Friday, April 29, 2005

With a Chancellor like this, who needs enemies

Charles Reed, Chancellor of the California State University System (CSU), (that's really the picture of him posted on the CSU system web site) issued the following statement in response to rallies by the California Faculty Association (CFA) protesting inadequte funding of the CSU in the state budget.
The California State University strongly appreciates Gov. Schwarzenegger's unwavering support for the California State University and rejects the false statements that protesters are saying about the governor.

Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed adding more than $200 million to the CSU's budget for the coming year, which will be the first increase in our budget in three years. …

The California State University could not find a better supporter than Gov. Schwarzenegger when it comes to higher education funding.
CFA points out that
the $200 million … includes $110.5 million in increased state funding, with the balance coming from increased student fees. This increase comes after two years of deep cuts totaling 20 percent of the CSU budget ($511 million) [and previous significant increases in student fees.]
The University of California (UC) system has received similar treatment at the hands of the Governor. Their leaders are complaining about inadequate funding rather than congratulating the governor on his generosity.

Disclosure. I am a member of CFA.

Save the weather

Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging everyone to write their senators about the National Weather Services (NWS) Duties Act (S.786), which
would ban NWS from 'competing' with private entities by making it unlawful for the agency to publish user-friendly weather data and barring NWS experts from speaking one-on-one to news agencies. Why? Because Senator Santorum believes that companies like AccuWeather would make more money if they didn't have to compete with 'free.' That's right - he believes you should pay twice for your weather information in order to line the pockets of the private weather industry, which *already* benefits from repackaging the data that tax-funded agencies like NWS give away. That's not only unfair, it's a bad precedent for our national information resources. Help stop S.786 by sending a letter to your Senators today!
It is an interesting point. I like free markets, but in this case, the private corporation is using taxpayer funded information. Why not let that information go directly to those who pay for it, i.e., us.

Bush the liar, yet again

As you have probably heard, Bush has proposed progressive indexing to "fix" social security. This means that benefits will rise with income for the lowest earning workers but only with prices for higher paid workers. This will certainly work. It will fix the system.

The reason I call Bush a liar is that this is exactly what he has been complaining about for the past 6 months. This solution is what in the past he has called social security bankruptcy. Now he is embracing it. Of course he is not admitting that he has changed his mind. Like the dishonest politician he is, he is claiming credit for an idea he once despised. He did the same thing with the idea of a cabinet post for Homeland Security and with the idea of investigating what went wrong with our intelligence system.

Predictably the Democrats are bashing him by charging that he wants to cut benefits, which he does, and which many of them had pointed to as a perfectly valid solution before Bush adopted it.

They are all liars, but I hope Bush takes the heat on this.

A sick health care system

Paul Krugman is continuing his series on health care.
The most striking inefficiency of our health system is our huge medical bureaucracy, which is mainly occupied in trying to get someone else to pay the bills. A good guess is that two million to three million Americans are employed by insurers and health care providers not to deliver health care, but to pass the buck to other people.

African Art

The NY Times has an article on African art entitled African Creativity, More About the Momentary Than the Monumental which I haven't read. It sounds interesting. The only reason I'm writing this blog item is that I like the image accompanying the article.

Have you noticed how honest and generous people are?

On my current trip, I took a shuttle from the airport to my hotel. I was the last one off the shuttle, which had 10 passengers besides me. All the bags were in the back, yet mine was there when I got off. It would have been very easy for any of the other passengers to have taken mine, a relatively small rolling suitcase, with theirs. Yet no one did. At most airports, there is very little attention paid to ensuring that people leave the baggage claim area with only their own luggage. But again there is very little theft. Why is that?

It also seems to be the case that a great many people rely on the generosity of others for their living. We leave tips for people we will never see again: waiters in restaurants, taxi drivers, valets, etc. Why do we do this? Embarrassment? Knowledge that the person depends on it for their living? I don't know. But it does seem to work.

The flat earth

Thomas Friedman has decided that the world is flat—flat in the sense that capital and labor can go anywhere and work from anywhere. As a generalization he is right — althought the taxi driver who took me to the airport to go to a meeting at which people sat face-to-face across from each other, still something of value, told me that his family was focusing on training themselves to be nurses because you can't outsource nursing. In any event, Friedman has been writing about the need for the US to develop a policy of training our youth to be able to compete in this flat world. His most recent column refers to a book by
John Hagel III and John Seely Brown entitled "The Only Sustainable Edge." They argue that comparative advantage today is moving faster than ever from structural factors, like natural resources, to how quickly a country builds its distinctive talents for innovation and entrepreneurship - the only sustainable edge.
It's an important question what this country can do to stay competitive in a flat world. My sense is that training our citizens is important, but equally important is to maintain a place where people want to be. If money and brains can go anywhere, the obvious question is where will people want to live. Clearly the weather makes a difference, as do social amenities, a pleasant social system, lack of corruption, openness, a sense of freedom, other compatible people, etc.

It seems to me that a country run by intolerant, bible-thumping, right-wing fundamentalists, no matter how well trained its work force, will fail to attract the talent it needs to sustain itself. Its pool of brains will drift away, and it won't attract new intelligence. Certainly some people, even some intelligent people, will choose to live there. But establishing a faith-based rather than an intelligence-based society is not the way to survive in the 21st century.

For those who are interested, here is how "The Only Sustainable Edge" describes it's message.
Our point of view is simply stated:
the edge is becoming the core
What do we mean by this? The edge is where the action is - in terms of growth, innovation and value creation. Companies, workgroups and individuals that master the edge will build a more sustainable core. While our primary focus will be on business activity, our perspectives will also be relevant to leaders of other kinds of institutions as well - educational, governmental and social.
They may have something to say — they probably do — but this extract doesn't convince me of that proposition. Also, they leave out the commas before the ands in their lists.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Chile's pension system

John Tierney makes the case that Chile's pension system, which invests in the stock market, is much more successful than our Social Security system. I'd like to see a reply. Is it that the stock market over the period in question (the past 20-25 years) was unusually successful? (It was about 20-25 years ago that the stock market started recovering from its stagflation stage.)

Hoodia: the Kalahari diet cactus

I got a spam email message about Hoodia, which I read. Tracking it down, I found this 2 year old BBC NEWS article.
Imagine this: an organic pill that kills the appetite and attacks obesity.

It has no known side-effects, and contains a molecule that fools your brain into believing you are full. …

When South African scientists were routinely testing it, they discovered the plant contained a previously unknown molecule, which has since been christened P 57.

The license was sold to a Cambridgeshire bio-pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm, who in turn sold the development and marketing rights to the giant Pfizer Corporation. …

Phytopharm's Dr Richard Dixey explained how P.57 actually works:

"There is a part of your brain, the hypothalamus. Within that mid-brain there are nerve cells that sense glucose sugar.

"When you eat, blood sugar goes up because of the food, these cells start firing and now you are full.

"What the Hoodia seems to contain is a molecule that is about 10,000 times as active as glucose.

"It goes to the mid-brain and actually makes those nerve cells fire as if you were full. But you have not eaten. Nor do you want to." …

Unfortunately for the overweight, Hoodia will not be around for several years, the clinical trials still have several years to run.

Do not travel to the Kalahari to steal the cactus as it is hard to find and illegal to export.

And beware internet sites offering Hoodia "pills" from the US as we tested the leading brand and discovered it has no discernible Hoodia in it. [Emphasis added. rja]

Sunday, April 24, 2005

How Bush lies about Social Security

In a speech in South Carolina, Bush said
[B]ecause we spend Social Security taxes on current retirees and other government programs, all that is left over in the so-called security trust is a bunch of filing cabinets with IOUs in them.

As a matter of fact, I went to West Virginia the other day to look at the filing cabinets, to make sure the IOUs were there -- paper. And it's there. And it's, frankly, not a very encouraging sight.
That must not be very encouraging for people who lend money to the US government. Is Bush suggesting that the federal government will not pay its debts, that federal IOUs are not good investments? Since the bond market did not crash after Bush's speech, most people apparently didn't believe him. Yet he expected his audience to take him seriously. How dishonest.

Whatever happened to the notion that it is the responsibility of our leaders to inform and educate those they wish to lead, not misinform and mislead them. I'll bet that Bush's Yankee father still holds those values. What happened to George W.'s values? Isn't honesty a value in Texas anymore?

He went on to say the following
Three years from now, when the first baby boomers start collecting Social Security benefits, the system will start heading toward the red. Less than a decade later, in 2017, Social Security will go negative. And by that I mean it will be paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. More money going out than coming in. And every year after that the shortfall will get worse.
What does it mean that it will "start heading for the red" in three years but not actually start paying out more money than it takes in until 2017? He probably had something in mind, but most likely the intent was just to scare people since the words don't seem to mean anything.

Then he said,
In the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to fund the system -- $200 billion more going out than coming in through payroll taxes. In 2034, the annual shortfall will be more than $300 billion a year. And by the year 2041, the entire system will be bankrupt.
The reference to 2027 is another example of dishonesty, and dishonesty of a form that is especially telling for Bush. He says that in 2027 $200 billion of federal IOUs will come due. How many dollars of federal IOUs come due this year? I suspect that it is more than $200 billion. Every year the government has to refinance much of its debt. And Bush's massive deficits aren't helping. If he wants to reduce the debt, he should start by reducing his deficits.

Finally, to say that the system will be bankrupt in 2041 means only that there will be no more federal IOUs to pay to the social security system. That should be good news. He has just complained about the burden the system will put on the federal budget prior to 2041. At that time, that burden will be eliminated. Let's celebrate instead of whining about it. If the government has managed to deal with an annual demand from the Social Security system until then, it can come up with more money after 2041 to continue funding the difference between payroll taxes and social security benefits. Bush has just demonstrated as much — unless he is arguing that the federal government will cease to pay its debts prior to 2041.

There are so many examples of dishonesty, it's hard to pick just a few, but here is one more.
I like the spirit of people of both parties coming together, and that was great. President Reagan and Speaker O'Neill said, we got a problem, let's come together to fix it. But they thought it was a 75-year fix; here we are, 22 years later. It's time to come up with a permanent solution.
Accountants don't talk about infinite horizons. The longest they project into the future is 75 years. That's why there was a 75 year fix 22 years ago. And it will probably be a 75 year fix. It wasn't just a 22 year fix as Bush seems to be implying. The only permanent fix is to dismantle Social Security. Then it will never be a problem again. Is that what he has in mind?

Blacks, Whites and Love

Nicholas Kristof has a nice column in which he traces the progress in inter-racial marriage but berates Hollywood for falling behind.
As of the 2000 census, 6 percent of married black men had a white wife, and 3 percent of married black women had a white husband - and the share is much higher among young couples. Huge majorities of both blacks and whites say they approve of interracial marriages, and the number of interracial marriages is doubling each decade. One survey found that 40 percent of Americans had dated someone of a different race.

But it's hard to argue that America is becoming more colorblind when we're still missing one benchmark: When will Hollywood dare release a major movie in which Denzel Washington and Reese Witherspoon fall passionately in love?

What's going on with Bill Frist?

You would think that an education at the bastions of the liberal elite would help educate someone. But here is what Frank Rich has to say about tonight's "Justice Sunday" broadcast and Bill Frist, who is scheduled to appear on it.
The fraudulence of "Justice Sunday" begins but does not end with its sham claims to solidarity with the civil rights movement of [the 60s]. "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias," says the flier for tonight's show, "and now it is being used against people of faith." In truth, Bush judicial nominees have been approved in exactly the same numbers as were Clinton second-term nominees. Of the 13 federal appeals courts, 10 already have a majority of Republican appointees. So does the Supreme Court. It's a lie to argue, as Tom DeLay did last week, that such a judiciary is the "left's last legislative body," and that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, is the poster child for "outrageous" judicial overreach. Our courts are as highly populated by Republicans as the other two branches of government.

The "Justice Sunday" mob is also lying when it claims to despise activist judges as a matter of principle. Only weeks ago it was desperately seeking activist judges who might intervene in the Terri Schiavo case as boldly as Scalia & Co. had in Bush v. Gore. The real "Justice Sunday" agenda lies elsewhere. As Bill Maher summed it up for Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show last week: " 'Activist judges' is a code word for gay." The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. …

Once upon a time you might have wondered what Senator Frist is doing lighting matches in this tinderbox. As he never ceases to remind us, he is a doctor … with an admirable history of combating AIDS in Africa. But this guy signed his pact with the devil even before he decided to grandstand in the Schiavo case by besmirching the diagnoses of neurologists who, unlike him, had actually examined the patient.

It was three months earlier, on the Dec. 5, 2004, edition of ABC News's 'This Week With George Stephanopoulos,' that Dr. Frist enlisted in the ["Justice Sunday"] cavalry. That week Bush administration abstinence-only sex education programs had been caught spreading bogus information, including the canard that tears and sweat can transmit H.I.V. and AIDS — a fiction that does nothing to further public health but is very effective at provoking the demonization of gay men and any other high-risk group for the disease. Asked if he believed this junk science was true, the Princeton-and-Harvard-educated Dr. Frist said, 'I don't know.' After Mr. Stephanopoulos pressed him three more times, this fine doctor theorized that it 'would be very hard' for tears and sweat to spread AIDS (still a sleazy answer, since there have been no such cases).
The obvious cynical explanation is that Frist is running for President in 2008 and that he wants to take over Bush's base of God-fearers. Can a Harvard and Princeton educated MD be that intellectually dishonest? Perhaps so.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Friday, April 22, 2005

You can't diversify time

Martin Mayer makes a good point in his NY Times op-ed column about personal retirement accounts. The argument in their favor has always been that over the long term, investments in stocks yields higher returns than in bonds. Mayer points out that if, as the Bush plan requires, one is forced to buy an annuity on the day that you retire, there is a great deal of variability in the results. The stock market and interest rates can change a great deal over a very short period. Two people retiring within 6 months of each other will get very different results — from the same portfolio. Whether or not the long term returns on stocks is favorable, there is always the short term issue of what the value is on the day you cash in.

One might attempt to fix this problem by averaging the cash-in value over a period. Mayer doesn't deal with this possibility. But even here, the value of stocks this year is a lot different from what it was 3 years ago. If one averages over a long enough period, it's hardly an investment account any more. It becomes a government program that depends on the overall health of the economy, as all government programs ultimately do.

Why our health care system is so bad

Paul Krugman connects the dots in a clear column about why our health care system doesn't work.
The United States spends far more on health care than other advanced countries. Yet we don't appear to receive more medical services. And we have lower life-expectancy and higher infant-mortality rates than countries that spend less than half as much per person. How do we do it?

An important part of the answer is that much of our health care spending is devoted to passing the buck: trying to get someone else to pay the bills.
It's a great column, and I urge you to read the whole thing.


While thinking about George Bush the term God-fearing — which seems like a particularly Christian term (at least to my American ears) — came into my mind. As a non-believer it struck me as strange that someone would fear a God that they take to be kind, loving, and merciful. Yet that term seems to be quite widely used — and used as if it were perfectly understandable why someone would fear God.

I did a Google search. The top ranked religious site I found (Raising God-Fearing Children, undoubtedly not particularly intellectually sophisticated) had this quotation.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him … "
Psalm 103:17-18
It wasn't clear to me why mercy is granted (only?) to those who fear their God, but apparently, at least in this translation, the notion of fearing God in the Christian religion does come directly from the bible — actually the Old Testament, although Jews don't seem to adopted this frame of mind. I had expected to find that it was a conservative add-on, but apparently not. Of course, as we all know, one can find all sorts of things in the bible. For example, see the famous Dear Dr. Laura letter.

Nonetheless, the notion of fearing God does seem (at least verbally) to be a widely accepted meme in a large part of the Christian community. I wonder how they really think about it.

Now that I am thinking more about it, fear is an emotional reaction. One doesn't fear intentionally. I doubt that this is the sense intended, but if one reads the quotation as written it would imply that whether one has a fear reaction is what matters, not what one decides to do. From this perspective fear is not a matter of choice.

Perhaps the intent is fear as in fearing punishment if one breaks the law. That would make more sense. The rest of the quotation talks about keeping "His covenant." So I suppose that the intended meaning is that if one fails to keep "His covenant" one will be punished, and one had best be fearful of that possibility. It seems like a harsh perspective, but one that I can grasp. It also seems to make one's relationship to God like one's relationship to the law, very mechanical and formalistic.

It now occurs to me that wanting a stern disciplinarian in a God is quite similar to what George Lakoff says many conservatives want in a government, also a stern disciplinarian. This would suggest that God-fearing people would tend to favor a conservative government and would have "law and order" and govenment enforcement of morality among their high priority issues.

It has also been suggested to me that fear is simply a poor translation and that the intended meaning is respect, which makes much more sense. I wonder how people who actually use the term God-fearing would feel about that interpretation.

Yet another every day example of Bush's dishonesty

According to Reuters
President Bush urged the Senate on Thursday to 'put aside politics' and confirm embattled John Bolton to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The obvious problem with this statement by Bush is that the objections to Bolton seem not to be especially political. Bolton has a record of opposing the UN, and Bolton has a record of being particularly poor in terms of interpersonal relations, a skill that's important for an ambassador.

This seems to typical of Bush. Instead of dealing with the objections to Bolton, he accuses the objectors of playing politics. Of course he does this all the time. Instead of letting the government issue scientific and economic reports compiled by neutral observers, he politicizes them and suppresses what he doesn't like.

Bush seems to be incapable of dealing with issues on the level at which they are raised and instead twists everything into an attack on the person or group with whom he disagrees. What I don't know is whether he knows that he is doing this. Is he an intellectually dishonest current-day Machiavelli, or is he just intellectually incompetent, i.e., a natural-born politician.

For anyone who is interested, here is an article from the Washington Post that discusses Colin Powell's position on Bolton.
Those who know Powell best said two recent events provide insight into his thinking. Powell did not sign a letter from seven other former U.S. secretaries of state or defense supporting Bolton, and his former chief of staff, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, recently told the New York Times that Bolton would be an 'abysmal ambassador.'

On two occasions, he has let it be known that the Bolton nomination is a bad one, to put it mildly.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

California Minimum Wage

The current minimum wage in Californis is $6.75/hour. That's less than $14,000/year for full-time work! Last year Gov. Schwarzenneger vetoed a bill to raise it.

Here is an opportunity to urge that the California minimum wage be raised.
In 1968, California's minimum wage stood at $1.65 an hour. For the minimum wage to match the purchasing power it had in 1968, it would have to be above $9.00 per hour. If the wage had kept up with productivity gains, it would be over $25.00 today. …

[This year's bill] would raise the state minimum wage from $6.75 to $7.75 over two years and then index it to inflation.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Punishment vs. Forgiveness

The New York Times reports on amnesty and forgiveness in Uganda's civil war.
[F]orgiveness and rage are mixed in many people's heads. Former rebels who have surrendered have been largely welcomed back to the communities they had preyed upon, with each new arrival celebrated as a sign that the war is fizzling out. But former fighters complain that they are sometimes shunned and subjected to taunts, as well.

Conacy Laker, 25, finds it hard to look anyone in the eye after losing her nose, ears and upper lip to rebels more than a decade ago. Her physical wounds have healed, but her suffering goes on.

'I have nothing to say to the person who cut me,' she said sternly, staring at the dirt. 'But the person needs to be punished like I was punished.'

A moment later, though, forgiveness seemed at the fore. 'What I'm after is peace,' she said. 'If the people who did this to me and so many others are sorry for what they did, then we can take them back.'
On the forgiveness side, it isn't all sweetness and innocence.
After being welcomed back into the fold, the offender must sit down together with tribal leaders and make amends. After confessing to his misdeeds, the wayward tribesman is required to pay the victim's kin compensation in the form of cows, goats and sheep.
There is an essential difference between traditional African approaches to justice and western approaches. One difference is the requirement that the person to be forgiven repent of his deeds, and repent in a believable way. In South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process, the victims of a crime were asked to judge the credibility of the accused's repentance. That judgment was a significant factor in deciding how to treat the accused.

In some ways, this still hangs on in western justice: in our court system a convicted criminal is given an opportunity to express remorse before sentencing. But these days with mandatory sentencing guidelines, remorse doesn't seem to count for much.

More generally, the difference in these two approaches reflects a difference in how we view ourselves and the world. Are we a clockwork universe in which people are essentially behaviorally robots and in which once one commits a crime one is required to "pay the price" no matter what? Or are we a universe of humans who interact with other humans, people who see each other for who they are at the moment, willing to accept the possibility of true remorse and forgiveness?

Certainly the second is far more open to manipulation, to false expressions of remorse, to being used and abused by habitual and cynical criminals. On the other hand, isn't it likely that the very act of having to face one's victims, of having to know during that confrontation whether one feels remorse for what one has done, will have a significant positive effect on those who have misused others? Such a system may allow some people to get away with murder. But it is also likely to redeem a great many more people that it hurts.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


A friend send me a link to this neat video (8 minutes). It is the history of online communication and news-gathering as seen from the perspective of 2014. Google combines with Amazon and has taken over the gathering and personalized dissemination of information. See what you think.


is some slick software. First of all the user interface has some very smooth graphics. It just feels high class.

Picasa2 is Google's image editing and organizing software. When you download it, it will search your disk for all your images. It creates its own time-line sequence of folders, which it maps to your folders. (That is its worst feature. To do a good job it has to keep up with changes made to the file system. Often it doesn't.)

It does have a nifty timeline display capability. It also has a nice picture editor, and it links smoothly to Hello, which lets you put pictures on your blog.

All-in-all they did a very nice job.

David Brooks is foolish

I never know whether to comment on a foolish column. If it's foolish, why bother — and usually I don't. But this time the foolishness is somewhat subtle. It also reveals what seems to me to be a central problem with David Brooks. So many of his columns have this not-quite-right feeling.

In today's column Brooks writes that
sex is more explicit everywhere - on 'Desperate Housewives,' on booty-quaking music videos, on the Internet … . [Yet] as the entertainment media have become more sex-saturated, American teenagers have become more sexually abstemious.

Teenage pregnancy rates have declined by about a third over the past 15 years. Teenage birth and abortion rates have dropped just as much.

Young people are waiting longer to have sex. The percentage of 15-year-olds who have had sex has dropped significantly. Among 13-year-olds, the percentage has dropped even more.

They are also having fewer partners. The number of high schoolers who even report having four or more sexual partners during their lives has declined by about a quarter. Half of all high school boys now say they are virgins, up from 39 percent in 1990. …

When you actually look at the intimate life of America's youth, you find this heterodoxical pattern: people can seem raunchy on the surface but are wholesome within.
What does Brooks make of this?
[I]t's becoming clear that we are seeing the denouement of … the culture war. …

[T]oday's young people appear not to have taken a side in this war; they've just left it behind. For them, the personal is not political. Sex isn't a battleground in a clash of moralities. …

They seem happy with the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness of the right. … You may not like the growing acceptance of homosexuality, but as it has happened heterosexual families have grown healthier.
The two points that Brooks makes [that the culture wars are over and that today's youth have not taken sides] are wrong.
  • The culture wars are not over. Anyone who thinks the culture wars are over has been asleep for the past year.

    What has happened — at least according to Brooks, although I doubt that he would admit it — is that the liberal side of the culture war has won over our youth. As Brooks says, they are happy with the frankness of the left. Verbal expression of sexuality is now acceptable. (I'm not thrilled by what I hear on the radio, but it's better than moralistic repression. We will grow out of this phase also.)

  • According to Brooks' figures, American youth has chosen the liberal side of the culture wars. Wholesomeness is not a right-wing value. Whoever said that the liberal side of the culture wars favored unwholesome behavior. That's part of what the culture wars have been about: the right wing doesn't understand that one can be both liberal and wholesome at the same time.

    But according to Brooks, the kids get it. Being liberal does not require being a libertine. Kids apparently understand this even if Brooks doesn't. Favoring acceptance of gays does not mean wishing for the destruction of heterosexual families. Apparently kids understand this also — even if Brooks doesn't.
If only Brooks and those who think the way he does would catch on.

Nicholas Kristof won't let us forget Darfur

From his column.
Since I'm of Armenian origin, I've been invited to participate in various 90th-anniversary memorials of the Armenian genocide. But we Armenian-Americans are completely missing the lesson of that genocide if we devote our energies to honoring the dead, instead of trying to save those being killed in Darfur. …

Incredibly, Mr. Bush managed to get through recent meetings with Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and the entire NATO leadership without any public mention of Darfur.…

MTV is raising the issue more openly and powerfully than our White House. … It should be a national embarrassment that MTV is more outspoken about genocide than our president.

If the Bush administration has been quiet on Darfur, other countries have been even more passive. Europe, aside from Britain, has been blind. Islamic Relief, the aid group, has done a wonderful job in Darfur, but in general the world's Muslims should be mortified that they haven't helped the Muslim victims in Darfur nearly as much as American Jews have. And China, while screaming about Japanese atrocities 70 years ago, is underwriting Sudan's atrocities in 2005.

On each of my three visits to Darfur, the dispossessed victims showed me immense kindness, guiding me to safe places and offering me water when I was hot and exhausted. They had lost their homes and often their children, and they seemed to have nothing - yet in their compassion to me they showed that they had retained their humanity. So it appalls me that we who have everything can't muster the simple humanity to try to save their lives.

Our cat (again)

The other day, I had a post that included an image of our cat on Sony's Imagestation web site. When you look at the post, you generally get a blank area of the correct size but no cat picture.

The cat picture is at this URL. Sometimes when I attempt to access it directly, I get the picture. Other times I get a message saying that I don't have permission to access it.

This may be related to the fact that I am a member of Imagestation, and my membership is stored on my computer. When I attempt to access the image as a member, permission is granted but not when the picture is accessed from the blog.

That is too bad because it would be nice to be able to use Imagestation to store images that I also want to post to a blog.

In any event, the picture is above, posted by Hello from my computer. That system copies the picture to a Blogger storage area.

By the way, his name is Blue after his beautiful blue eyes.

Here's another picture. It was taken a couple of years ago with an earlier camera. He's actually yawning, but he looks very fierce.

If you want to see my other pictures of Blue (and a number of other interesting albums, different from our Yahoo! Italy albums), look at my Imagestation Blue album.

To look at the Imagestation pictures you will have to log in. It is easy to create your own login. Alternatively, you can use CulverCity as username and Pictures as password.

Once you access Blue's Imagestation album, my other Imagestation albums are avaiable from a drop-down menu at the lower right. I recommend the Wedbush album seen as a slide slow.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Offshore betting

I have continued to think about Intrade and the possibility of buying futures on political and other events. (See my previous post at The Smart Money.) One event that seems particularly attractive is the 2008 presidential election. There are contracts on many individuals to receive the nomination of the two parties. The top Republicans are John McCain (18%), Bill Frist (14%), George Allen (11%), Rudy Giuliani (10%), and Jeb Bush (9%). I don't know that I'd buy or sell any of those contracts.

The top Democrats are Hillary Clinton (42%), Mark Warner (10%), and Evan Bayh (9%). I have a hard time imagining the Democrats nominating Hillary. And at this point she is given more than a 40% chance of being nominated. I'd short that contract — which would mean that I'd sell the contract for 40, which I'd keep if she isn't nominated. I'd owe 100 (i.e., lose 60) if she is nominated. The monetary value of these contracts is 10 cents per point. So losing 60 means losing $6.00, and selling at 40 means gaining $4.00. One can buy or sell a single contract at a time. The minimum account size is $25.00.

I attempted to open an account. Opening the account was no problem. But when I attempted to deposit $25 using a credit card, the transaction was not authorized. The help person at Intrade said that many credit card companies refuse to authorize transactions with sites that are considered offshore betting sites.

The email telling me this, pointed to three of their sites, Intrade and two others. This company sponsors not only these futures markets, they also sponsor sports betting. In fact, their other two sites, and TradebetX .com, list not only sports bets but political futures contracts as well. (In all three sites, for example, you can buy or sell a futures contract that pays off if Michael Jackson is convicted of at least one count. The odds are currently about 60%.)

So this is apparently a well-established organization that has been doing this sort of business for quite a while. Their web technology is quite well done.

The Miracle That Wasn't

Another interesting idea from John Tierney. He reports a discussion between Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt (pictured). This is Levitt's idea.
[T]he single most important cause [for the reduction in crime in the 90's] was an event two decades earlier: the legalization of abortion in New York State in 1970, three years before it was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court.

The result, [Levitt] maintains, was a huge reduction in the number of children who would have been at greater than average risk of becoming criminals during the 1990's. Growing up as an unwanted child is itself a risk factor, he says, and the women who had abortions were disproportionately likely to be unmarried teenagers with low incomes and poor education — factors that also increase the risk.

It's a theory that doesn't sit well with either liberals or conservatives, and Professor Levitt hastens to add that the reduction in crime is not an argument for encouraging abortion — he personally has mixed feelings on whether abortion should be legal. But he says the correlations are clear: crime declined earlier in the states that had legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, and it declined more in places with high abortion rates, like New York.
See also Further Evidence that Legalized Abortion Lowered Crime: A Reply to Joyce.

Stocks Plunge to Lowest Point Since Election

The The New York Times reports that
stocks tumbled to their lowest levels since the presidential election yesterday, extending a recent slump that has come amid fears that economic growth is slowing.

The sell-off yesterday was ignited by surprisingly weak earnings from I.B.M., and steepened throughout the day. It was the worst single day for the market this year and capped the worst week since August.

But it may be that general uncertainty - something that the stock market and millions of investors have never warmed to - is the real force behind the decline.

While some economists are now suddenly predicting slower economic growth, others are not. And no one is talking about a slump. Federal Reserve officials have been worried about inflationary pressures, but any economic slowdown might help relieve those.

'Right now it's a no vote on the economic outlook for the next six months,' said Joseph Liro, an economist and market analyst with Stone & McCarthy Research Associates. 'And that is because of the uncertainty about the impact of oil' on consumer spending, corporate profits and inflation, he said.

The persistence of crude oil prices above $50 a barrel, he said, 'is certainly doing something to consumer sentiment,' a fact reflected in the decline in April consumer confidence reported yesterday.

Worries that the economy may be softening flared up this week after reports showed weak monthly retail sales and an unexpected surge in the nation's trade deficit with the rest of the world. Many economists have lowered their estimates on how much the economy grew in the first three months of the year and are reviewing their forecasts for the rest of the year.
Not mentioned in this article was a comment by the IBM CFO. Reuters reported that IBM
Chief Financial Officer Mark Loughridge said the company had trouble closing short-term services contracts in the last two weeks of March and that, as a result, he could not predict whether IBM would live up to analysts' second-quarter targets.
Furthermore, those who do what's called technical analysis on stock prices claim that the stock market indices have reversed their primary upward trend (which presumably took effect when the Dow rose about 10,400 last November) and are now heading downward. If you look at the accompanying chart, prices seemed to peek in January of last year and have been heading slowly downward since then. The period between the election and now looks like a brief Republican bubble, which has since burst. The current question is how far lower will prices go.

Large, round numbers like 10,000 on the Dow are always psychological barriers. It will be interesting to see what happens if we get there or to 9,700.

Of course trends change all the time, and so-called technical analysis is like reading tea leaves. But nonetheless, something does seem to be happening. It may be that the Federal deficit, the trade deficit, the price of oil, etc. are starting to take their toll.

When the markets crashed a few years ago, a longer term prediction was that the following few years would see no long term price trend but that prices would see-saw over a price range for quite a few years. Perhaps that's really what's happening. The second chart gives a longer-term view.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The CAPTCHA Project.

I'm sure you have all seen images like this one. It is used to prevent computers from signing on to web sites as human users.
A CAPTCHATM test is a program that can generate and grade tests that:
  • Most humans can pass.
  • Current computer programs can't pass.
CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart." That sounds more complex than it is. A CAPTCHA is a computer generated image that contains distorted and often overlapping words. The idea, of course, is to read the words. Since this is hard for computers to do, computers can't pass the test. But since a computer generated the image, it can tell whether the submitted answers are correct. Click the image to go to the (surprisingly primitive) CAPTCHA page, which generates a new image (more complex than the above) whenever you refresh the page.

Surveillance Works Both Ways

From Wired News
In an attempt to establish equity in the world of surveillance, participants at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Seattle this week took to the streets to ferret out surveillance cameras and turn the tables on offensive eyes taking their picture. …

[Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor] asked the guard why, if the Mont Blanc cameras were recording him, he couldn't, in turn, record the cameras. But the philosophical question, asked again at Nordstrom and the Gap, was beyond the comprehension of store managers who were more concerned with the practical issues of prohibiting store photography.

At the Gap, photographers were told they couldn't take pictures because the Gap didn't want competitors to study and copy its clothing displays. At Nordstrom, an undercover security guard who looked like Baby Spice and sported a badge identifying her as Agent No. 1, summoned a manager who told Mann that customers would be disturbed by the handheld cameras.

Illogically, she didn't have a problem with participants pointing their conference bag domes around the store to take photos, just with the handheld cameras.

Mann said that duplicity is often necessary in order to mirror the Kafkaesque nature of surveillance.

He has designed a wallet that requires someone to show ID in order to see his ID. The device consists of a wallet with a card reader on it. His driver's license can be seen only partially through a display. And in order for someone to see the rest of his ID, they have to swipe their own ID through the card reader to open the wallet.

He also made a briefcase that has a fingerprint scan that requires the fingerprint of someone else to open it.

Mann quoted Simon Davies of Privacy International, a London-based nonprofit that monitors civil liberties issues: "The totalitarian regime is the regime that would like to know everything about everyone but reveal nothing about itself," Mann said.

He considered such a government an "inequiveillant regime" and likened it to signing a contract with another party without being allowed to keep a copy of the contract.

"What I argue is that if I'm going to be held accountable for my actions that I should be allowed to record ... my actions," Mann said. "Especially if somebody else is keeping a record of my actions." …

Stoned and mounted

By Tom Raworth.

The merchant is always right

I just discovered that according to credit card rules (at least this is what my Citibank credit card customer service person says), the merchant is always right.

While in Europe I stayed for two nights at the Hotel Grindelwald in Switzerland. They charged me for three nights. When I complained to Citibank I was told that unless I had written proof from the merchant that the charge was wrong, the charge was considered correct.

In disbelief I asked whether the carge would be considered correct no matter what it said, that the policy is that when you give your credit card number to a hotel when you check in, you lose all rights with respect to what you can be charged. The customer service person told me that this was correct.

If anyone has any suggestions about a possible next step — other than not using that credit card company any more — please let me know.

Bush Disarms, Unilaterally

Thomas Friedman on the Bush administration's economic policy.
It's as if we have an industrial-age presidency, catering to a pre-industrial ideological base, in a post-industrial era. …

Since it took over in 2001, the Bush team has made it clear that its priorities are tax cuts, missile defense and the war on terrorism - not keeping the U.S. at the forefront of Internet innovation. …

Today, nearly all Japanese have access to 'high-speed' broadband, with an average connection time 16 times faster than in the United States - for only about $22 a month. ... And that is to say nothing of Internet access through mobile phones, an area in which Japan is even further ahead of the United States. It is now clear that Japan and its neighbors will lead the charge in high-speed broadband over the next several years. …

Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. But you need to be at a certain level to be able to claim your share of a global pie that is both expanding and becoming more complex. Tax cuts can't solve every problem. This administration - which often seems more interested in indulging creationism than spurring creativity - is doing a very poor job of preparing the country for that next level.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A test to see how to send a picture to my blog using Hello.

It seems to work, but Hello doesn't make it easy to add much text. It expects not much more than a caption.
But once the image is in (This one is at, I can then edit the post and do whatever I want with it. In this case I floated the picture to the left.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Erosion of Estate Tax Is a Lesson in Politics

The Washington Post has an article talking about how repeal of the estate tax, something that helps almost no one but a tiny group of the very rich and that hurts the rest of us, got where it is.
In 1992, when heirs to the Mars Inc. fortune joined a few other wealthy families to hire the law firm Patton Boggs LLP to lobby for estate tax repeal, the joke on K Street was that few Washington sightseers had paid so much for a fruitless tour of the Capitol.

Today, the House is expected to vote to permanently repeal the estate tax, moving the Mars candy, Gallo wine and Campbell soup fortunes one step closer to a goal that once seemed quixotic at best: ending all taxation on inheritances.
It's hard to believe what the Republicans can do with clever naming.

It strikes me that the problem with the Democratic response (which has characterized much of how the Democrats respond to Republican initiates) is that it is defensive. Typically the Republicans blame the Democrats for doing something awful, such as taxing people for dying. The Democrats then spend most of their time attempting (often with little success) to defend themselves from what in essence is a meaningless charge. But since it's so confusing, and since it sounds so terrible, much of the debate centers around whether the Democrats are guilty of what the Republicans charge.

A better way to respond is to attack the attacker. In this case, the counter-attack is not to deny favoring a death tax. It is to charge the Republicans with attempting to carry the ball for the extremely rich. The Democrats should not defend the estate tax; they should spend most of their energy attacking the Republicans for being in the thrall of the wealthy who want to save millions for themselves by forcing the rest of us to pay higher taxes. The Republicans are simply hired guns of the very wealthy, and the people shouldn't be fooled by fancy naming.

But for some reason the Democrats hardly ever manage to turn the debate this way.

Our cat

This is a test to see if a picture of our cat on Sony's ImageStation is accessible from here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Smart Money

John Tierney is apparently the new Op-Ed columnist for the NY Times. In his first column he talks about a futures market in current events.
Do not be fooled by the talking heads in Rome. The journalists handicapping the papal election may sound as confident as ever, authoritatively quoting anonymous cardinals and exclusive sources deep in Opus Dei. But our profession is in trouble. A specter is haunting the punditocracy - the specter of Intrade.

That's an online futures market, based in Dublin and used by more than 50,000 speculators worldwide who put their money where our mouths are. They're expected to spend at least $1 million on futures contracts tied to the election of the pope. And if recent history is any guide, their collective wisdom could be a lot more valuable than ours.
The Business School at the University of Iowa has for a long time run a small stakes but real money electronic market related to politics. (In fact, I once opened an account there. I think they still have some of my money!) Russ Ray of George Mason University lists the Iowa Electronic Market along with a number of what he calls prediction markets in this article. Since these tend to be in the United States, and since this sort of betting is generally illegal, no money is involved. (The University of Iowa received special permission to run their market for real money.) Intrade, however, seems to be the real thing — and I'm sure that with the publicity they will now receive, participation will mushroom.

Intrade seems to have contracts on all sorts of things, from the winner on American Idol to the next Pope to the value of the Euro vs. the Dollar by the end of the year. (The betting seems to be a bit above $1.30.)

I think futures markets like this are fascinating, especially when people use real money. They are a good way to make concrete the lessons that James Surowiecki talks about in The Wisdom of Crowds.

I'm also looking forward to more from John Tierney.

House to Vote on Permanent Repeal of Estate Tax, 4/12/05

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a piece on the permanent repeal of the estate tax.
The House of Representatives is expected to consider legislation this week to make permanent the repeal of the estate tax, without offering any offsets to pay for this costly tax cut. As part of the tax-cut package enacted in 2001, the estate tax is being gradually reduced before being repealed altogether in 2010. But the provisions of that tax-cut package expire after 2010; as result, the estate tax is slated to be reinstated in 2011.
  1. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that extending repeal beyond 2010 would reduce revenues by $290 billion through 2015, including $72 billion in 2015 alone.

  2. But the Joint Tax Committee's estimate essentially captures only the cost of four additional years of estate tax repeal. The revenues losses associated with 10 more years of repeal — for the period from fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2021 — are much higher, about $745 billion.

  3. When the associated $225 billion in higher interest payments on the debt are taken into account, the total cost of repealing the estate tax for a decade would be nearly $1 trillion.

Immersion in virtual world alleviates pain

An Austrailian group has announced the following.
Immersion in a virtual world of monsters and aliens helps children feel less pain during the treatment of severe injuries such as burns, according to a preliminary study by Karen Grimmer and colleagues from the Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide, Australia.

A virtual reality game is a computer game especially designed to completely immerse the user in a simulated environment. Unlike other computer games, the game is played wearing a special headset with two small computer screens and a special sensor, which allows the player to interact with the game and feel a part of its almost dreamlike world. 'Owing to its ability to allow the user to immerse and interact with the artificial environment that he/she can visualize, the game-playing experience is engrossing,' explain the authors. …

"We found that virtual reality coupled with analgesics was significantly more effective in reducing pain responses in children than analgesic only," conclude the authors.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bush can't resist using the Death ofJohn Paul II for political ends

Here is part of President Bush's Statement on the Death of Pope John Paul II
Throughout the West, John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak.
Did John Paul ever use the term culture of life? I doubt it. I do know that John Paul opposed the war in Iraq, and he opposed the death penalty, two of Bush's most strongly supported policies. Apparently it was more important to Bush to keep the corpse of Terri Schiavo operating than actually to save lives. Culture of Life indeed.

Statement on 1994 Rwanda Genocide ignores Darfur

President Bush's Statement on 1994 Rwanda Genocide includes the following.
On this day eleven years ago the world witnessed the beginning of one of the most horrific episodes of the twentieth century.
It sure is easy to mourn genocide of 11 years ago. What is he doing about genocide that is occurring right now? Apparently nothing.


I just came back from the gym where I did 30 minutes on an exercise bike. I always feel better after doing that. My question is, why don't I develop a positive conditioned reaction to the idea of going to the gym? When I think of other things that make me feel good, I look forward to doing them. But not the gym. When I think about exercising, my first reaction is to wonder whether I can put it off for a day. Yet exercising consistently makes me feel good. So what's the explanation?

The only thing I can think of is that the process of exercising itself is not necessarily enjoyable. I only feel good afterwards. Pavlov's dogs salivated at the prospect of doing something that they enjoyed doing, not at doing something that would make them feel good after finishing it.

We can be sure(?)

Cardinal Ratzinger is quoted (just about everywhere) as saying the following at the funeral of the Pope.
"We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees and blesses us."
Normally, I just let people say whatever they want to say on occasions like this. But I've heard this line so often over the past few days, that I feel a need to speak out.

If this is a cry of anguish at the death of a dear friend and a beloved spiritual leader, so be it. But if that is the case, I wish Cardinal Ratzinger had been more direct in his words. He might have said something about his feelings of sorrow or pain. (Perhaps he did in the rest of his speech.) The quoted words (and they were probably the most widely quoted part of his speech) express neither pain nor grief. They seem to have a meaning, to have semantic content. That's what bothers me.

What does Cardinal Ratzinger mean when he says "The Father's House?" What does he mean when he says that John Paul II "is standing at" its window?

The Pope is dead. He is not standing anywhere. If these words are to be taken as having some sort of literal meaning, I have no idea what he means. If the intent is literal where is this house? How does he know that we can be sure? I'm certainly not sure.

If these words are to be taken metaphorically, I have no idea what the metaphor is and what it is supposed to mean.

To anyone who is offended by my reaction, please excuse me. I value your intent, which I believe is honorable, but I have very serious problems with your language.

Friday, April 08, 2005

U.S. slips lower in coding contest

CNET reports:
The University of Illinois tied for 17th place in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, which concluded Thursday. That's the lowest ranking for the top-performing U.S. school in the 29-year history of the competition.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China took top honors this year, followed by Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. Those results continued a gradual ascendance of Asian and East European schools during the past decade or so. A U.S. school hasn't won the world championship since 1997, when students at Harvey Mudd College achieved the honor.

"The U.S. used to dominate these kinds of programming Olympics," said David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "Now we're sort of falling behind."

The relatively poor showing of American students is a red flag about how well the United States in general is doing in technology, compared with its global rivals, said Jim Foley, chairman of the Computing Research Association, a group made up of academic departments, research centers and professional societies.

Fly brains manipulated by remote control reports
[S]cientists have genetically modified fruit flies to jump or beat their wings when flashed with lasers.

The remote control setup — developed by Miesenbock and Susana Lima, both from Yale University School of Medicine — can be broken down into three components: a lock, a key and a trigger.

The lock is an ion channel — a kind of protein that allows charged particles to pass through a cell membrane. The researchers genetically altered particular neurons to have an ion channel not normally found in fruit flies.

The key is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. By binding to the ion channel, ATP makes the neuron fire. Typically, ATP is a form of fuel, or "energy currency," inside cells, "but there is very little of it flowing in between cells," Miesenbock said. So the scientists had to inject ATP into the fly brains.

To regulate the firing of the altered neurons, the researchers isolated the injected ATP in a molecular cage that breaks open when struck with an ultraviolet laser beam.

Lima and Miesenbock placed their ion channel lock in the giant fiber system, a small set of nerve cells that controls the fruit fly’s escape movements — like jumping and wing flapping.

When flashed with a 200-millisecond laser trigger, flies outfitted with locks and keys responded between 60 and 80 percent of the time with the expected escape behavior. And this was not because the laser scared the flies. In fact, blind flies reacted in the same way. The laser light penetrates the flies’ cuticle, or "skin," to free the caged ATP.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Schwarzenegger backs off plan to change public pensions

The Associated Press reports that
In a dramatic policy reversal Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed off his plan to reshape California's public employee pension system for now, saying 'misconceptions' by firefighters and police officers that it would strip them of death and disability benefits had overwhelmed the issue.
This had been a major issue for Cal State faculty, of which I am one. And CFA, the faculty union, is taking credit for helping to force Schwarzenegger to back down. But according to the news report,
Schwarzenegger … was flanked by more than a dozen police, fire and local government leaders
when he made his announcement. No mention was made of others, such as faculty at the CSU, who opposed the change.

There are more far-reaching consequences than just retirement. Schwarzenegger was attempting to do in California what Bush was pushing for with Social Security, i.e., convert it from a defined benefit plan to an individual and more privitized plan. Success in doing that in California would have helped Bush nationally. In addition,
For labor groups the plan had potentially devastating repercussions, as they feared a new system of forced individual investment accounts might gain momentum in other states and eventually dilute the power of $2 trillion in pension fund assets nationwide that have become major forces on Wall Street.

The $182.9 billion California Public Employees Retirement Fund, with 1.4 million members, is the nation's largest fund and a leader in pressing for changes in how executives are paid and companies are run. [emphasis added] The $125 billion California State Teachers Retirement System, with 750,000 members, is also in the top three nationally.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Pope and Hypocrisy

It's not quite hypocracy, but good for Nicholas Kristof. He writes
"Throughout the West, John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak," Mr. Bush said. Well, what about that reminder? What kind of a "culture of life" is it that allows us to shrug as Sudanese soldiers heave children onto bonfires? …

These days the Sudanese authorities are adding a new twist to their crimes against humanity: they are arresting girls and women who have become pregnant because of the mass rapes by Sudanese soldiers and militia members. If the victims are not yet married, or if their husbands have been killed, then they are imprisoned for adultery. …

[Kristof then includes the stories of two of these girls, one 16 and the other 17.]

John Paul wanted world leaders to show compassion for suffering people like these girls, not for dead popes. Mr. Bush and other world leaders flocking to Rome could truly honor the pope by meeting there to establish a protection force in Darfur.

In the meantime, these attacks are continuing daily. And what are we doing about it? When girls are mutilated after their rapes, we provide free Band-Aids.

Mr. Bush has supported a humanitarian relief effort. But even the aid agencies emphasize that what is needed most is a security force to stop the slaughter.

"We're proud of what we do," said Kenny Gluck, the operations director based in the Netherlands for Doctors Without Borders. "But people's villages have been burned, their crops have been destroyed, their wells spiked, their family members raped, tortured and killed - and they come to us, and we give them 2,100 kilocalories a day." In effect, Mr. Gluck said, the aid effort is sustaining victims so they can be killed with a full belly.

I'm not proposing that we send American ground troops. But an expanded United Nations and African force, with logistical support from the U.S., is urgently needed. And Condoleezza Rice should immediately visit Darfur to show that it is a U.S. priority.

Mr. Bush should promptly back the Darfur Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill that would pressure Sudan to stop the killing (so far, the White House hasn't even taken a position on the act). Ordinary citizens can also urge their members of Congress to pass the act.

If there is a lesson from the papacy of John Paul II, it is the power of moral force. The pope didn't command troops, but he deployed principles. And it's hypocritical of us to pretend to honor him by lowering our flags while simultaneously displaying an amoral indifference to genocide.

Maryland Passes Rules on Wal-Mart Insurance

An interesting tactic.

The Washintgon Post reports:
Maryland lawmakers yesterday approved legislation that would effectively require Wal-Mart to boost spending on health care, a direct legislative thrust against a corporate giant that is already on the defensive on many fronts nationwide.

'We're looking for responsible businesses to ante up . . . and provide adequate health care,' said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), the Finance Committee chairman, as the Senate approved the measure with a majority wide enough to survive an anticipated veto. A similar bill has cleared the House of Delegates, and legislators expect to reconcile their differences easily.

Lawmakers said they did not set out to single out Wal-Mart when they drafted a bill requiring organizations with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or put the money directly into the state's health program for the poor.

But as debate raged in the Senate yesterday, it was clear that the giant retailer, which has 15,000 workers in Maryland, was the only company that would be affected.
If the law goes into effect, I wonder if Wal-Mart will start hiring more contract workers in Maryland?

Drop the Hammer

The Progress Report - American Progress Action Fund reports:
It's a big day for the ethically challenged Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) today, with two front page stories in national newspapers dealing with different scandals. One bombshell detonated on the front page of today's Washington Post: according to four different people with firsthand knowledge of the vacation, a six-day trip to Moscow DeLay took in 1997 was 'underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government.' (Remember, the Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives on Gifts and Travel state that 'a Member, officer or employee may not accept travel expenses from 'a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal.'') Not to be outdone, the New York Times fronts its own DeLay disgrace. According to records, since 2001, DeLay's wife and daughter have been paid over a half million dollars by DeLay's political action and campaign committees.

TELL CORPORATE AMERICA TO DROP THE HAMMER: Believe it or not: you might be subsidizing Tom DeLay's legal defense when you buy an airline ticket, make a phone call or have a happy hour cocktail. A network of large corporate backers — including American Airlines, Verizon and Bacardi — have poured thousands into Tom DeLay's legal defense trust. It's time for this to stop. Visit Drop the Hammer and send a message to these corporations to stop enabling Tom DeLay's unethical behavior. Let these corporations know that unless they stop supporting Tom DeLay, you'll stop supporting them.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Err on the Side of Life: stop the NRA

The is now running anti-NRA ads that urges Senators to Err on the Side of Life. Amazing.

If you like the irony, you can contribute here: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Bikram Choudhury prevails in groundbreaking copyright case

published a Manatt, Phelps & Phillips news release about the Bikram Choudhury copyright case.
In a case that will have broad implications for the yoga community, a federal district court judge in San Francisco, California ruled on Friday that a yoga sequence consisting of a number of individual yoga asanas (poses) arranged in a sufficiently creative manner could be entitled to copyright protection. The ruling is the latest in what has become a heated dispute between Bikram Choudhury, the undisputed founder of the popular brand of yoga known as Bikram Yoga(r), and Open Source Yoga Unity, Inc. (OSYU), an organization comprised of yoga instructors who seek to cancel Bikram's trademarks and copyrights in Bikram Yoga(r).

U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton acknowledged the case is unusual, writing: 'On first impression, it thus seems inappropriate, and almost unbelievable, that a sequence of yoga positions could be any one person's intellectual property.' The Judge acknowledged the lack of legal precedence on this issue: 'OSYU has provided no persuasive authority that a compilation of yoga asanas cannot be protected under the copyright laws in the same manner as other compilations.' However, the court admitted that it 'has been unable to locate any authority that precludes' application of the copyright laws to yoga.

The judge also dismissed outright OSYU's claims of copyright misuse, saying that it was well within Bikram's rights as a copyright owner to 'enforce his copyright by informing people he believes to be infringing his copyright that his copyright permits him to enjoin their performance of the Bikram yoga sequence, or any modifications of the sequence that can be considered substantially similar to it.'

Terri Schiavo's corpse continued to function for 15 years

I'm now coming to think that the biggest mistake in the Terri Schiavo case was that the doctors failed to declare her dead long ago. As long as she was officially alive, one could argue that she should be treated as other living human beings. But for all intents and purposes, she wasn't alive.

Now, of course, it's me saying that. But as I understand it, her cortex had disintegrated and had been replaced with spinal fluid. There was no way she could have recovered consciousness. Don't we have brain dead as a criterion for death? Why wasn't it applied in her case?

Declaring a patient brain dead is certainly a very serious responsibility, and the physician who does it must be very cautious. But presumably it is done. I'm sure we have faced similar cases in the past. We must have a fairly large body of precedent. I'm surprised it wasn't applied. I don't understand why the situation was allowed to go on the way it was.

One thing this case illustrates is that one can be brain dead even though one's body can continue to function more or less on its own. Should that make a difference? If one is brain dead but with a functioning body, isn't one still dead? Probably. After all, we retrieve functioning organs from corpses and implant them in living people. Is that really so different from having an entire corpse (except for the part that exhibits consciousness) that is still functioning? I think that's the way the analogy would have to go.

A very negative view of John Paul II

In the NY Times, Thomas Cahill, author of "How the Irish Saved Civilization," wrote
John Paul II's most lasting legacy to Catholicism will come from the episcopal appointments he made. In order to have been named a bishop, a priest must have been seen to be absolutely opposed to masturbation, premarital sex, birth control (including condoms used to prevent the spread of AIDS), abortion, divorce, homosexual relations, married priests, female priests and any hint of Marxism. It is nearly impossible to find men who subscribe wholeheartedly to this entire catalogue of certitudes; as a result the ranks of the episcopate are filled with mindless sycophants and intellectual incompetents. The good priests have been passed over; and not a few, in their growing frustration as the pontificate of John Paul II stretched on, left the priesthood to seek fulfillment elsewhere. …

Sadly, John Paul II represented a [tradition] of aggressive papalism. Whereas John XXIII endeavored simply to show the validity of church teaching rather than to issue condemnations, John Paul II was an enthusiastic condemner. Yes, he will surely be remembered as one of the few great political figures of our age, a man of physical and moral courage more responsible than any other for bringing down the oppressive, antihuman Communism of Eastern Europe. But he was not a great religious figure. How could he be? He may, in time to come, be credited with destroying his church.
But see also the earlier positive evaluation by Helen Prejean.

Paul Krugman on science and the Republicans

Thirty years ago, attacks on science came mostly from the left; these days, they come overwhelmingly from the right, and have the backing of leading Republicans.

Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that 'the jury is still out.' Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a 'gigantic hoax.' And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.

Think of the message this sends: today's Republican Party - increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research - doesn't respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn't be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

Conservatives should be worried by the alienation of the universities; they should at least wonder if some of the fault lies not in the professors, but in themselves. Instead, they're seeking a Lysenkoist solution that would have politics determine courses' content.

And it wouldn't just be a matter of demanding that historians play down the role of slavery in early America, or that economists give the macroeconomic theories of Friedrich Hayek as much respect as those of John Maynard Keynes. Soon, biology professors who don't give creationism equal time with evolution and geology professors who dismiss the view that the Earth is only 6,000 years old might face lawsuits.

If it got that far, universities would probably find ways to cope - by, say, requiring that all entering students sign waivers. But political pressure will nonetheless have a chilling effect on scholarship. And that, of course, is its purpose.
Although many religious liberals may disagree, I think this is a problem not just with Republicans. It is a problem that the religious burden of belief imposes on everyone who bears it: how to retain your beliefs without imposing them on science. As long as one's beliefs concern the nature of a reality that is open to scientific investigation, that's not an easy task. And if one's beliefs do not apply to a nature that is open to scientific investigation, what do they really mean? It seems to me that the job of clarifying how one's religious beliefs connect to scientific reality is the responsibility of the religion that asks its adherents to accept those beliefs. Although I haven't done any research on this issue, I'm not immediately aware of any clear statements on this question by any religion.

Will we now have to defend the independence of the judiciary?

In commenting on the best-selling non-book
Certainly it possesses chapters and words and other book-like accoutrements. But Men in Black is 208 large-print pages of mostly block quotes (from court decisions or other legal thinkers) padded with a forward by the eminent legal scholar Rush Limbaugh, and a blurry 10-page "Appendix" of internal memos to and from congressional Democrats—stolen during Memogate. The reason it may take you only slightly longer to read Men in Black than it took Levin to write it is that you'll experience an overwhelming urge to shower between chapters.
Men in Black by Mark Levin, Dahlia Lithwick warns that
maybe the far-right really thinks that attacking the independence of the judiciary as a whole is a smart move. Levin pays some lip service to the idea that the federal bench needs to be stacked with right-wing ideologues in his penultimate chapter. But he betrays early on his fear that even the staunchest conservative jurist is all-too-often 'seduced by the liberal establishment once they move inside the Beltway.' Thus, his real fixes for the problem of judicial overreaching go further than manipulating the appointments process. He wants to cut all judges off at the knees: He'd like to give force to the impeachment rules, put legislative limits on the kinds of constitutional questions courts may review, and institute judicial term limits. He'd also amend the Constitution to give congress a veto over the court's decisions. Each of which imperils the notion of an independent judiciary and of three separate, co-equal branches of government. But the Levins of the world are not interested in a co-equal judiciary. They seem to want to see it burn.
Get rid of the courts and the legislature? Tom Delay for supreme ruler?

Monday, April 04, 2005

John Paul opposed the death penalty

In a column in the NY Times, Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, thanks John Paul for reversing the
teaching of the Catholic Church upholding the right of the state to execute criminals "in cases of extreme gravity" [which] had been in place for 1,600 years.

But that's precisely what the pope did: he removed from the Catholic catechism the criterion "in cases of extreme gravity." The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed. This cuts the moral ground out from under American politicians who advocate the death penalty for the "worst of the worst criminals."

The quantum change in the catechism took place in September 1997, and in 1999 when the pope visited St. Louis, he uttered words of opposition to the death penalty that could not have been more uncompromising:

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."
This doesn't seem to me to be a very strong statement, but she claims
The effects of the pope's leadership will be felt for years to come, both in the highest echelons of the Catholic hierarchy and among the Catholic faithful in the pews. Whereas polls once showed that American Catholics supported the death penalty about as much as other Americans, they now show that support for the death penalty among Catholics has fallen below 50 percent. Just last month, Catholic bishops in the United States inaugurated a vigorous educational campaign to end the death penalty.
She says that 9 months before his statement she had written a letter to the Pope that included the following.
"Surely, Holy Father, it is not the will of Christ for us to ever sanction governments to torture and kill in such fashion, even those guilty of terrible crimes. … I found myself saying to them: 'Look at me. Look at my face. I will be the face of Christ for you.' In such an instance the gospel of Jesus is very distilled: life, not death; mercy and compassion, not vengeance."
How can George Bush and his supporters on the religious right think otherwise?

MIT Researchers Identify Gene Involved in Building Brains

In what I gather is a news release from MIT, reports
A tiny molecule is key to determining the size and shape of the developing brain, researchers from the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT reported in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience. This molecule may one day enable scientists to manipulate stem cells in the adult brain.

A candidate plasticity gene and its growth-promoting protein, CPG15, could potentially be used to develop therapies for renewing damaged or diseased tissue. While stem cells regenerate neurons in only a few regions of the adult brain, researchers have speculated that a lack of adult stem cells may cause memory deficits and other disorders. …

Over-expressing CPG15 in rats gives them bigger brains. In addition, their enlarged brains have grooves and furrows like evolved mammalian brains with larger surface areas. [The article didn't say whether these rats were actually smarter than other rats.]

"We propose that by countering early apoptosis in specific progenitor populations, CPG15 has a role in regulating size and shape of the mammalian forebrain," the authors wrote.

This knowledge may one day be used to enhance survival of normally occurring stem cells in the human brain, or to grow neurons outside the body and then deposit them where needed to replace damaged or diseased tissue.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Nicholas Kristof on Zimbabwe

In his column, Another Kind of Racism Nicholas Kristof writes about Africa.
If the old white regime here was deliberately starving its people [as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is], the world would be in an uproar. …

One of Africa's biggest problems is the perception that the entire continent is a hopeless cesspool of corruption and decline. Africa's leaders need to lead the way in pushing aside the clowns and thugs so their continent can be defined by its many successes - in Ghana, Mali, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Uganda and Botswana - rather than by the likes of Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa and Robert Mugabe. …

Zimbabweans have already suffered so much from racism over the last century that the last thing they need is excuses for Mr. Mugabe's misrule because of the color of his skin.
He's right about my perception. I didn't know Africa had any successes at all.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Faith-based politics

The New York Times reports on people mourning the death of Terri Schiavo.
After word spread that Ms. Schiavo had died, the dozens of demonstrators outside the hospice did not erupt in violence or anger. Many simply prayed and sang and cried. And many people, including some prominent religious advocates, were quick to portray Ms. Schiavo's death as a beginning, not an end. They described it as a moment of transformation, for themselves, perhaps, but also for their supporters nationwide.

"I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to the people of God to become active in the cultural life of the nation and in the political process," said Joe Rogers, 61, an engineer from Dayton, Ohio, who arrived on Wednesday. "There's a great number of people who truly say that they feel helpless. They need to take a stand when they can, even if it feels futile. That's why I came."
These people didn't know Terri Schiavo. They had no connection to her. She has been essentially dead for 15 years. Why is the cessation of her bodily functions so important to them? If they are truly concerned about life, there are so many other things they could do than make a scene in Florida. How about Darfur, to take an example of something that has much less domestic political charge? If the people who claim to want to establish a culture of life put as much energy into eliminating the killings in Darfur, perhaps some actual lives would be saved. Why don't they do that?

I ask this question, not as someone who has spent much of my time and energy on Darfur. I ask it truly as a question. I just don't understand what drives them. The cynical answer is that it is all hypocritical politics. Perhaps they are really just dupes of their manipulative leaders and are so foolish as not to understand that they are being used. That is apparently how Bush won the election. That's essentially the thesis of What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank.

From The official Thomas Frank website
Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation's dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it's sometimes hard to believe it's actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the 'silent majority,' or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the 'regular Americans,' or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the 'red states.'

And then think of the political changes that this sappy stuff has helped to sell: Privatization. Deregulation. Monopolies in every industry from banking to radio to meatpacking. The destruction of the welfare state. The beatdown of the labor movement. The transformation of the Midwest into the rust belt. And, shimmering in the heavens above all this, the rise of a new plutocracy, a class of overlords so taken with their own magnificence that they are moved to compare themselves to the Almighty.

What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy 'elite' while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.
The Terri Schiavo case demonstrates yet again why this strategy has been so successful. Apparently there is a segment of our society that is simply begging to be manipulated, a segment of society that values belief and faith above all else and that will give itself uncritically to anyone who claims to speak for belief and faith. The Republicans have figured that out; they have identified a power vacuum (the political faith-oil salesman); and they have decided to fill that vacuum.

The Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for their dishonesty. But the people who are allowing themselves to be manipulated are ultimately responsible for their own decisions. It is they who as sheep (probably an image of themselves that they like) are allowing themselves and this country to be driven down a path toward destruction. If by putting one's faith in faith, one gives up the right and responsibility to think for oneself, it is likely that someone will take advantage of that. And the Republicans have done just that.

On the other hand, the polls do indicate that a majority of the people do not buy all this faith-based politics stuff—at least not in this case. So perhaps there is hope.