad, I too believe I will positively impact my children’s reading habits. In fact, I wrote my friend, “I clearly don’t believe the finding because I go out of my way to buy books for my nephews. If dads can’t influence their kids' reading, how can uncles?”

So, are we flattering ourselves that we matter, or is the Harvard study wrong?

I began with some hunches about why the study’s findings:

I suspect it partly reflects the cultural norms of the era the study was conducted. The book that cited the study was first published in 1993, so the study itself probably occurred twenty years ago. Back then, men spent less time with their children and more time at the office. So, much of the reading they did probably occurred out of view of their children. And fewer mothers worked back then, so their sheer time with children was greater.

I suspect it also partly reflects the fact that many men — esp. dads busy with jobs and parenting — just don’t read much. Let’s assume that a dad who reads a lot greatly increases his children’s reading. If there were few such dads in the study, then the overall impact of dads' reading habits on children’s reading habits would be small because the study measured the aggregate — rather than marginal — impact of fathers' reading habits.

I also suspect mothers are more likely to read children’s books with their children whereas fathers are more likely to read their own books on their own.

I then hit Google and found that facts support my hunches and that more recent research has found that dads who involve themselves in their children’s reading do exert a major positive impact:

  1. “In most cases, it is the mother who takes the lead in reading to her children – with 73 per cent of youngsters saying she was the main reader in the family compared with just 16 per cent who said their fathers took the lead role.” (Source: The Independent)

  2. “38% of male members of [The Swedish Trade Union Confederation] LO admit to not having read one single book during the past year.” (Source: SPLQ.info)

  3. “In a recent study conducted by the United States Department of Education, researchers discovered from surveys of over 20,000 parents that when fathers took an active role in their children’s education (e.g., attended school meetings, volunteered at school, helped children with homework), children were more likely to receive A’s, participate in extracurricular activities, and enjoy school, and less likely to repeat a grade (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).” (Source: Journal of Extension)

  4. “Several reliable studies have shown high levels of interest by a father in his child’s schooling and education, his high expectations for their achievement and his greater direct involvement in their learning, education and schools to be associated with their better educational outcomes. These include: better exam / test / class results; higher levels of educational qualification; greater progress at school; better attitudes towards school (e.g. enjoyment); higher educational expectations; and better behaviour at school (e.g. reduced risk of suspension or expulsion). And these outcomes do not derive from the school-involved fathers already being richer or better educated. Whatever the father’s socio-economic level, his high involvement paid off. One high quality study demonstrated that a father’s interest in his child’s education is one of the most important factors governing the qualifications he or she will grow up to have in adult life – more important than family background, the child’s individual personality, or poverty. It may well be that the time fathers actually spend with their children on homework and schooling could be more important for their eventual success than the money they bring into the household (for review see Goldman, 2005).” (Source: FatherhoodInstitute.org; this site has lots more info)

  5. “Parents who read books for fun daily are six times more likely than low-frequency reading parents to have kids who also read for fun daily.” (Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Clearly, dads can make a huge, positive impact on their children’s reading (and, indirectly, life outcomes), so it’s a shame so many dads apparently don’t bother.

Don’t let Caroline Snow’s decades-old negative finding discourage you from helping and encouraging your kids to read.

Posted by James on Aug 04, 2010

Chris Hedges: "We have to begin to prepare for collapse"

Chris Hedges believes human society is heading for inevitable collapse and there’s nothing the masses — even if we decided to call a time-out on capitalist greed that is destroying our planet — can do to prevent it — at least not “through established political or social organizations or electoral politics” — because wealthy, powerful elites hold all the real power and aren’t willing to sacrifice even a fraction of their wealth or power to save our beautiful planet.

We have to stop believing that we can effect change through established political or social organizations or electoral politics, and I think that still remains a huge hurdle for us people who in the end, through accommodation of fear and very clever advertising, are herded like sheep into a dysfunctional system, which is how so many people who should have known better voted for Obama. The environmental crisis that we’re about to face will be even more catastrophic than the economic, and we have to, on a personal level, reconsider how we relate to the society at large and to the ecosystem. We have both personal and social decisions to make. At this point most people are not willing to make those choices or take those steps….

Well, the coup d’etat is over, and they won. We lost. And now we have to learn to cope with it. It is very clear that the engines of corporatism and globalization are going to kill the ecosystem, no matter how many dead zones are created in the Gulf of Mexico or protests organized. We are going to have to make some very serious decisions about acts that dispute a system that in theological terms is a system of death and exploitation. And yet even then, it’s probably too late. If you read closely the science on global warming, it’s disrupting, even if we stop emissions, global warming will accelerate because of what has already been emitted. I think we have to begin to prepare for collapse, and if you want to survive, that’s going to mean access to a local food source. So, in the end I’m with Camus, I don’t think we’re going to fool ourselves into thinking we can make a change. It’s all hijacked, the political system, financial system … hijacked military complex, it’s hijacked, even all of our social and educational systems. I’ve taught at places like Princeton and they all function like corporations. We’ve allowed these corporations to snuff out all voices of sanity and decency and why we listen to this garbage and why we watch it. … Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are as bad as the right wing; they are all playing the same wing, nobody is addressing the institutional methods that are strangling us. I don’t care if it’s from the left or right, it all acts as diversion to keep us in a state of self-delusion.

While I’m inclined to share Hedges' pessimism realism, I keep thinking/hoping the power elite must some day wake up and realize they (and their kids and grandchildren) also live on Planet Earth. Do they believe their vast wealth will protect them after society collapses?

Posted by James on Aug 05, 2010

Chris Hedges: "Why the Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn"

Chris Hedges has written an excellent article on the FBI’s recently released files it kept on historian Howard Zinn. Hedges points out the FBI feared Zinn not because he was a criminal (because he wasn’t) or because he advocated violence (because he didn’t) or even because he was a member of the Communist Party (which the FBI repeatedly claimed to Zinn’s repeated denials). Why, then, did the FBI really fear this nerdy historian?

Zinn… did not advocate violence or support the overthrow of the government, something he told FBI interrogators on several occasions. He was rather an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. It always challenges prevailing assumptions as well as political and economic structures. It is based on a fierce moral autonomy and personal courage and it is uniformly branded by the power elite as “political.” Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth.

Though the FBI spied on Zinn constantly, they amazingly never found any dirt on him. Nevertheless, they still considered him a high-security risk:

At one point five agents are assigned to follow Zinn. Agents make repeated phone calls to employers, colleagues and landlords seeking information. The FBI, although Zinn is never suspected of carrying out a crime, eventually labels Zinn a high security risk. J. Edgar Hoover, who took a personal interest in Zinn’s activities, on Jan. 10, 1964, drew up a memo to include Zinn “in Reserve Index, Section A,” a classification that permitted agents to immediately arrest and detain Zinn if there was a national emergency.

Over 10,000 people lost their jobs and careers through anti-communist witch hunts:

FBI agents in November 1953 wrote up an account of a clumsy attempt to recruit Zinn as an informant, an attempt in which they admitted that Zinn “would not volunteer information” and that “additional interviews with ZINN would not turn him from his current attitude.” A year later, after another interrogation, an agent wrote that Zinn “concluded the interview by stating he would not under any circumstances testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others.”

While Zinn steadfastly refused to cooperate in the anti-communist witch hunts in the 1950s, principals and college administrators were busy purging classrooms of those who, like Zinn, exhibited intellectual and moral independence. The widespread dismissals of professors, elementary and high school teachers and public employees—especially social workers whose unions had advocated on behalf of their clients—were carried out quietly. The names of suspected “Reds” were handed to administrators and school officials under the FBI’s “Responsibilities Program.” It was up to the institutions, nearly all of which complied, to see that those singled out lost their jobs. There rarely were hearings. The victims did not see any purported evidence. They were usually abruptly terminated. Those on the blacklist were effectively locked out of their professions. The historian Ellen Schrecker estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 people were blackballed through this process.

Hedges has been teaching Zinn’s People’s History of the United States to a class of prisoners, and the book truly speaks to them:

Zinn’s book is revered in my cramped [prison] classroom. It is revered because these men intimately know racism, manipulation, poverty, abuse and the lies peddled by the powerful. Zinn recorded their voices and the voices of their ancestors. They respect him for this. Zinn knew that if we do not listen to the stories of those without power, those who suffer discrimination and abuse, those who struggle for justice, we are left parroting the manufactured myths that serve the interests of the privileged. Zinn set out to write history, not myth. And he knew that when these myths implode it is the beginning of hope.

“If you were a Native American,” one of my students asked recently, “what would have been the difference between Columbus and Hitler?”

Posted by James on Aug 04, 2010

Court says government can slap tracking device on your car without a warrant

From TIME magazine:

Government agents can sneak onto your property in the middle of the night, put a GPS device on the bottom of your car and keep track of everywhere you go. This doesn’t violate your Fourth Amendment rights, because you do not have any reasonable expectation of privacy in your own driveway — and no reasonable expectation that the government isn’t tracking your movements.

That is the bizarre — and scary — rule that now applies in California and eight other Western states. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers this vast jurisdiction, recently decided the government can monitor you in this way virtually anytime it wants — with no need for a search warrant. (See a TIME photoessay on Cannabis Culture.)

It is a dangerous decision — one that, as the dissenting judges warned, could turn America into the sort of totalitarian state imagined by George Orwell. It is particularly offensive because the judges added insult to injury with some shocking class bias: the little personal privacy that still exists, the court suggested, should belong mainly to the rich.

…people who protect their homes with electric gates, fences and security booths have a large protected zone of privacy around their homes. People who cannot afford such barriers have to put up with the government sneaking around at night.

Posted by James on Aug 29, 2010

Did someone repeal the 4th Amendment when I wasn't looking?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” — US Constitution, 4th Amendment

The government may be looking at everything inside your car as you drive down the street. Forbes reports “Full-Body Scan Technology Deployed In Street-Roving Vans”:

American Science & Engineering, a company based in Billerica, Massachusetts, has sold U.S. and foreign government agencies more than 500 backscatter x-ray scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles to see their contents, Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing at the company told me in an interview. …Reiss says law enforcement agencies have also deployed the vans to search for vehicle-based bombs in the U.S….

EPIC’s Rotenberg says that the scans, like those in the airport, potentially violate the fourth amendment. “Without a warrant, the government doesn’t have a right to peer beneath your clothes without probable cause,” he says. Even airport scans are typically used only as a secondary security measure, he points out. “If the scans can only be used in exceptional cases in airports, the idea that they can be used routinely on city streets is a very hard argument to make.”

This is the latest unconstitutional violation of Americans' 4th amendment privacy rights. New scanners in airports can look under your clothes and provide graphic images of your genitalia. Forbes:

Negrin, a 44-year old TSA worker in Miami, faces assault charges after beating a fellow airport security employee who mocked the size of his genitals after they were revealed in a full-body scanning exercise.

The Guardian:

The rapid introduction of full body scanners at British airports threatens to breach child protection laws which ban the creation of indecent images of children, the Guardian has learned.

Privacy campaigners claim the images created by the machines are so graphic they amount to “virtual strip-searching” and have called for safeguards to protect the privacy of passengers involved.

Ministers now face having to exempt under 18s from the scans or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure airport security staff do not commit offences under child pornography laws.

They also face demands from civil liberties groups for safeguards to ensure that images from the £80,000 scanners, including those of celebrities, do not end up on the internet. The Department for Transport confirmed that the “child porn” problem was among the “legal and operational issues” now under discussion in Whitehall.

TSA has repeatedly promised to use new privacy-violating technologies sparingly and then quickly breaking those promises:

TSA assured us that the scanners would be used only as a “voluntary alternative” to “a more invasive physical pat-down during secondary screening.” Only a few passengers, the ones selected for extra scrutiny, would face the scanners. The rest of us could walk through the metal detectors and board our planes.

Surprise! Two months ago, TSA revised its position. It began testing millimeter-wave scans “in the place of the walk-through metal detector at six airports.” At these airports, everyone—not just people selected for secondary screening—would face the see-through machines. Anyone who objected would “undergo metal detector screening and a pat-down.” You might even get the “enhanced pat-down,” which includes “sensitive areas of the body that are often used by professional testers and terrorists,” such as “the breast and groin areas of females and the groin area of males.” Show us your body, or we’ll feel you up.

Now the plan is going nationwide. Joe Sharkey of the New York Times reports that TSA “plans to replace the walk-through metal detectors at airport checkpoints with whole-body imaging machines—the kind that provide an image of the naked body.”

…Two years ago, I linked to a scan that seemed to expose every intimate body contour of TSA’s research lab director. TSA argued that the picture was moot because its machines (which at the time used backscatter technology) had been upgraded with a “privacy algorithm” to obscure such features. But you won’t find the phrase privacy algorithm on that page anymore; it’s been scrubbed. In fact, privacy algorithm has completely disappeared from TSA’s Web site. So have the images that used to show a frontal backscatter image of a male passenger. All you can find on TSA’s millimeter-wave page are four scans shrunk to a size so tiny you’d need a magnifying glass to make sense of them. Good luck figuring out how much they show—and why they look nothing like the image depicted in a video (WMV file) on the TSA site….

The lesson of the escalating body scans, like the escalating pat-downs, is that TSA will do whatever it thinks it needs to do. Last year, when the agency announced its “enhanced” pat-downs, it… [said] any detail omitted by airport screeners—a blurred crotch in the body scan, an untouched groin during the pat-down—becomes a “gap” exploited by terrorists or testers, which must then be closed.

These technologies clearly violate Americans' 4th Amendment rights. And there’s zero evidence they have prevented a single terror attack. So why are taxpayers paying hundreds of millions of dollars to let government agents — nominally public servants — violate our privacy rights?

Posted by James on Aug 29, 2010

For demonstrating flaw in India's electronic voting, researcher arrested

If you want honest, secure elections, you can’t rely on paperless electronic voting because such machines can be programmed to report whatever “results” the last person to upload code to the machine wants them to report.

But if you foolishly (or devilishly) insist on paperless electronic voting machines, you had better make sure they can’t be easily tampered with.

To ensure machines aren’t easily tampered with, countries should encourage legitimate researchers to try to hack into those machines and then fix whatever flaws they uncover. Researchers who demonstrate flaws should be thanked and rewarded.

Instead, India is doing the opposite, denying legitimate researchers access to its paperless electronic voting machines and then arresting those who manage to get access to a machine and demonstrate flaws that could be used to rig a national or regional elections:

Hari Prasad is the managing director of Netindia Ltd., an Indian research and development firm. He and other researchers have long questioned the security of India’s paperless electronic voting machines. Despite repeated reports of election irregularities and concerns about fraud, the Election Commission of India insists that the machines are tamper-proof.

In 2009, the commission publicly challenged Prasad to show that India’s voting machines could be compromised, but refused to give him access to the machines to perform a review. Earlier this year, an anonymous source provided an Indian voting machine to a research team led by Prasad, Alex Halderman, and Rop Gonggrijp. The team exposed security flaws that could allow an attacker to change election results and compromise ballot secrecy. They published a paper detailing their findings, which you can read here.

According to Halderman, Prasad was questioned Saturday morning at his home in Hyderabad by authorities who wanted to know the identity of the source who gave the voting machine to the research team. Prasad was ultimately arrested and taken to Mumbai, though reportedly hadn’t been charged with a crime.

With so many nations abandoning paper ballots and embracing unauditable paperless electronic voting machines, the only question is: Are our leaders just plain stupid or are the powerful using these machines to steal elections for their friends?

Given that Washington, DC now works for corporate America and against the interests of the vast majority of Americans and given incontrovertible proof of election theft (like Bush “beating” Kerry in Ohio in 2004), I sure believe these machines are stealing elections for pro-corporate politicians. It’s probably also happening elsewhere.

Posted by James on Aug 26, 2010

For good health, stand up and drink several beers a day

First, an update on two financial/health-related resolutions I made a few months back:

I blogged that I would stop drinking coffee and gradually reduce my caffeine consumption. Well, I’ve eliminated coffee, except when my wife craves some on the weekends. But I’m not eliminating caffeine. I’m drinking a fair amount of green tea, which may be good for me and probably isn’t bad. It’s also quite cheap, since my in-laws brought giant bags back with them from China earlier this year. And unlike coffee, with its messy grinds, I can make and clean up tea quite quickly.

I also blogged that sitting down is killing us. I’ve had mixed results with standing up. When I remember to do it, I’m quite good. Some days, I stand all day long. Other days, I sit all day. And I do think I feel better — and a bit tired — after standing all day. I wish I had a desk that could easily go up and down. Instead, I stick an empty 56-quart plastic container between my desk and laptop because it’s about the right height and gives me a reasonably large working surface. Far from ideal, but doing it every other day or so probably helps.

A new American Cancer Society study provides even more evidence that sitting down is killing us. The Chicago Tribune reports:

a new study that tracked more than 100,000 adults for 14 years… [by] the American Cancer Society in Atlanta followed 53,000 men and 70,000 women and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their physical activity.

Even after adjusting for body mass index (BMI) and smoking, the researchers found that women who sit more than 6 hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die than those who sit less than 3 hours; for men, long-sitters were 17 percent more likely to die.

People who exercise regularly had a lower risk, but still significant, risk of dying. Those who sat a lot and moved less than three and a half hours per day are the most likely to die early: researchers found a 94 percent increased risk for women and 48 percent increase for men, they announced recently in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Of course, less healthy people are likely to sit more, so it’s not cause-and-effect. But it’s a strong enough correlation for me to want to sit less.

Now, the exciting beer news:

A study of 1,824 adults ages 55 to 65 found that moderate and heavy drinkers were less likely to die than abstainers over a 20-year span, according to researchers at the University of Texas in Austin and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Moderate drinkers were defined as those who have one to fewer than three drinks daily, with heavy drinkers having three or more alcoholic beverages a day, according to the study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The results refuted a common criticism of previous similar findings about drinking and longevity that results were skewed because researchers included former problem drinkers with poor health in the abstainers’ group. The Texas and Stanford authors found that, even after excluding results from past problem drinkers and people with poor health status such as obesity, moderate drinkers still lived longer than nondrinkers, they said.

“Importantly, any health-protective effects of alcohol appear to be limited to regular moderate drinking,” wrote the study authors, led by Charles Holahan, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. “Heavy episodic drinking — even when average consumption remains moderate — is associated with increased cardiovascular risk.”

Overall, older adults who didn’t drink at all had a 49 percent greater risk of dying during the 20 years of the study than those who drank moderately, the researchers found. Heavy drinkers had a 42 percent increased risk of dying compared with moderate drinkers, the study found.

A 49% greater risk of dying is quite a difference!

My wife didn’t appreciate this study’s research finding. She couldn’t quibble with the researchers, since she considers Stanford the best and most wonderful university in the whole world. So she rationalized that it must have been funded by big alcohol. But it wasn’t. It was paid for by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

If you’re not prone to alcoholism, drinking a couple beers a day might actually do your body some good. I have no idea why this might be so. But this data is pretty astonishing.

And the statistical benefits of alcohol go beyond longer life. SeniorJournal.com reports:

Sixty-eight studies of 145,303 people confirm positive impact of alcohol on mental ability

The results of this study support findings from previous research on the topic: In the last three decades, the association between moderate alcohol intake and cognitive function has been investigated in 68 studies comprising 145,308 men and women from various populations with various drinking patterns.

Most studies show an association between light to moderate alcohol consumption and better cognitive function and reduced risk of dementia, including both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Such effects could relate to the presence in wine of a number of polyphenols (antioxidants) and other micro elements that may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline with ageing. Mechanisms that have been suggested for alcohol itself being protective against cognitive decline include effects on atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), coagulation (thickening of the blood and clotting), and reducing inflammation (of artery walls, improving blood flow).

Again, this does not prove causation. But it’s suggestive that moderate alcohol consumption may provide a range of health benefits.

Posted by James on Aug 31, 2010

Gifted students watch more TV than ordinary kids - but their choices are different

Researching my previous post, I stumbled onto this interesting September 1999 Today’s Parent article advising parents to watch TV with their kids, set limits on what their kids watch, and — most importantly — teach their children to evaluate shows' content and choose shows thoughtfully:

When Harvard’s Caroline Snow did a study of factors affecting reading among children in Massachusetts, she found that the active choice of programs was more important in developing kids who read than simply limiting the hours spent looking at the tube. Gifted students actually watch more TV than ordinary kids – but their choices are different.

Kealy Wilkinson, national director of the Alliance for Children and Television (ACT) in Toronto, agrees. “Development of critical viewing skills is one of the most important things we can give to children. This starts early, at the toddler level, helping children to choose shows and then talk about what they see. Your television set really is a window on the world, not just background noise. With TV, you get to choose the view out that window.”

Bonnie and George Holliday, who live outside the small town of Mount Forest, Ontario, have helped their children learn to choose programs since they were infants. Even now that her kids are 12 and 16, Bonnie says, “I still go through the TV guide with the kids to help them choose programs. …There are limits… But if you’re watching with the kids, then you can talk about the language that’s used, or the violence, or whether or not a situation on TV is real. And we have turned off programs when we feel they’re inappropriate.”

…ACT’s Wilkinson says that she, too, has put some limits on what programs her kids can watch, but she feels that prohibition doesn’t work nearly as well as discussion. “There is a place for parents to say, ‘You can’t watch that show,’ but where and how you draw the line is important. It’s usually not as useful to say, ‘No you can’t’ as it is to say, ‘Let’s watch this show together.’”

Posted by James on Aug 04, 2010

Google already is Big Brother

Google CEO Eric Schmidt confessed to being Big Brother at the Techonomy conference Wednesday:

“If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go,” Schmidt said…

“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos!”

…He said that addressing issues such as identity theft, for instance, required “true transparency and no anonymity”.

“In a world of asynchronous threats,” said Schmidt, “it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

Schmidt’s comments come just days after hacker Samy Kamkar demonstrated a technique that used Google’s Street View Wi-fi data to identify an individual’s location remotely down to as little as nine metres.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Google knows us better than J. Edgar Hoover could ever dream of, and Google apparently can’t resist the temptation to exploit its petabytes of data on us.

Posted by James on Aug 06, 2010

Have we found some of the missing oil?

From FloridaOilSpillLaw.com:

Barbara Schebler of Homosassa, Florida… received word last Friday that test results on the water from her family’s swimming pool showed 50.3 ppm of 2-butoxyethanol, a marker for the dispersant Corexit 9527A used to break up and sink BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The problems began for the Scheblers a few weeks after the April 20 blow-out. “Our first clue were rashes we both got early in May. Both my husband and I couldn’t get rid of the rashes and had to get cream from our doctor,” Schebler noted, “I never had a rash in my life.”

Then, on “July [23], my husband Warren mowed the lawn. It was hot so he got in the pool to cool off afterward. That afternoon he had severe diarrhea and very dark urine. This lasted about 2 days,” she revealed.

Initially, they reasoned this was caused by the heat. The following week Mr. Schebler again mowed the lawn and went in the pool, and again he was sickened with the same severe symptoms.

They could have gotten this from rain or from Corexit blowing through the air after being dispersed by planes or helicopters. Either way, it’s safe to say the environmental damage from the oil and Corexit is massive and will never be fully understood. And Corexit is probably causing even bigger problems than the oil it was dispersed to hide.

Posted by James on Aug 31, 2010

Hemorrhagic fever cure wonderful, but let's please globalize biowarfare research

The Marburg and Ebola hemorrhagic fevers are horrifying. They basically liquify your body till you bleed to death. Caregivers are likely to contract the disease themselves. And most who catch these horrible diseases die from them after several weeks of suffering.

So I’m thrilled to learn U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases researchers may have found a cure.

I’ve long opposed America’s massive expansion of research into biological weapons and deadly diseases that could be weaponized. Since the first Bush Administration, I’ve argued that America’s biological weapons research expansion has triggered a global arms race of such research that makes the world a much more dangerous place. I’m not opposed to such research per se but against nationalized research programs because countries fear what other countries may be doing. I much prefer multinational research efforts because they assure the world the research is open and the fruits of the research will be shared widely.

Given that researching rare diseases like smallpox and Ebola is not commercially viable, such research must be conducted (or at least paid for) by governments. And there are few legitimate reasons for governments to engage in such research in secret. Therefore, national programs should be rolled into multinational collaborations.

So, while I applaud USAMRIID’s apparent achievement (and hope that its findings are published in detail), I also urge America to move the world toward a more globalized research model for research aimed at protecting against potential biological weapons.

Posted by James on Aug 31, 2010

If you think your commute is bad...

AP reports that “China’s massive traffic jam could last for weeks”!

A massive traffic jam in north China that stretches for dozens of miles and hit its 10-day mark on Tuesday stems from road construction in Beijing that won’t be finished until the middle of next month, an official said….

Some drivers have been stuck in the jam for five days, China Central Television reported Tuesday. But Zhang said he wasn’t sure when the situation along the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway would return to normal.

At Stanford in the 1990s, I wrote a paper describing how oil, rubber, tire, and car companies conspired in the 1930s and 1940s to destroy American cities' trolley cars and replace them with automobiles. Only decades later — after our car-centric culture produced daily gridlock and unrelenting asphalt jungles — would Americans realize how much they missed reliable, cheap, congestion-proof trolley cars.

My paper argued that Americans didn’t realize what a mistake they were making in ripping up their dedicated trolley car tracks and replacing them with wheeled buses that would have to compete with cars on increasingly congested streets. But, I argued, China could see America’s mistake and avoid our fate by emphasizing mass transit and discouraging car usage (through high car taxes, etc.). I argued that the sooner Chinese cities set aside rights-of-way for trolleys and subways, the cheaper and easier mass transportation construction would be.

Instead, the lure of automobiles proved too seductive for China. Although China places more emphasis on public transportation than America does, China’s massive population and crowded cities mean Chinese roads are becoming congested with a far smaller percentage of people driving cars.

Excessive reliance on cars and trucks leads to massive traffic jams that waste people’s time and destroy perishable goods:

Bumper-to-bumper gridlock spanning for 60 miles (100 kilometers) with vehicles moving little more than a half-mile (one kilometer) a day at one point has improved since this weekend, said Zhang Minghai, director of Zhangjiakou city’s Traffic Management Bureau general office…

The traffic jam started Aug. 14 on a stretch of the highway that is frequently congested, especially after large coalfields were discovered in Inner Mongolia, Zhang said. Traffic volume has increased 40 percent every year.

Drivers stranded in the gridlock in the Inner Mongolia region and Hebei province, headed toward Beijing, passed the time sleeping, walking around, or playing cards and chess. Local villagers were doing brisk business selling instant noodles, boxed lunches and snacks, weaving between the parked trucks on bicycles.

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2010

Is high-fructose corn syrup causing millions of American cancer deaths?

I’ve read before that fructose is a very unhealthy sugar, so I’ve long avoided products with high-fructose corn syrup. I don’t drink sodas and buy only all-natural ice cream (made with sugar and cream and no high-fructose corn syrup).

But I do indulge in bananas, something I may reconsider now that researchers have discovered one major way fructose can devastate your health:

Pancreatic tumor cells use fructose to divide and proliferate, U.S. researchers said on Monday in a study that challenges the common wisdom that all sugars are the same.

Tumor cells fed both glucose and fructose used the two sugars in two different ways, the team at the University of California Los Angeles found.

They said their finding, published in the journal Cancer Research, may help explain other studies that have linked fructose intake with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancer types.

“These findings show that cancer cells can readily metabolize fructose to increase proliferation,” Dr. Anthony Heaney of UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center and colleagues wrote.

Posted by James on Aug 04, 2010

Is there "a Chinese language"?

When I met my soon-to-be-wife in 1994, I didn’t know where in China people spoke Mandarin and where they spoke Cantonese. Sixteen years later, I’m capable of communicating to a fair degree with Mandarin speakers, like my mother-in-law, but Cantonese remains totally incomprehensible. And I can only sporadically understand — and even then only with the help of knowing the context of what he’s talking about — my father-in-law, who grew up in a rural village outside Shanghai and speaks some kind of Chinese that many native Mandarin speakers can’t understand. (As an example, the English word “free” sounds like “myen fay” in Mandarin, but my father-in-law says “mee fee.” Those two words may look similar, but because so many Mandarin words sound so similar to one another, there’s actually a huge difference between “myen fay” and “mee fee.”)

And in our neighborhood, there are a fair number of Chinese families with whom we (esp. my in-laws, as they take care of our daughter during the day) occasionally chat. My in-laws have a very hard time understanding some of those families, who speak other Chinese “dialects.” Even my mother-in-law, who speaks a reasonably standard Mandarin, sometimes confuses me by mixing in words from her native Nanjing that are not part of standard Mandarin.

I thought I knew that all Chinese (aside from obvious “non-Chinese” ethnic groups, like the Tibetans and Uighurs) use the same written language and simply pronounce words differently.

But after protests broke out in Southern China several weeks ago (following rumors that Beijing was going to push Guangdong media stations to use more Mandarin and less Cantonese), The Economist wrote that the common (mis)conception of “Chinese” as a unified written language is untrue:

The writing system is not a pan-dialectal written form that ties all varieties of Chinese together, as many believe. The character 我 is pronounced wǒ in Mandarin, ngóh in Cantonese/Yue, góa in Taiwanese, ngú in Shanghainese, ǎ in Gan, and so on; it means “I” in all those languages. But this doesn’t mean written Chinese is pan-dialectal. To write Cantonese so it can properly be read out and accepted as real Cantonese requires different character order, special characters, sometimes Roman letters, and quite a bit of ingenuity, since it there is no standard way of doing so…

Meanwhile many Chinese really do believe that they speak dialects of a single thing called Chinese, which they all write the same way—even if, to use a European analogy, the Chinese language family resembles not British vs. American vs. Irish English, but something more like English vs. Frisian vs. German. And they persist in believing in their linguistic unity probably because the Chinese really do see themselves as part of a single Han people.

Posted by James on Aug 16, 2010

It's the (real) economy, stupid!

Bill Clinton’s mantra was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Today’s mantra should be “It’s the fiscal policy, stupid!”

Instead, Washington and the Fed are fixated on using expansionary monetary policy. But they’re ignoring their real tool for boosting the economy — fiscal policy. In fact, they’re pursuing contractionary fiscal policy — cutting the deficit rather than stimulating the economy. The real economy is in trouble, but we’re only stimulating the financial economy.

We need government spending that puts people to work or keeps them employed, like aid for states and towns so they don’t have to lay off school teachers. Instead, we’re getting even looser monetary policy. It’s not working, and Marshall Auerback explains why:

Recent speeches by the Fed suggest that they are indeed laying the groundwork for such a return to quantitative easing, or “QE2” as the markets are now calling it. It’s not the name of a ship-liner: quantitative easing essentially means that the central bank buys up high yielding assets and exchanges them for lower yielding assets. The premise is that the central bank floods the banking system with excess reserves, which will then theoretically encourage the banks to lend more aggressively in order to chase a higher rate of return. Not only is the theory plain wrong, but the Fed’s fixation on credit growth is curiously perverse, given the high prevailing levels of private debt. More borrowing is the last thing the highly stressed and leveraged American household requires today.

As we have argued many times in the past, credit growth follows creditworthiness, which can only be achieved through sustaining job growth and incomes. That means embracing stimulatory fiscal policy, not “credit-enhancing” measures per se, such as quantitative easing, which will not work….

What is required to drive lending is a creditworthy borrower on the other side of the bank lending officer’s desk, which means an employed borrower, whose income allows him to sustain regular repayments. Absent that, there will be no lending activity.

Posted by James on Aug 05, 2010

I" vs. "we

Another interesting article from Richard Thaler, one of the more interesting academic economists:

Professor Roll [and] three French collaborators… investigated a particular form of hubris — narcissism — by using a simple and unobtrusive gauge that has been validated by psychologists: just count the number of times a person uses the first-person pronoun in communication. They found that the more narcissistic C.E.O.’s make more aggressive takeovers at higher prices than their more self-effacing brethren do, and that these aggressive takeovers aren’t as well received by the stock market.

The article also says:

C.F.O.s were asked about their expectations for the return of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index for the next year — both their best guess and their 80 percent confidence limit. This means that in the example above, there would be a 10 percent chance that the return would be higher than the upper bound, and a 10 percent chance that it would be less than the lower one.

It turns out that C.F.O.’s, as a group, display terrible calibration. The actual market return over the next year fell between their 80 percent confidence limits only a third of the time, so these executives weren’t particularly good at forecasting the stock market. In fact, their predictions were negatively correlated with actual returns. For example, in the survey conducted on Feb. 26, 2009, the C.F.O.’s made their most pessimistic predictions, expecting a market return of just 2.0 percent, with a lower bound of minus 10.2 percent. In fact, the market soared 42.6 percent over the next year.

…[T]hese executives apparently don’t realize that they lack forecasting ability. And, just as important, they don’t seem to be aware of how volatile the market can be, even in “normal” times.

Posted by James on Aug 23, 2010

J.P. Morgan Chase is evil: $40 in late fees on an $11 balance!

Whenever possible, we use our Costco AmEx card because it has been good to us. We get a percent or two back on our purchases, and when our brand new video camera was stolen in a Paris train station years ago, Amex cheerfully compensated us.

But we recently made a purchase on our Chase Sapphire card somewhere Amex was not accepted. And when the bill arrived, steam began pouring out of my head. Here’s how Chase Bank lost my business.

I called at 9:23 am. Before talking with anyone, the message said, “We’re sorry. If you feel you were disconnected by error, please call back. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

I called right back at 9:26 am and was told I was speaking with [name removed] in Orlando.

I explained that we never saw the bill and normally pay all our bills upon receipt. I said $40.50 in late fees and one month’s interest on an $11.94 balance seems totally unreasonable.

She said, “We wouldn’t be able to adjust fees. We do have the correct mailing address and nothing was sent back to us.”

She said the late fee was calculated based on the amount outstanding during the statement period. The late fee was applied 8/17, the same day we made a $490 purchase using the card and three days before the close of the billing statement. According to Chase, one missed payment on $11.94 plus three days interest on $490 — with interest rates at about 0.2%! — equals $40.50.

I asked, “So if we hadn’t made that purchase, we wouldn’t have been charged a late fee?”

She said we would still have received a late fee, but it would have been $15, not $39.

I said I knew it wasn’t her fault but that this was outrageous and that I had $20,000 sitting in another Chase account that I would be moving to another bank immediately and that I would be canceling this card as soon as I paid it off. I then said, “Have a nice day” and hung up.

These big banks are evil!

P.S. My wife emailed me: “Can you look into one of the local banks, like People’s Bank, near us? Chase has annoyed me for quite a while. Their bank accounts have extremely low interest rate compared to others, and they charge a lot of fees.” With pleasure!

P.P.S. The J.D. Power small business bank ratings give TD Bank the top rating. It’s J.D. Power’s only five-star small business bank. I’ll move my small business banking to them. I’m angry enough at Chase to head out the door this minute, but I’ll wait till Monday so I can bring my son (whose last day of school at his daycare is today) with me and teach him how banks work. We’ll also move our family banking from Chase and Citibank, both of which “earned” lousy J.D. Power scores. Sadly, the clear-cut retail banking winner in the Northeast, Eastern Bank, doesn’t operate around here. But moving to just about any other bank will be a step up from Chase.

P.P.P.S. A friend of my wife seems to be something of an expert on how banks handle late payments. She says some banks are willing to forgive one late payment per year but that Chase NEVER forgives anything.

Posted by James on Aug 27, 2010

Military spending millions to urge soldiers to kill for Jesus

Over the past decade, the U.S. military has embraced evangelical Christianity to an absolutely shocking degree:

This has outraged not only Jewish and Muslim soldiers (and, I presume, atheist soldiers) but also many non-evangelical Christian soldiers. Catholic soldiers seem especially angry.

Beyond the very serious religious freedom problems, the evangelical Christianization of the U.S. military also undermines the U.S. military’s ability to operate effectively in Muslim countries we currently occupy and intensifies other nations' fears of the U.S. military.

In response, a former soldier established The Military Religious Freedom Foundation to fight the religious radicalization of the U.S. military that has strong support even from many generals and admirals and at U.S. military academies, esp. the Air Force Academy.

Here’s an example:

For the past several years, two U.S. Army posts in Virginia, Fort Eustis and Fort Lee, have been putting on a series of what are called Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concerts. As I’ve written in a number of other posts, “spiritual fitness” is just the military’s new term for promoting religion, particularly evangelical Christianity. And this concert series is no different.

On May 13, 2010, about eighty soldiers, stationed at Fort Eustis while attending a training course, were punished for opting out of attending one of these Christian concerts. The headliner at this concert was a Christian rock band called BarlowGirl, a band that describes itself as taking “an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God.”

…The father of the three Barlow sisters who make up the band was also quoted in the [Army post’s newspaper], saying, “We really believe that to be a Christian in today’s world, you have to be a warrior, and we feel very blessed and privileged that God has given us the tool to deliver His message and arm His army.”

The U.S. military also appears to be paying Christian rock bands millions of dollars — perhaps tens of millions — to whip soldiers into a lust to spill blood for Jesus:

In the Army.mil article, Maj. Gen. Chambers was quoted as saying, “The idea is not to be a proponent for any one religion. It’s to have a mix of different performers with different religious backgrounds.” But there has been no “mix of different performers with different religious backgrounds” at these concerts. Every one of them has had evangelical Christian performers, who typically not only perform their music but give their Christian testimony and read from the Bible in between songs….

These concerts aren’t just small events with local Christian bands. We’re talking about the top, nationally-known, award-winning Christian artists, with headline acts costing anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000, and even many of the opening acts being in the $10,000 range.

The cost of these concerts led MRFF’s research department to start looking at some of the DoD contracts for other “spiritual fitness” events and programs, and what we found was astounding. One contract, for example, awarded to an outside consulting firm to provide “spiritual fitness” services, was for $3.5 million.

Posted by James on Aug 20, 2010

More Obama transparency

Ecosystem biologist Linda Hooper-Bui writes:

It’s not hazardous conditions associated with oil and dispersants that are hampering our scientific efforts. Rather, it’s the confidentiality agreements that come with signing up to work on large research projects shepherded by government entities and BP and the limited access to coastal areas if you’re not part of those projects that are stifling the public dissemination of data detailing the environmental impact of the catastrophe.

ThinkProgress.org adds: “Hooper-Bui’s depictions of samples confiscated by US Fish and Wildlife officials and expeditions blocked by local law enforcement is consistent with the steady stream of reports about obstruction, censorship, and confusion under BP’s private army of contractors.”

Posted by James on Aug 11, 2010

Most Chinese are forgetting how to write

I posted in May that many Chinese are forgetting how to write Chinese characters.

Well, the phenomenon is affecting most Chinese!

A poll commissioned by China Youth Daily newspaper in April found that 83% of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters. Another survey by Dayang Net, a popular Guangzhou-based news portal, found that 80% of respondents acknowledged they have forgotten how to write some characters.

Many simply do not have to. The Dayang poll found that 43% of respondents use a computer all the time for their jobs, and another 43% write out characters only for signatures and for filling out a few lines on forms.

There’s even a new phrase — 提笔忘字 — to describe the phenomenon of forgetting how to write characters. Google turns up nearly 300,000 pages containing the phrase.

Of course, even though we English speakers have it ridiculously easy — just 26 letters — young people today can’t spell. They seem to think, “Why type ‘great’ (five characters) when I can just type ‘gr8’?” They’re not merely trying to condense longer messages into Tweets. They’re lazy and ignorant because they somehow manage to get “its” and “it’s” wrong more often than they would by flipping a coin. Kids are online reading one another’s bastardized English Facebook pages and aren’t reading anything more sophisticated than CliffsNotes, so of course they can’t spell.

Posted by James on Aug 16, 2010

My latest used book treasure hunt bounty

I periodically visit a local library’s (barely) used books for sale section to buy books for my family priced from $.50 to a few bucks. If you’re lucky enough to have a used bookstore near you, it’s a great way to build a book collection on the cheap.

Last Friday, I picked up three great dinosaur books for my son, who’s well on his way to becoming a paleontologist, thanks to his current favorite show (along with Little Bear), “Dinosaur Train”. I hit the jackpot, scooping up the beautifully illustrated 450-page hardcover Dinosaurus: The Complete Guide to Dinosaurs, which retails for $30, for just $5.

I also stumbled upon a quality, well-researched book covering the exact topic my wife and I have been recently debating: television and child development. I got The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids for $3, but it’s well worth paying Amazon $9 if you’ve got kids. Television has such a huge influence on kids. This book presents lots of research-based evidence on how to use television as a powerful educational tool and how not to let it become a destructive influence on your children’s lives.

I’m having trouble putting down another book I practically stole — for $2 — titled China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America. It’s a few years out of date, but the author lived several decades in China and has been all around the country. He was The Financial Times’s Beijing bureau chief and speaks fluent Mandarin. His book has been very well reviewed. It’s currently available from Amazon.com for just $6. That’s three times what I paid, but it’s an excellent read.

Posted by James on Aug 03, 2010

NASA: Our dog ate all the moon landing videos

Last year, NASA said it shot high-quality video of the moon landings but never made copies and managed to lose or destroy all the originals, probably by copying over them:

NASA probably taped over its only high-resolution images of the first moon walk with electronic data from a satellite or a later manned space mission, officials said today.

It means that the familiar grainy and ghosting images of Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” are all that remain from the mission, though the space agency has managed to digitally restore the footage into new broadcast-quality pictures that it released today.

“I don’t think anyone in the NASA organisation did anything wrong. It slipped through the cracks and nobody’s happy about it,” said Dick Nafzger, one of the last Apollo-era video engineers still working for the agency at Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.

That NASA lost or destroyed ALL original videos from the many moon landings is beyond unbelievable.

Also strange is that NASA designed its own video format and video camera so that only NASA could possibly view the moon landing videos:

[The moon landing videos'] loss apparently went unnoticed for 35 years, until 2004, when an archive in Australia alerted Nasa that it believed it had found the lost tapes from the Apollo 11 mission. It shipped the tapes to Goddard, where Nasa maintains what officials say is the only machine in the world capable of reading the old tape technology. The first tapes did not have moon footage.

Even weirder, the original video was never shown on TV! The world watched a “bootleg” video of a video: “[Moon landing videos] broadcast on [television live]… were taken by a television camera pointed at a giant wall monitor at mission control in Houston – effectively a copy of a copy.”

Actually, what we — I was one month old and sitting on my grandmother’s lap — saw was a video of a video of a video because the relay stations that supposedly received the video transmissions from the moon and relayed them on to NASA “converted” the original proprietary video format to standard 525-line/60-field NTSC video by videotaping it again at each relay station:

The tapes that were the object of the massive search were not standard video recordings, but rather 1-inch instrumentation tape on which narrow band video shared space with mission telemetry and other information about the spacecraft and its crew. The 14-inch reels ran at 120 inches per second, with each holding about 15 minutes of data. Slow scan video from the camera on board the lunar lander occupied one of 14 tracks laid down on these tapes….

Due to communication channel bandwidth limitations, standard 525-line/60-field NTSC video could not be relayed to earth from the moon. NASA had a special camera constructed that produced video that fit within the 500 KHz channel that was available. It produced 320 lines at 10 frames a second, non-interlaced.

In order to provide video to the estimated 600 million persons watching that evening, NASA also had special standards converters constructed for each of the tracking stations that would be in acquisition with the lunar lander. As electronic components weren’t nearly so sophisticated then, the converters relied on simple optical conversion─a standard NTSC television camera trained on the screen of a special slow-scan monitor being fed with the lowered line number and frame rate video.

While this simple conversion tactic worked, it was far from satisfactory. Contrast was blocked up and a large amount of noise and other distortion was added to the video.

To summarize: * NASA invented special video cameras that captured video in a format no one else could decode * NASA recorded videos only in this special, secret format * NASA kept possession of all the videos (until it destroyed them) * NASA kept possession of the only machine capable of viewing the video * NASA never broadcast any of the video or even video of the video. It claims to have broadcast the video to its relay stations where it used different video cameras to re-record the video. It then projected that re-recorded video onto a giant wall monitor at Mission Control, which television stations then re-re-recorded. * NASA did nothing with its invaluable original moon landing video recordings for 35 years * When Australia (home to one of the relay stations) handed NASA possible Apollo moon landing video footage, NASA declared it was not moon landing footage and admitted that ALL of its many recordings had been destroyed

It’s certainly not proof the moon landings are a fraud, but it certainly isn’t what one would expect if NASA actually landed men on the moon.

NASA has made plenty of moon-related videos over the four decades since. Didn’t it (or The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum) even once wonder, “Where are those original films?”

Posted by James on Aug 19, 2010

Of every 1,000 Americans, the richest one gets most of tax cut's benefits

Paul Krugman explains the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans:

[Congress is] eager to cut checks averaging $3 million each to the richest 120,000 people in the country…

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal [which makes only middle-class tax cuts permanent], would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments.

And where would this $680 billion go? Nearly all of it would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans, people with incomes of more than $500,000 a year. But that’s the least of it: the policy center’s estimates say that the majority of the tax cuts would go to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent. Take a group of 1,000 randomly selected Americans, and pick the one with the highest income; he’s going to get the majority of that group’s tax break. And the average tax break for those lucky few — the poorest members of the group have annual incomes of more than $2 million, and the average member makes more than $7 million a year — would be $3 million over the course of the next decade.

[Permanent tax cuts for the richest of the richest Americans] has nothing to do with sound economic policy. Instead, as I said, it’s about a dysfunctional and corrupt political culture, in which Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of schoolteachers and firefighters, but declares cost no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience.

Posted by James on Aug 23, 2010

Only $6.5 mil/yr? Screw you!

My favorite team, The New England Patriots, has one of the league’s better players, Logan Mankins, at one of its least valuable positions, offensive guard.

Mankins' rookie contract has expired, but by NFL rules (negotiated with the Player’s Association), Mankins is a “restricted free agent” because he has not played in the league long enough to be an “unrestricted free agent.”

This offseason, Mankins was free to sign with any other team, but that team would have had to compensate the Patriots. No team stepped forward with such a mega-deal, so Mankins' choice boiled down to: 1) accept the Patriots' one-year, $3.3 million contract offer and then become an “unrestricted free agent”; 2) accept the Patriots' 7-year, $45.5 million ($6.5 mil/yr) contract offer; or, 3) negotiate a compromise between his demands (7 years, $60 million) and the Patriots' offers.

Mankins chose option #4: Demanding a trade and telling the media he felt lied to by the Patriots, esp. owner Bob Kraft. Bob Kraft is one of the nicest owners in professional sports, so many Patriots fans soured on Mankins after that attack.

The strangest thing is that Mankins apparently doesn’t need or use much money:

friends say Mankins does not spend any money. He has been frugal and cautious with his salary, they say, with a ranch that is paid for and self-sufficient, with few operating costs.

There are no flashy cars in his driveway, for instance, and Mankins has held onto most of the more than $7 million he has earned in his five years. Such a situation makes it easier for Mankins to decline to sign the $3.3 million restricted free agent tender and not show up for training camp.

So the man doesn’t need or spend money, yet $6.5 mil/year is an insult?

He believes they promised to make him better compensated than Saints guard Jahri Evans, who recently signed a seven-year, $56.7 million deal ($8.1 million average). Mankins’ camp said the Pats offered a deal worth only $6.5 million per season (seven years, $45.5 million).

“All we want is fair market value, and that’s like comparing an apple to a watermelon,” Frank Bauer, Mankins’ agent, told the Herald on Aug. 13. “Logan should be in (Evans’) bracket. We’re not asking for $8.5 or $9 million.”

I don’t get it. Mankins is looking at the best-paid guard in football (by far) and saying, “Give me what he has. Anything less is an insult.”

I guess it’s vanity. Mankins has no use for $8 million a year, but his pride can’t accept a penny less? What kind of message is he sending to fans, esp. young fans?

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2010

Remembering America's mass murder of two Japanese cities

65 years ago today, America obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing — immediately or through agonizing death from radiation poisoning — most of Hiroshima’s men, women and children. Three days later, America obliterated Nagasaki.

Of a family portrait in a photo album that survived the destruction of the house and, presumably, its inhabitants, LIFE writes:

this photo — like many other quietly revelatory pictures made by LIFE photographers on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — was not published. Perhaps a family album too-readily humanized an enemy that had been so effectively demonized and dehumanized for four long, bloody years.

This amazing photo of a bravely surviving Christian cross almost certainly was not published because it too successfully humanized — even Americanized — those America murdered.

There are no dead bodies in the photos because people were vaporized:

[P]eople’s bodies were terribly squeezed, then their internal organs ruptured. Then the blast blew the broken bodies at 500 to 1,000 miles per hour through the flaming, rubble-filled air. Practically everybody within a radius of 6,500 feet was killed or seriously injured and all buildings crushed or disemboweled.

Even the photographer, horrified by what he witnessed, assured his editor he felt no “sympathy for the Japs”:

“We were so shocked with what we saw,” [photographer Bernard] Hoffman wrote, “that most of us felt like weeping. Not out of sympathy for the Japs, but because we were so shocked and revolted by this new and terrible form of destruction…. What was formerly Japan’s most modern, most westernized city, is now nothing more than a two foot layer of twisted tin and rubble.”

People and animals' flesh was burned off till nothing but bare skeleton remained.

Those who died instantly were the lucky ones:

Those who had suffered only small burns found their appetite failing, their hair falling out, their gums bleeding. They developed temperatures of 104, vomited blood, and died. It was discovered that they had lost 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles. Last week the Japanese announced that the count of Hiroshima’s dead had risen to 125,000.

Posted by James on Aug 06, 2010

Research tools carefully before adoption (or why "SBackup" must mean "sucky backup")

Several years ago, my email program (Thunderbird) destroyed my > 1GB Inbox. Something went wrong, and Thunderbird overwrote my > 1GB file with an empty file.

Horrified by my lack of a recent backup, I investigated easier-to-use backup software for my Linux (Ubuntu) machines. I did a few quick Google searches and (too hastily) settled on “SBackup,” which Ubuntu’s website seemed to recommend. “SBackup” supposedly stood for “Simple Backup,” and I generally like simple things because they tend to work more reliably than more complex things. I’ve since slowly realized that not researching SBackup users' complaints before adopting it was a huge mistake.

A year later, Thunderbird killed my > 1GB Inbox again! But this time, I was prepared, I thought, because I had recently backed up my computer using SBackup. Except… when I went to retrieve the Inbox file, I learned that the most recent backup was corrupt and unreadable, even though SBackup had earlier told me the backup had completed. Had SBackup told me the backup had failed or was corrupted, I would have re-run it. Instead, I was never able to retrieve a recent copy of my Inbox and lost several months of email.

I gave up on Thunderbird and its insane storage method of stuffing every damn email into a single file. I switched to Claws Mail and have since had no problems. If I ever again suffer email corruption, I should lose a single email, not everything.

But I foolishly failed to reconsider SBackup. I figured it had been working, except for this one failure, so I kept using it out of laziness.

Well, yesterday I got bit again by SBackup. Before heading to bed, I began backing up to my new, shiny external hard drive. In the morning, I checked to see whether it had finished… and to my horror discovered that my computer was acting screwy and telling me I had run out of disk space! That was crazy because at least 10% of my 500GB hard drive was unused the previous night. Had SBackup been saving to my hard drive instead of my external drive, as I had told it to?

That seemed impossible, but I quickly discovered many other SBackup users raging against SBackup’s habit of backing up — without warning — to their internal hard drives when their external hard drives were inaccessible.

I struggled to free up 1% of my hard drive… which Ubuntu seems to require before it will let you save even a simple text file to the drive. And then I found where SBackup had made TWO backups to my internal hard drive. After deleting those backups, I went from 1% of my hard drive being unused to 34%! SBackup had — without notifying me — been backing up my hard drive to my hard drive! What use would that be if my drive died?

I’ve now made the switch I should long ago have made… to RSync (and a graphical UI for it called GRSync). RSync is a command line program trusted and beloved by Linux admins. It’s the obvious choice. But I failed to research my initial decision carefully, and I’ve suffered several years of consequences.

I already see several advantages from GRSync. With SBackup, backups were all-or-nothing. I needed to leave my laptop running ~ 13 hours to backup my hard drive. GRSync has a “Stop” button that lets me stop part-way through. Whenever I later start it up again, it will figure out what files it has not yet copied over and start copying them over. GRSync also has a “simulate” button that lets me see what I’ve asked it to do before confirming that’s what I want. It’s clearly better designed and more reliable. And when it fails to find an external drive, it tells me it failed… rather than just assume I want it to backup to my internal hard drive instead.

Posted by James on Aug 02, 2010

Secret operation hid apocalyptic Gulf die-off from public

Barack Obama promised Americans “Transparency and Open Government ”. But he used our government to cover up BP’s massive crime in the Gulf of Mexico and save BP billions in fines for killing off much of the Gulf of Mexico’s sea life. We’ll never know just how devastating the oil spill and BP’s subsequent massive dumping of toxic Corexit was. And Americans will never see photos of dead animals floating on the sea surface for as far as eyes can see because the U.S. government banned journalists and citizens from going to those “death gyres” while BP confiscated all cameras and cell phones from its contractors.

According to fishermen hired by BP to clean up the Gulf, incredible quantities of dead sea life — birds, dolphins, fish, turtles, squid, even whales — collected in swirling gyres and were disposed of, often at night, while the U.S. government kept giant swaths of the Gulf off-limits, even to airplanes and helicopters.

You can read some of the gruesome stories here:

The numbers of birds, fish, turtles, and mammals killed by the use of Corexit will never be known as the evidence strongly suggests that BP worked with the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, private security contractors, and local law enforcement, all of which cooperated to conceal the operations disposing of the animals from the media and the public.

The majority of the disposal operations were carried out under cover of darkness. The areas along the beaches and coastal Islands where the dead animals were collected were closed off by the U.S. Coast Guard. On shore, private contractors and local law enforcement officials kept off limits the areas where the remains of the dead animals were dumped, mainly at the Magnolia Springs landfill by Waste Management where armed guards controlled access….

Dauphin Island was one of the sites where carcasses of sperm whales were destroyed. The operational end of the island was closed to unauthorized personnel and the airspace closed. The U.S. Coast Guard closed off all access from the Gulf. This picture shows the area as it was prepped to receive the whale carcasses for disposal.

The article interviews Riki Ott, “veteran of the Exxon Valdez spill and renowned marine toxicologist” who says:

There would be stories from boat captains of offshore, we started calling death gyres, where the rips all the different currents sweep the oceans surface, that would be the collection points for hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles and birds and even whales floating….

[W]e know that offshore there was an attempt by BP and the government to keep the animals from coming onshore in great numbers. The excuse was this was a health problem — we don’t want to create a health hazard. That would only be a good excuse if they kept tallies of all the numbers because all the numbers – all the animals – are evidence for federal court. We the people own these animals and they become evidence for damages to charge for BP. In Exxon Valdez the carcasses were kept under triple lock and key security until the natural resource damage assessment study was completed and that was 2 ½ years after the spill. Then all the animals were burned but not until then.

So people offshore were reporting this first and then carcasses started making it onshore. Then I started hearing from people in Alabama a lot and the western half of Florida – a little bit in Mississippi – but mostly what was going on then there was an attempt to keep people off the beaches, cameras off the beaches. I was literally flying in a plane and the FAA boundary changed. It was offshore first with the barrier islands and all of a sudden it just hopped right to shore to Alabama that’s where we were flying over and the pilot was just like – he couldn’t believe it – he was like, “Look at that!” and… points at the little red line which had all of sudden grown and he just looked at me and said, “The only reason that they have done this is so people can’t see what is going on.” And what that little red line meant was no cameras on shore, and three days later the oil came onshore and the carcasses came onshore into Alabama.

…[P]eople walk beaches — and they would see carcasses like sea turtles, a bird, a little baby dolphin, and immediately they would go over to it and immediately people would approach them, don’t touch that if you touch it you will be arrested and within fifteen minutes there would be a white unmarked van that would just come out of nowhere and in would go the carcass and off it would go.

They were white unmarked vans at first. We’ve since heard many other stories from truckers who are trucking carcasses in refrigerated vans to Mexico.

Posted by James on Aug 06, 2010

Should I buy an iPed, ePad or aPad?

Microsoft, HP, and the other U.S. tech giants are struggling to produce products to compete with the iPad.

But Chinese firms have already produced many. You can buy:

Posted by James on Aug 02, 2010

Should schools group students by ability/performance?

Yesterday, I emailed my mom and cousins this interesting article, titled “Diversity Debate Convulses Elite High School,” about Hunter College High School in Manhattan:

As has happened at other prestigious city high schools that use only a test for admission, the black and Hispanic population at Hunter has fallen in recent years…. This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students identifying themselves as multiracial. The public school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.

My cousin — who has worked for decades with New York City high schoolers, most from poorer backgrounds, at the by-students-for-students newspaper he founded — wrote a long, thoughtful response to the article. He began, “I’m opposed to these elite tax-payer funded enclaves, in principle. In practice, I suspect they cannot even be defended on educational grounds.” I haven’t asked his permission to post, so I won’t post his email. But here’s my reply:

I’m much more in favor of separating students according to motivation, curiosity and ability, so I’m curious to understand better your opposition.

Should Down Syndrome children be mainstreamed? Should dyslexic students be denied special attention to their special needs? If you answered “no” to either of these, then is it not hypocritical to ignore the special needs of students at the other tail of the Bell Curve of ability/interest/motivation/curiosity?

When teachers lavish disproportionate effort and attention on average students or, even worse, the poorest performers (thanks to No Child Left Behind and its pass/fail test scoring), millions of naturally bright, motivated, curious kids grow bored and — at best — yawn their way through school and — at worst — become delinquents or drop out. I survived school, but I spent my freshman year of high school reading John Dewey and Ted Sizer because I was frustrated as heck at many of the stultifying teaching practices I was suffering under (like having to copy twenty dictionary definitions by hand every week, even though I already knew nineteen of the words). And this was in a top public school which separated students into three levels.

I’m curious whether your opposition to separating students out is due to:

  1. The invalidity/unfairness of the methods by which students are being assessed for segregation;

  2. The unfairness of unequal environments to which students are exposed prior to assessment;

  3. The unfairness of segregating students by accident of genetic lottery (I’ve recently read several books that argue quite persuasively that genetic endowment is totally overblown as a success factor in many endeavors, but it’s clearly true that some students are more attentive, more motivated, quicker to grasp concepts, etc. and at least some of this is probably genetic);

  4. The belief that all students benefit from being in heterogeneous school environments;

  5. The belief that even top students do not benefit from segregation by achievement;

  6. The fear that taking the better students out of ordinary schools will harm those schools;

  7. Concern that special schools breed elitism and prevent students at elite schools from understanding the needs and backgrounds of non-elites.

And/or do you also have other concerns?

I’m greatly bothered by the unequal opportunities given to children (as well as the poor teaching). But should a child with a 160 IQ really be forced to sit in the same classroom as another kid with, say, an 80 IQ? Which is more relevant: that the students are equal in chronological age or that one student is intellectually twice as old as the other?

I’m not sure these elite schools breed more elitist students. When you’re surrounded by brilliant people, you tend to feel less brilliant. Wouldn’t such students be more inclined to feel exceptional if surrounded by ordinary students?

American culture exerts tremendous pressure on top students to perform less well. In many predominantly black communities, I’ve read, good students are attacked — sometimes physically — by their classmates and other kids in the neighborhood for “acting white.” And even in the mostly white town I grew up in with its excellent schools, kids were often put down as “nerds” or “geeks” or “dweebs” or “dorks” simply because they worked hard in school. The jocks sat atop the pecking order. Were this China, where top students are looked up to, rather than spat upon, I would look more favorably on the everyone-in-one-classroom approach.

Your question about whether elite schools boost student performance relative to what those students would have achieved elsewhere is very interesting, and I’m not aware of any controlled studies on this topic. While I’m inclined to agree that the educational boost such schools provide is overblown because they begin with very capable students, I doubt the students gain nothing from being with similarly motivated and capable students. And, if they truly don’t benefit from it, it’s likely the fault of the school. The International Baccalaureate program, for example, provides high school students with an exceptional, challenging education. But many high school students simply aren’t capable of (and/or motivated to) working and thinking and writing at the level required to thrive in an IB program, which requires hard work and creativity. College admissions offices prefer IB graduates, and IB graduates outperform their non-IB classmates in college. But you can’t run a successful IB program in high school that includes every high school student. So, if schools like Hunter are failing to provide a superior education, that’s an indictment of Hunter, not the idea of segregating students by ability/effort per se.

As to the importance of understanding people from other backgrounds, I thoroughly agree. But I think this is an argument for scoring admission tests by race and economic status. Instead of letting in anyone scoring 150 or higher, let in the top 3% of low-income Whites, the top 3% of middle-income Whites, the top 3% of high-income Whites, the top 3% of low-income Asians, etc. This is more likely to identify the truly gifted, as opposed to those who have benefited most from exceptional upbringings. This is, to some extent, the system China uses for university admissions. The cut-off scores for admission to various universities vary according to where you live. Students from regions with poorer school systems get in with lower scores than students from regions with better schools.

Finally, I believe our schools, on the whole, stink. Except in the wealthiest communities (where many teachers earn six figures), we underfund them. And the teaching profession has done embarrassingly little to determine what constitutes quality teaching and to help teachers become more effective teachers. I suspect part of the fear of elite schools is that better teachers will gravitate to the better schools with their easier-to-teach students. That’s a legitimate concern. But the most capable teachers generally work in the wealthier school districts. And, I suspect, the prospect of teaching better students at these elite schools attracts better teachers who might not otherwise work in the city’s schools at all.

I also sent this:

You argue that “schools like this also rob all the other schools in the city of quirky, high achieving role models and leaders” while also arguing that “I suspect [such schools] cannot even be defended on educational grounds.”

These seem contradictory positions. If the presence of quirky, high-achieving role models benefits average and below-average students, then why wouldn’t quirky, high-achieving role models benefit one another?

Several former classmates/friends from my economics PhD days research student, teacher and school performance, taking into account the ability of families to move and/or send their children to private/parochial/charter schools (http://econ.duke.edu/people/bayer; http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~mcmillan/). I haven’t read their papers, but I recall them talking about the huge importance of “peer effects.”

I haven’t read the literature, but there is evidence for peer effects:

If peer effects are real, we face a moral/political choice: Do we group by ability/performance, thus benefiting the better students, or throw everyone together, harming the better students and benefiting the poorer students?

Posted by James on Aug 06, 2010

Thanks for the brain cancer, Rumsfeld and Reagan!

Dr. Joseph Mercola writes:

60 Minutes‘ correspondent Mike Wallace stated in his 1996 report on aspartame — available to view in this 2009 article — that the approval of aspartame was “the most contested in FDA history.” And for good reason.

At the time, independent studies had found it caused brain cancer in lab animals, and the studies submitted by G.D. Searle to the FDA for the approval were quickly suspected of being sloppy at best.

In that 60-Minutes video, former Senator Howard Metzenbaum states: “According to the FDA themselves, Searle, when making their presentation to the FDA, had willfully misrepresented the facts, and withheld some of the facts that they knew would possibly jeopardize the approval.”

Metzenbaum’s staff investigated the aspartame approval process. He goes on to explain that: “FDA officials were so upset they sent the file to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago for the purposes of presenting it to the grand jury as to whether or not there should be indictments. But it wasn’t presented. It was delayed.”

Samuel Skinner, the U.S. attorney who led the grand jury probe ended up withdrawing from the case when he entered into job discussions with Searle’s Chicago law firm, Sidley & Austin – a job he later accepted. Subsequently, the investigation stalled until the statute of limitation ran out, at which point the investigation against Searle was dropped.

…The FDA itself suspected Searle had unlawfully produced “evidence” to support its claims of safety, and FDA officials were sufficiently disturbed by what they received to launch its first-ever criminal investigation.

According to FDA toxicologist, Dr. M. Jacqueline Verrett, in Searle’s studies:

  • Animals were not permanently tagged to avoid mix-ups
  • Tumors were removed and the animals returned to the study
  • Animals were recorded as dead, but subsequent records, after varying periods of time, indicated the same animal was still alive (almost certain evidence of mix-ups)
  • Many animal tissues were decomposed before any postmortem examinations were performed

So is aspartame safe for widespread consumption? A 1996 review of 165 studies

Of the 166 studies felt to have relevance for questions of human safety, 74 had Nutrasweet® industry related funding and 92 were independently funded. One hundred percent of the industry funded research attested to aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research identified a problem.

And almost all of the “independent” studies that failed to identify a problem were conducted by the FDA, whose employees regularly revolve back-and-forth between industry and the FDA.

Writes Mark Gold:

Aspartame was not approved until 1981, in dry foods. For over eight years the FDA refused to approve it because of the seizures and brain tumors this drug produced in lab animals. The FDA continued to refuse to approve it until President Reagan took office (a friend of Searle) and fired the FDA Commissioner who wouldn’t approve it. Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes was appointed as commissioner. Even then there was so much opposition to approval that a Board of Inquiry was set up. The Board said: “Do not approve aspartame”. Dr. Hayes OVERRULED his own Board of Inquiry.

Shortly after Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., approved the use of aspartame in carbonated beverages, he left for a position with G.D. Searle’s Public Relations firm [Burson-Marsteller].

Who headed this mendacious, rapacious firm willing to trick the FDA and the American people into embracing its dangerous product? According to Wikipedia:

From 1977 to 1985 [Donald] Rumsfeld served as Chief Executive Officer, President, and then Chairman of G. D. Searle & Company, a worldwide pharmaceutical company based in Skokie, Illinois. During his tenure at Searle, Rumsfeld led the company’s financial turnaround, thereby earning awards as the Outstanding Chief Executive Officer in the Pharmaceutical Industry from the Wall Street Transcript (1980) and Financial World (1981). In 1985, Searle was sold to Monsanto Company. Rumsfeld is believed to have earned around $12 million from this sale.

Rumsfeld was essential to getting this neurotoxin approved by the FDA. Andrew Cockburn’s book, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, provides horrifying details. On pages 65 and 66, Cockburn wrote:

“In January 1980… [Washington University School of Medicine professor of neuropathology and psychiatry Dr. John W.] Olney unearthed a report detailing an experiment carried out on rats in the early seventies. ‘What startled me most,’ he told me, ‘was that it showed that aspartame had been causing brain tumors in rats, and the FDA [in originally reviewing the safety study] had just sloughed it off.’ …[T]his evidence of a possible link between aspartame and brain tumors had a decisive effect. In September 1980, the panel issued their verdict, a 3-0 vote to block the aspartame release pending resolution of the concerns about cancer.”

But Rumsfeld was extremely well connected with Reagan and many of his staffers and used his influence to get the FDA commissioner fired (p. 66):

Jere Goyan, FDA commissioner at the time, informed me how he was “fired… in early November by a phone call to my California home at two a.m. California time by a very low-level member of the [Reagan] transition team… It was the first time that a commissioner had been fired because of a change in administration. I was told to write a letter of resignation and to vacate my office on the day of the inauguration.”

The virtual unknown Arthur Hull Hayes was brought in briefly, apparently just to approve aspartame:

“On July 18, 1981, in the first major regulatory action of his tenure, Hayes approved aspartame for use as a sweetener in solid foods, thereby disregarding the inquiry verdict as well as yet another internal study that raised alarms about the cancer risk.”

Olney (on p. 71 of Cockburn’s book) believes aspartame has caused glioblastoma rates to skyrocket:

“The rate of glioblastoma, the most malignant kind [of brain tumor], had markedly increased in the ten years immediately following the introduction of aspartame, while the rate of incidence of less malignant types had decreased. …Something has been introduced into the human environment that has caused brain tumors to become more malignant. I don’t have direct evidence that aspartame is the cause. But it hasn’t been explained in any other way.”

Even if aspartame is not causing brain cancer, evidence available in 1981 clearly suggested aspartame could cause brain cancer in lab animals. Aspartame should never have been approved.

Posted by James on Aug 05, 2010

The death of public libraries?

Stamford’s new Republican mayor attempted to cut our library budget by 1/3, which would have necessitated closing ALL branch libraries and cutting back hours at the downtown library (for which there is no parking). Fortunately, people expressed outrage, and cuts were not nearly as draconian as the mayor desired.

But libraries across America are being devastated. Camden, NJ’s libraries are on the verge of permanent closure:

Camden is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free.

At an emotional but sparsely attended meeting of the library board Thursday, its president, Martin McKernan, said the city’s three libraries cannot stay open past Dec. 31 because of severe budget cuts by Mayor Dana L. Redd.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s appalling,” McKernan said.

All materials in the libraries would be donated, auctioned, stored, or destroyed. That includes 187,000 books, historical documents, artifacts, and electronic equipment. Keeping materials in the shuttered buildings is a fire hazard, officials said, and would make them vulnerable to vandalism and vermin.

…“It’s tragic,” said Audra Caplan, president of the national Public Library Association. “We are the only institution in this country that provides access to information and materials for free, which is huge right now.”

Posted by James on Aug 07, 2010

The happiness formula (part 2)

I titled this March blog post “The Happiness Formula.” This post extends that one.

Positive psychology is a rapidly advancing field. This nice article provides useful advice based on recent research insights:

  • Buy and own less stuff because less can indeed be more
  • Spend less and eliminate debt
  • Spend to help others, not yourself
  • Spend to create unique experiences and build memories, not to buy stuff
  • Delay purchases and plan vacations far in advance because anticipating exciting purchases and experiences greatly increases our overall satisfaction
  • A house is far less important than the experiences and social connections it enables, so place great value on nearby walking/bicycle trails, friendly churches/mosques/synagogues (if that’s what you’re looking for), quality schools, family-friendly neighborhoods, community theaters, YMCAs, playgrounds, etc., and deemphasize acreage, countertops and chrome fixtures, and top-of-the-line appliances.
  • Take more frequent, shorter vacations
  • “Buy many small pleasures instead of one big one”
  • Work less, and spend more time relaxing and socializing

Perhaps the most important fact positive psychologists have uncovered is the crucial importance of social connections: “Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.”

For the last four years, Roko Belic, a Los Angeles filmmaker, has been traveling the world making a documentary called “Happy.” Since beginning work on the film, he has moved to a beach in Malibu from his house in the San Francisco suburbs.

San Francisco was nice, but he couldn’t surf there.

“I moved to a trailer park,” says Mr. Belic, “which is the first real community that I’ve lived in in my life.” Now he surfs three or four times a week. “It definitely has made me happier,” he says. “The things we are trained to think make us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and buying the latest fashions, don’t make us happy.”

Mr. Belic says his documentary shows that “the one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.”

Posted by James on Aug 09, 2010

The morality of rational ignorance

Last night, my wife and I watched a portion of a new TV series (“Oceans Blue”) about Earth’s seas and oceans that my son and I have enjoyed bits of. During the segment my wife and I watched, we observed a small group of East African men catch a bunch of small sharks, bring them ashore, hack off their valuable fins (to sell), and abandon the sharks' bodies on the beach. My wife said she hates watching such stuff and would rather not know about it because it’s too depressing. She called herself “an ostrich.”

This is rational ignorance: If certain knowledge causes one emotional pain but serves no useful purpose, willful ignorance may be beneficial.

We used this logic to shield my dying grandmother of knowledge that one of her best friends had died suddenly. Why burden her with such sad news, given her failing health and already substantial physical pain?

But the morality of rational ignorance is seldom so clear-cut.

Not knowing about (or knowing about but refusing to view) the large-scale murder of sharks for their fins is fine… as long as one doesn’t eat shark’s fin soup. But what if willful ignorance leads one to engage in practices a fully informed self would shun? Many Americans would be horrified by the mistreatment of American pigs and chickens, yet Americans regularly eat huge amounts of chicken and pig “products.” Should Americans be required to watch “Food, Inc.” if they want to eat meat? I think we all (above a certain age) should have to see where our food comes from. (Hint: Very little of it comes from the pretty family farm in your mind’s eye. Picture thousands of chickens genetically engineered to grow giant breasts so quickly their immature legs can’t bear their own weight constantly banging into one another on a poop-covered floor in a darkened, windowless room. That’s more realistic.) But I suspect meat consumption would fall 50% (because some would stop eating meat and many would reduce their consumption) and public pressure would force farms to adopt more expensive animal-friendly — er, less cruel — methods, and the powerful meat lobbies won’t tolerate that.

So perhaps it’s about drawing a border between information I should know because I can make a (very small) difference and information I can safely ignore. But identifying that border is very hard because the world is so interrelated. Giant swaths of Brazilian rain forest have been hacked-and-burned to plant soy for hungry Chinese. And forests in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations have been felled to put wooden floors in Chinese apartments (and build furniture that the Chinese ship to Americans). Should Chinese people be studying Amazonian and Indonesian rain forest ecology? And if/since they don’t, is human society doomed to make countless wrong decisions?

Because it’s so hard to know what one must know before one learns it, perhaps the best solution is not rational ignorance but learning about the world while maintaining an emotional distance from events and activities over which one has no control. I may be disgusted watching men kill sharks just for their fins, but I realize it’s not my fault and that I have no control over the activity. It’s almost equivalent to the slaughter of native Americans and Australian Aborigines and the enslavement of Africans… horrible, horrible events over which I had no control, so I feel no guilt and lose no sleep over them. It’s important that we understand how cruel people can be to one another so that we don’t allow it to happen in our name.

Millions of Americans are rationally ignorant of the million or more Iraqis who have died as a consequence of America’s decision to invade Iraq. That is, to me, immoral rational ignorance because the American people should have demanded better for the Iraqi people, many of whose lives have been lost or ruined (many because they lost their parents).

There certainly are many, many reasons to be depressed by the world, if one takes time to observe. But what matters is not external events per se but our reaction to external events. We are capable of realizing that our becoming depressed about something benefits no one (except insofar as it prompts us to take positive action… and even this does not require depression).

I feel an obligation to those around me (and myself) NOT to become depressed because that would only hurt those I love. While I wish the world were a much better place, I have only so much ability to change things. So, I’ll do the best I can to make a small difference, but I’m not going to let the many horrible things that happen but are beyond my control affect me too negatively.

In other words, I try to think of myself as an outside observer of world events outside my sphere of influence. To the extent I can try to make a difference (by working hard to get rid of Joe Lieberman in 2006, for example), I do. But my feeling depressed about, say, victims of the Chernobyl disaster or those starving in Africa doesn’t help the victims and can harm me and (indirectly) those who depend on me.

In short, I reject rational ignorance in favor of rational response and reaction. I want to know everything. But I don’t let evil depress me. And I pick my battles to, hopefully, make the world a slightly better place for my having been here. Being a good parent is one way I’m trying to help. To the extent that parents raise their children more thoughtfully, the world becomes a better place.

Posted by James on Aug 17, 2010

The science of zoning out

Scientists are beginning to study what our minds do when they’re doing seemingly nothing. It turns out parts of our brains are pretty busy when we’re zoning out and that what are brains do during unstructured “down time” may play an important role in keeping our brains healthy and happy:

[Scientists] have instead come to view mental leisure as important, purposeful work — work that relies on a powerful and far-flung network of brain cells firing in unison.

Neuroscientists call it the “default mode network.”

Individually, the brain regions that make up that network have long been recognized as active when people recall their pasts, project themselves into future scenarios, impute motives and feelings to other people, and weigh their personal values.

But when these structures hum in unison — and scientists have found that when we daydream, they do just that — they function as our brain’s “neutral” setting.

…Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body’s metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that’s a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.

Such social pressure, Schooler says, overlooks the lessons from studies on the resting brain — that zoning out and daydreaming, indulged in at appropriate times, might serve a larger purpose in keeping us healthy and happy.

“People have this fear of being inadequately engaged, and as a consequence they overlook how engaging their own minds can be,” Schooler says. “Each one of us can be pretty good company to ourselves if we allow our minds to go there.”

Posted by James on Aug 30, 2010

Three cheers for billionaires!

40 billionaires — including George Lucas and Paul Allen — have joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s campaign to get billionaires to give away at least half their wealth:

Software mogul Ellison is among those who have given widely but rarely stated their intentions so publicly.

“Until now, I have done this giving quietly—because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter,” wrote Ellison in a public letter on the Giving Pledge’s website.

He said he put virtually all his assets into a trust with the intention of giving away at least 95% of his wealth to charitable causes and has already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education.

“So why am I going public now? Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be ‘setting an example’ and ‘influencing others’ to give,” Ellison wrote. “I hope he’s right.”

Other billionaires on the list, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, had previously stated their plans to give away the majority of their wealth to charity but said calling attention to their plans will encourage others to follow suit.

“I’ve long stated that I enjoy making money, and I enjoy giving it away. I like making money more, but giving it away is a close second,” Pickens wrote in a letter on the Giving Pledge website. “To date, I’ve given away nearly $800 million to a wide-range of charitable organizations, and I look forward to the day I hit the $1 billion mark.”

The full list — viewable at GivingPledge.org — also includes:

  • Barry Diller
  • John Doerr
  • Pierre Omidyar
  • Ron Perelman
  • Pete Peterson
  • David Rockefeller
  • Jim Simons
  • Jeff Skoll
  • Ted Turner
  • Sandy Weill

Thank you all!

Posted by James on Aug 04, 2010

To find the promise in every student

In a roundup of expensive prep schools I found this wonderful truth:

Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts… has what honestly could be the best school motto around: “To find the promise in every student.” If more public schools felt that way, then private schools might not be quite so popular these days.

How much better American education would be if schools behaved as if their mission were “to find the promise in every student,” rather than maximize the percentage of students passing basic math and reading tests.

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2010

Two of the men who REALLY run America

Next week, I’ll take my son — already a junior paleontologist — to see dinosaur skeletons at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. I’ll be holding my nose when I see the “Koch” family name there. But there’s no avoiding it because the AMNH’s dinosaur wing bears their name.

Koch Industries is America’s second-largest private company, and its owners — David and Charles — are huge funders of right-wing and anti-government causes:

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

…Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

I sadly don’t have time to read more than the opening paragraphs of this New Yorker article, “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama”, but I’ve seen the “Koch” family name enough times to know that their money and views have warped American government in very bad directions.

If you want to know who’s really running America, you’ll want to read more about the Koch family.

Posted by James on Aug 26, 2010

Two wise men, Nader and Shiller, make the same point several days apart

On Sunday, I happened to catch Ralph Nader on CSPAN talking on a range of topics. He spoke with great knowledge and wisdom on each issue, and I agreed with everything he said. (I wish I could have watched more, but my boy came and insisted on watching “Dinosaur Train.”)

One of the callers asked Nader’s opinion on how corporations use language to shape our thinking. Nader noted that most economic statistics frequently cited by the (corporate) media — like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 stock index — relate to producers, not ordinary people.

A recent article by one of my favorite economists, Robert Shiller, makes the same point, with a very specific call to target stimulus spending not at boosting GDP but at creating jobs:

On a Wyoming highway [my friends] saw a sign that read “Putting America to Work: Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” and prominently featured a picture of a worker digging with a shovel. Out on the road, there was plenty of equipment, including a gigantic asphalt paver, dump trucks, rollers and service vehicles. But there wasn’t a single laborer with a shovel. That project employed capital, certainly, but not many human beings.

Like many such stimulus projects, it could be justified if you accept the idea that gross domestic product, not jobs, is central — a misconception rooted in economic theory, or at least in the way that Keynesian economic theory has evolved.

The conventional concept of “recession” has been defined in terms of G.D.P., not unemployment, which is perceived as a “lagging indicator.” It is widely assumed that jump-starting “the economy,” as measured by G.D.P., is the most fundamental move we should make….

Why not use government policy to directly create jobs — labor-intensive service jobs in fields like education, public health and safety, urban infrastructure maintenance, youth programs, elder care, conservation, arts and letters, and scientific research?

Would this be an effective use of resources? From the standpoint of economic theory, government expenditures in such areas often provide benefits that are not being produced by the market economy. Take New York subway stations, for example. Cleaning and painting them in a period of severe austerity can easily be neglected. Yet the long-term benefit to businesses from an appealing mass transit system is enormous.

Posted by James on Aug 03, 2010

When do U.S. kids - busy with sex, sexting, TV, and video games - find time to learn?

Jon Stewart recently called my state, Connecticut, “the smart state.”

Well, here in the “smart” state, “Nearly 70 percent of high school seniors who answered a state survey reported having sexual intercourse in the past 12 months.” I can only imagine the numbers in the “dumb” states!

“It’s talked about a lot. People don’t really hide it,” said Nina Raffio, 16, of Norwalk. “Teens are more aware of other teens' sexual encounters. They are likely to hide from adults but not from their peers.”

…The survey found that sex begins in freshman year for one in four high school students and steadily climbs to 67.4 by senior year.

Averaged out, 40.5 percent of the state’s teens reported having sexual intercourse in the past year, slightly lower than the 46 percent nationwide…

“Sixty percent are using condoms, but it is also frightening that 40 percent are not,” Aye said.

With America’s kids spending so much time socializing and playing grown-up, it’s no wonder so few can spell or write compelling essays or figure out calculus. It’s also no wonder so many are cheating on tests and plagiarizing their essays by copying them off the Internet.

I didn’t have my first beer till I got to college. Sex in high school? That’s crazy.

In China, high school students don’t date. They study because their entire lives hinge on gaining admission to a quality university.

No wonder jobs are flowing overseas. Millions of Chinese and Indian students are better educated than the average U.S. high school graduate and willing to work for a fraction of the wage.

American kids: Please do yourself a favor and put down the GameBoy, the XBox, the vodka, the remote control, and the phone you’re sexting on and start doing your homework. I guarantee you your future self will thank you.

Posted by James on Aug 18, 2010

Where did the oil & Corexit go? Into fish, shrimp and crab larvae!

With the lamestream media wondering “Where did the oil go?” — as if only the great Hercules Poirot could discover Corexit’s breaking up of the oil into tiny droplets and its subsequent ingestion by sea animals who will die unnaturally premature deaths en masse — comes sad but totally anticipated news from marine biologists in the Gulf that you won’t likely watch on corporate news:

Marine biologists started finding orange blobs under the translucent shells of crab larvae in May, and have continued to find them “in almost all” of the larvae they collect, all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Pensacola, Fla. — more than 300 miles of coastline — said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

And now, a team of researchers from Tulane University using infrared spectrometry to determine the chemical makeup of the blobs has detected the signature for Corexit, the dispersant BP used so widely in the Deepwater Horizon

“It does appear that there is a Corexit sort of fingerprint in the blob samples that we ran,” Erin Gray, a Tulane biologist, told the Huffington Post Thursday.

The entire ecosystem is at risk because oil+Corexit threatens to wipe out entire generations of some species and then accumulate in the bodies of larger sea animals (that humans may later consume):

Fish, shrimp and crab larvae, which float around in the open seas, are considered the most likely to die on account of exposure to the subsea oil plumes. There are fears, for instance, that an entire year’s worth of bluefin tuna larvae may have perished.

…[And] “There are so many animals that eat those little larvae,” said Robert J. Diaz, a marine scientist at the College of William and Mary.

Oil itself is of course toxic, especially over long exposure. But some scientists worry that the mixture of oil with dispersants will actually prove more toxic, in part because of the still not entirely understood ingredients of Corexit, and in part because of the reduction in droplet size.

“Corexit is in the water column, just as we thought, and it is entering the bodies of animals. And it’s probably having a lethal impact there,” said Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. The dispersant, she said, is like “a delivery system” for the oil.

Posted by James on Aug 05, 2010

Who is "Chinese"?

In graduate school, one of my roommates had studied many years of Japanese and lived in Japan. But he was rather ambivalent about the experience, largely because he felt he would always be viewed as an outsider, no matter how well he spoke Japanese or how long he lived there. To the Japanese, you cannot be “Japanese” unless you were born to biologically Japanese parents.

That’s probably true in China too. But being biologically Chinese does not — in many people’s minds — make you “Chinese.”

In this interesting article on expat family life in Beijing, the author’s 4-year-old son illustrates the slipperiness of the concept of “Chinese-ness.” Is it racial? Is it based on birthplace? Is it based on where one is living? Chinese themselves can’t agree:

[Can] expat children, dragged around the world after their parents – “privileged refugees”, a friend calls them – really know who they are? My four-year-old daughter reckons she’s from New Zealand (the first place she remembers living) while her brother always raises a laugh by informing people he’s “Indian” – the country of his birth. Perhaps for now, I can say only that we are a family, wherever we are, and leave it at that.

Their upbringing certainly breeds an enviable racial blindness. My son was playing with a Chinese boy in the playground last week and noticed that a friend of ours, an Australian-born Chinese woman married to an Italian, was watching him.

“He’s my friend, he’s Chinese,” he said, gauchely.

“I can see that,” she replied.

He stopped, puzzled for a moment, then asked: “How did you know?”

She thought for a second. “Well, he looks like me and I’m Chinese.”

Billy looked back at her in incomprehension. “No you’re not,” he said, before running off to play.

Posted by James on Aug 19, 2010

Why all the obnoxiousness?

Judging from abuse hurled daily at flight attendants, many travelers forget how good we have it:

Travelers [from Boston, MA] to Concord, NH could make the 68-mile trip on a stagecoach in 10 hours. Stagecoach trips from Albany, NY to Manchester, VT, a distance of 63 miles, also took 10 hours, and the fare was $3.25, which was the equivalent of almost 10 days wages for a female mill worker, or a week’s pay for a farm hand. The 55-mile trip from Portland to Augusta, ME took 12 hours by stagecoach.

Boston to San Francisco took at least three weeks.

We now do Boston-to-SF in five hours, half the time it once took to go from Boston to Concord, NH!

So if our five-hour flight becomes a six or seven hour flight, chill out, right? It’s not like delays never happen, so assume you’ll arrive a bit late and be pleasantly surprised if you’re on time.

But no. Many people freak out and hurl abuse at airline personnel for delays, many of which are out of their control. And when a plane lands, people jump into the aisle to deplane ten seconds faster than the people in the row opposite.

Even without delays, many passengers are selfish and rude. The now-infamous JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater — who lost his cool and exited the plane (and walked off his job) by emergency slide — has long been upset about passengers bringing way too many carry-ons, but posts he is believed to have made on Airliners.net suggest Slater isn’t one to blow his top easily:

[Slater] also criticized crew members who blow their top with rude passengers.

“To stand there and flex my muscles by getting into an altercation just makes me look stupid and creates anxiety for my passengers,” he wrote in response to a 2008 posting by someone who had a run-in with a flight attendant.

“She obviously lost the very composure she was hired to have. … Unprofessionalism is unacceptable, and you don’t speak to people that way. Period.”

Slater lost his cool after enduring years of obnoxious, rude passengers:

Colleagues rushed to Slater’s defense yesterday, saying a once-glamorous job has become customer-service drudgery.

“I’ve been slapped,” said one JetBlue flight attendant just off a flight from Spain.

“I’ve been told off a million times,” she said. “I’ve been called a whore, and it’s over really dumb, silly things.”

Airline carry-on regulations are very clear. If a flight attendant is bothered by your carry-ons, it’s your fault, not theirs. You should be grateful they don’t toss your excess baggage off the plane. And yelling at the flight attendant about the life-and-death meeting you’ve scheduled too close to your arrival time won’t get the plane there any faster.

Let’s just all please calm down, quit being so obnoxious, and be grateful we’re not stuck in stagecoaches.

Posted by James on Aug 11, 2010

Why I love Ubuntu... plus free Ubuntu resources to get you started

After using a variety of Linux distributions (Red Hat, Fedora, MEPIS, Gentoo, etc.) over the years, I’ve settled down the past 3-4 years with Ubuntu. I run Ubuntu on my laptop and multiple servers. It’s easy to install. It’s easy to update. It’s easy to use. I (almost) couldn’t be happier, so I highly recommend it.

For me, Ubuntu’s biggest advantages over Windows are:

  1. knowing exactly what’s running on my computer
  2. being able to remove or add whatever programs I choose
  3. stability
  4. security
  5. superior performance
  6. no need to reboot the entire machine after installing (most) new software.

I don’t need anti-virus software. I suspend my laptop over and over — without rebooting — for weeks at a time. I keep my servers up for months at a time without rebooting. Most software updates require only restarting the program itself, not the entire machine. And my hardware is much more productive with Linux than with the bloated Windows, which hogs resources. No blue screens of death. No revamping the entire GUI every year or two to force users to buy and learn a new interface. Which reminds me, I haven’t even mentioned Ubuntu’s free. They’ll even mail you an installation CD for free (though it’s better to download and burn it onto a CD yourself).

Over these past few years, I’ve converted a few friends to Ubuntu, including my old college roommate, who now complains to me how hard it is to convince his fellow doctors to adopt open-source programs for medical records. The medical establishment seems hopelessly stuck in the Microsoft rut and the expensive-proprietary-software-must-be-better-than-free-and-open-software mindset.

In case anyone out there is considering or has recently moved to Ubuntu, here are a few (free) resources you might find helpful:

Posted by James on Aug 02, 2010

Why I'm boycotting Haagen Dazs, Breyers, and Baskin-Robbins

For better health and because we oppose cruelty to cows, our household buys mostly organic, rBGH-free milk. I swear I can tell the difference by taste and by gross stuff floating in some of the rBGH milk.

For many reasons, “The product is already prohibited in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in the 27 countries of the European Union.” Americans and our cows are suffering because our corrupt political system and greedy corporations treat cows not as animals but as milk production machines:

Image of a poor rBGH cow with giant udder

rBGH’s creator — Monsanto — couldn’t care less about animal welfare or even human health. Monsanto cares only about Monsanto’s profitability.

For more information on rBGH:

But I didn’t realize some big-name ice cream companies are still using milk from rBGH-tortured cows:

Ben & Jerry’s gets all their milk from dairies that have pledged not to inject their cows with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Why, then, can’t Haagen Dazs, Breyers and Baskin-Robbins do the same?

Starbucks now guarantees that all their milk, cream and other dairy products are rBGH-free. So do Yoplait and Dannon yogurts, Tillamook cheese, Chipotle restaurants, and many others…. As if to add insult to injury, Haagen Dazs and Breyers have the audacity to tell us, right on the label, that their ice cream is “ All Natural.”

…[I]njecting the genetically engineered hormone into cows increases the levels of a substance called IGF-1 in their milk. Monsanto’s own studies found that the amount of IGF-1 in milk more than doubled when cows were injected with rBGH. Studies by independent researchers show gains as much as six-fold….

According to an article in the May 9, 1998 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, pre-menopausal women with even moderately elevated blood levels of IGF-1 are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with lower levels.

…The artificial hormone is also notorious for causing the cows much pain and distress. It does this by increasing painful and debilitating diseases like lameness and mastitis in cows who are injected with it. And because it increases udder infections in cows, it has greatly increased the use of antibiotics in the U.S. dairy industry. If you wanted to design a system to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, you’d be hard pressed to do better.

Does the increase in udder infections have an effect on the milk, and thus any ice cream, cheese or other product made from it? Most definitely, according to Dr. Richard Burroughs, a veterinarian deeply familiar with rBGH. “It results in an increase of white blood cells,” he says, “which means there’s pus in the milk!” The antibiotic use, he adds, “leaves residues in the milk. It’s all very serious.”

Posted by James on Aug 23, 2010