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Thursday, July 31, 2008

No boycotts of the Berlin Olympics!

For some time now, certain misguided voices have been calling for a boycott of the Olympic games in Berlin, on the grounds that the German government is repressive and violates human rights. I hope these calls will not be heeded. Instead of shutting Germany off from the rest of the world, which would only harden the attitudes of Nazi leaders, we should be opening lines of communication with Germany which would maximize democratic influences on the country.

Oh, I know, Germany has been pretty rotten to its Jewish population lately, not to mention homosexuals, Communists, and others the Nazis consider undesirable. And there are lingering problems with freedom of expression and even rumors of concentration camps. But those calling for a boycott make the mistake of mixing up sports with politics, which are two entirely separate things and should be kept that way. And then there is the question of interfering in Germany's internal affairs, which is a disrespectful attack on the nation's sovereignty, and... sorry, what's that you say? Oh. Right, thanks for pointing that out.

Never mind!

More on the Olympics: New Yorker writer George Packer's blog, Interesting Times, features some thoughts about the wisdom of awarding the Olympics to China, in the context of Packer's reading Victor Klemperer's diaries. Check out the blog, but here is a key paragraph"

The Olympics are never just about sports. The national glorification of the Berlin Olympics, the medal competitions and accusations of cheating across the Iron Curtain, the platform for terrorism and Black Power salutes, the chants of “U.S.A.,” the boycotts and counter-boycotts, the moral corruption and cowardice of the International Olympic Committee—nationalist orgies and ideological displays are inherent in the Games and always will be. Don’t accuse me of equating China with Nazi Germany, for I’m not—but it’s becoming clear that the I.O.C.’s decision to give the 2008 Olympics to Beijing is its worst call since 1936. Now that it’s too late to turn around, China is busy breaking all its promises to improve human rights, allow uncensored coverage, or even—for God’s sake—clean up the air in Beijing so that marathoners don’t fall dead in the streets. I know we’re supposed to say nice things about China as a rising power and welcome it to the world stage because anything else inflames Chinese nationalism. But the Chinese leadership wants to have it both ways: quick to criticize President Bush for interfering in China’s sovereign affairs when he had the decency to meet Chinese dissidents this week, but eager to cash in on all the geo-political benefits that the Olympics will bring. China didn’t even bother to abstain last month but instead vetoed sanctions against Robert Mugabe at the U.N. Unlike Germany in 1936, China is prettifying its streets without pretending to prettify its foreign policy.

Humanity's past, humanity's future: That's the basic topic of a talk by Louise Leakey, daughter of fossil hunters Richard and Meave Leakey and a noted fossil hunter herself, earlier this year sponsored by TED. This video is good quality, both technically and scientifically. Thanks to Anthropology.net for flagging it.

Time to attack McCain? Jonathan Chait argues in an opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times that Obama is being entirely too timid about going on the offensive. Some of what he says makes sense to me, especially his point that by focusing mostly on himself rather than McCain, Obama is helping people to forget George W. Bush--and McCain's close association with his policies. Take a look and see what you think.

Olympic clampdown update: This just in from the International Federation of Journalists:

IFJ News Release

31st July 2008

The IFJ Denounces EBU-IOC Agreement that Restricts Radio Broadcasts on the Web

In a letter sent today to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) denounced the "extravagant requirements" imposed by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) on the EBU and its members for use of their radio broadcasts of the Olympics on the internet.

In an arrangement with the EBU, the IOC asks for the internet use of radio broadcasts to be limited under certain conditions, notably with the application of geo-block denying access from outside the EBU territory, thus impeding certain users from accessing the sites. Moreover, the arrangement prohibits the use of moving pictures and restricts advertisement on web to prior authorisation from the IOC.

"The IOC is violating intellectual property rights and the right of information. Such conditions constitute a clear infringement of the WIPO treaties, the International Covenant for civil and political rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" says the IFJ.

The IFJ makes a link between these latest requirements and recent internet restrictions imposed on journalists covering the Olympic Games by the Chinese authorities.

The IFJ asks the EBU to refrain from accepting the conditions imposed by the IOC and support "without ambiguity" its radio members, which in the name of freedom of information would refuse to comply with dictates imposed by the IOC and Chinese authorities.

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in over 120 countries worldwide.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is it time to bomb Pakistan, or give real aid to Afghanistan?

Regular visitors to this blog probably think I read nothing but the New York Times, since so many of my posts start off with stories from the "Gray Lady." A more careful perusal of my posts will show that this is not true, but I do read the Times first of all in the morning. Despite my criticisms of the "mainstream media" (de rigueur for any blogger), newspapers like the Times have far and away the most resources and break the most stories--even if it must often be left to commentators and analysts to make proper sense of them.

Today we learn that a "top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas..." That powerful spy service, of course, is the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, whose ties with the Taliban both before and after 9/11 are well known and well reported. I do not claim to be an expert on the region, but it should be obvious that if the ISI is supporting the Taliban and other "militants" fighting the Afghan central government and NATO troops, it has a reason for doing so--and one that fits in with Pakistan's overall strategy in the region. Some insights into what those reasons might be can be found here, here, and here, and perhaps readers of this blog can recommend other sources on this topic. It seems pretty clear that Pakistani leaders have played the U.S. (and U.S. taxpayers) for suckers, taking billions in military aid and delivering pretty much zip in the "war on terrorism." Why? Well, because basically, they are on the other side (an exception was Benazir Bhutto, thus her fate.)

Now since George W. Bush said after 9/11 that you are either with America or with the terrorists, that must logically mean that we should declare war on Pakistan (oh, sorry, we don't declare war on anybody, we just invade them.) I suppose that this "confrontation" between the CIA official and top Pakistan officials will serve as a first warning; but realistically, don't look for the bombs to start falling on Islamabad any time soon.

So what is my point? It is simply to repeat what I have now said many times on this blog: The U.S. and NATO cannot "win" militarily in Afghanistan, anymore than the Russians could, and they should stop trying. The big mistake, as I think many observers now realize, was to chase the Taliban out of Afghanistan and then do the very minimum to help the country rebuild, despite the promises made by the Bush administration and most notably by Tony Blair at the time. This left a weak central government in Kabul and plenty of maneuvering room for the Taliban and other "insurgent" groups to regroup. The neglect was so blatant that in 2003 the Bush administration actually "forgot" to include aid for Afghanistan in its budget proposal. Since then, the annual budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for Afghanistan has gradually increased, from just under $500 million in 2002 to more than $2 billion today. That's not very much compared to the roughly $100 billion we are throwing away every year on the Iraq war.

Here's an idea: As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq over the first 16 months of the Obama adminstration (a plan now de facto endorsed by Iraqi leaders and in principle by the Bush administration, although not by the hapless John McCain), let's increase that aid by many times, including, if you like, cash payments to every Afghan man, woman, and child (estimated population about 33,000,000.) If that influx of funds doesn't give the Afghan population the will and motivation to fight the Taliban as well as other Pakistani-backed militants, it is hard to imagine what else will. And without the people solidly behind them, U.S. and NATO can't win anyway. (By "fight," by the way, I don't just mean with guns. The real conflict in Afghanistan is between Islamic fundamentalists and those who want to modernize the country. I would guess that much or most of the population is stuck somewhere between these two poles, making it a struggle for hearts and minds.)

Does this idea sound crazy? Not any crazier than what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan right now. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam; will Afghanistan be Barack Obama's Iraq? I hope not, for everyone's sake.

Update (August 1): U.S. intelligence officials have now concluded that Pakistani intelligence operatives were involved in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul last month. The Pakistanis have really suckered the Bush administration in the "war on terror," but that's no reason for Obama and the American people to be suckers too. Oh, and by the way, both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and neither are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--although that has not stopped the U.S. from providing nuclear technology to India.

Update (August 8): Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now calling for $20 billion in additional aid for Afghanistan--military aid, that is.

In Memoriam: News comes that a major figure in my journalism department at Boston University, Jim Thistle, has died of cancer. Jim was head of broadcast journalism; more about his life and contributions can be read here.

Lies, lies, lies, and more lies: I also am a regular reader of the New York Times editorial page, which today calls John McCain out on the scurrilous (and desperate) campaign tactics he has been using against Obama. Any American who claims to be patriotic should be outraged at the kind of outright lies McCain's people have been engaged in, most notably the blatant falsehoods in a television ad about Obama's cancellation of a meeting with troops in Iraq. The notion that a candidate could or would lie his way into office should be offensive to everyone no matter what their politics. On the other hand, there are still too many who don't seem to mind that the current administration lied its way into a war.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shooting down liberals and gays

Police are saying that Jim Adkisson, the alleged shooter in Sunday's tragedy at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee--which led to the death of two people and the wounding of six more--was motivated by hatred of liberals and gays, according to a New York Times report. The Unitarian Universalist Church is well known for its progressive stances and the social activism of its members, and apparently the Knoxville branch was no exception. When I lived in Los Angeles, the church there was often the meeting place for community groups and a forum for progressive speakers and events.

According to the report, Adkisson was unemployed and in danger of losing his food stamp allotment, and he blamed liberals for his problems. He apparently felt threatened by the changes in political mood now sweeping the United States.

I think that episodes like this one should be food for thought for liberals and progressives. There is a good chance that Barack Obama will be elected president, as American politics shifts leftwards after many years of conservative rule. But there remains a hardcore rightwing constituency in the United States, which many on the left have preferred to ridicule for its supposed stupidity and gullibility (sometimes true, to be sure) rather than making serious efforts to win them over. One thing I do like about Obama is his attempt to get past this attitude; even his infamous "bitterness" comment reflected sympathy for those who have been suckered in by the right rather than disdain. I think he is setting a good example for those who would try to change the mind, and the mindset, of those with whom they do not agree.

Another good example of a such an approach is reflected in a blog post by my historian friend Andrew Hunt, who wrote about one contentious political issue--the immigration debate--in a way that reflects understanding and sympathy for both sides of the issue. We need more of this kind of commentary and analysis.

Yes, the right is on the run--but that's no excuse for arrogance and triumphalism on the left. If we want to make the current trend last, we have to bring a lot more people along with us. And not just because some of them have guns.

PS--Today this blog welcomed its 6000th visitor since I started it in April, so thanks to everyone for their readership and support. Traffic has built steadily and the trend appears to be ever upwards. We even have a few regular commenters now, and I hope more readers will take the trouble to do so--especially if you disagree with me!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The "surge" isn't working

Over the past weeks, while the McCain campaign has been browbeating Barack Obama for opposing the "surge" and for being slow to admit that the surge is working, violence has been creeping up to pre-surge levels--as anyone who has been paying attention knows, and as the terrible bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk today demonstrate. Yet McCain, as well as much of the mainstream media, continues to chant this mantra. Perhaps they are just waiting for someone "authoritative" to be the first to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, Tim Russert is no longer with us--any takers out there?

PS--As I hope readers realize, I am not crediting Russert with any special wisdom or insight; but only when he announced that Clinton's campaign was "over" did everyone finally believe it. Likewise, we need someone to announce that the surge is "over." Why not Obama himself?

Update (August 18): I might have gone out on a limb with this particular post, but since my comments above there have been several bombings each week, including a new one reported just today. The news media is reporting them, but not putting them into a larger context. As I said: The surge is no longer working.

Speaking of Obama: Marc Cooper deals head-on with all the hand-wringing and bloviating over Obama's overseas trip. The guy can't lose for winning! And I would also invite you to read Christopher Hitchens' piece in Slate about Obama, McCain, and the surge; it displays Hitch's typically and increasingly convulated logic on the Iraq war, but if you read to the end you might like the conclusion (unless you're a McCain fan, that is.)

Still more about Obama: From the always sensible Bob Herbert.

Civilian deaths: Lie first, investigate later

Last month I discussed two episodes in which Iraqi civilians were killed by the U.S. military, and in which Iraqi and U.S. officials gave conflicting accounts of what happened. One of them concerned three Iraqis who were killed in their car by U.S. troops near the Baghdad airport; Iraqi officials said they were innocent bank employees, U.S. military spokesmen called them "criminals" who had fired on the troops.

Well, guess what? According to today's New York Times, an "investigation" of this incident has confirmed the Iraqi version. But to me, the most striking thing is that the "investigation" reveals that nearly everything the military said about the episode was incorrect at the time. Unfortunately, however, no explanation is given for how this could have happened.

Here's the lead paragraph of the story:

BAGHDAD — The American military admitted Sunday night that a platoon of soldiers raked a car of innocent Iraqi civilians with hundreds of rounds of gunfire and that the military then issued a news release larded with misstatements, asserting that the victims were criminals who had fired on the troops.

Moreover:

In a statement issued late Sunday, the American military said that “a thorough investigation determined that the driver and passengers were law-abiding citizens of Iraq.” It added that the soldiers were not at fault for the killings because they had fired warning shots and exercised proper “escalation of force” measures before they opened fire on the people in the car.

The Times article relates that nearly all of the military's original statements were wrong.

For example, a key assertion of the news release issued by the military on the day of the killings was that “a weapon was recovered from the wreckage.” But the military said Sunday that no one claimed to have found a weapon in the car or had seen a weapon taken from it.

Oh, but here's the good news, measures will be taken to insure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again:

“This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident,” Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Fourth Infantry Division, said in the statement issued Sunday night. He said the military would take “several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future.”

Of course, this is nonsense, because "such situations" will happen again, and very soon. But perhaps there should also be an investigation into why nearly every public statement about the incident was wrong--or should we just assume that the first instinct of military spokesmen is to lie until they are forced to admit the truth?

It would also be nice if the reporters covering these stories asked more questions about such discrepancies, and/or if their editors would print what they find out.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Newspapers vs. the Internet

My journalist-blogger colleague Marc Cooper comments on a Truthdig post by Chris Hedges lamenting the demise of the newspaper and the rise of the internet (I am oversimplifying but that's the gist of it.) Marc provides the links to Chris's piece as well as the reactions of other commentators, plus his own acerbic thoughts on the matter. I don't have too much to add except to say that the journalists who have moved at least part of their work online are those who seem to have the most influence these days (yours truly not necessarily, but not necessarily not, included; but, as Marc points out, Hedges most definitely.)

Let's read it all through together and think about it. Comments welcome.

Update: Hmm, just fired up my Google Reader and see that Glenn Greenwald has covered some similar territory in a post yesterday called "Who is doing real journalism?" Add this to the files.

More food for thought: "Who's a journalist?" That's the question raised by Scott Gant, a Washington attorney specializing in constitutional law, in an opinion piece in the July 28 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Gant focuses specifically on whether a federal press shield law now being considered by Congress should cover bloggers and others outside the "mainstream media." Gant's piece is nicely nuanced, but his conclusion is clear: "The freedom of the press is a right and a privilege that belongs to all of us. And if Congress enacts a shield law, it ought to be one that reflects the reality that we're all capable of being journalists now."

Will the real John McCain please stand up?

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asks all the right questions about McCain today in a piece entitled "Getting to Know You." Check it out if you think the media is being soft on Obama.

On a happier note, I hope jazz fans out there have been listening to NPR's Jazz Profiles series, which is truly superb. The last two subjects were Tommy Flanagan and Harry "Sweets" Edison, and both programs were, well, very sweet indeed. Previous shows spotlighted John Coltrane, Jimmy Witherspoon, Count Basie, and some folks I had never heard of before like arranger Melba Liston.

The programs are brilliantly produced: Nancy Wilson provides the silky-voiced narration, and the shows are edited such that the music is nearly always there in the background--unlike so many music documentaries where the music stops abruptly when people start reminiscing about the profile subject. Admit it, don't you sometimes want them to shut up and just play the music, which often speaks for itself? With this wonderful NPR series, you don't have to make this choice.

Photo: flickr Creative Commons

McCain update: The ever-funny Jon Swift reports that McCain's people have taken to running down Obama supporters with their cars (latest case is that of Robert Novak.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Girls = Boys at Math

Yup, that's what the latest study says, published in Science. My colleague David Malakoff writes about it here on our ScienceNOW news service. The link is free for four weeks from publication, but Balter's Blog is forever, so please click on the link so my editors won't mind my giving you the text:

Girls = Boys at Math

By David Malakoff
ScienceNOW Daily News
24 July 2008

Zip. Zilch. Nada. There's no real difference between the scores of U.S. boys and girls on common math tests, according to a massive new study. Educators hope the finding will finally dispel lingering perceptions that girls don't measure up to boys when it comes to crunching numbers.

"This shows there's no issue of intellectual ability--and that's a message we still need to get out to some of our parents and teachers," says Henry "Hank" Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, Virginia.

It won't be a new message. Nearly 20 years ago, a large-scale study led by psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found a "trivial" gap in math test scores between boys and girls in elementary and middle school. But it did suggest that boys were better at solving more complex problems by the time they got to high school.

Now, even that small gap has disappeared, Hyde reports in tomorrow's issue of Science. Her team sifted through scores from standardized tests taken in 2005, 2006, and 2007 by nearly 7 million students in 10 states. Overall, the researchers found "no gender difference" in scores among children in grades two through 11. Among students with the highest test scores, the team did find that white boys outnumbered white girls by about two to one. Among Asians, however, that result was nearly reversed. Hyde says that suggests that cultural and social factors, not gender alone, influence how well students perform on tests.

Another portion of the study did confirm that boys still tend to outscore girls on the mathematics section of the SAT test taken by 1.5 million students interested in attending college. In 2007, for instance, boys' scores were about 7% higher on average than girls'. But Hyde's team argues that the gap is a statistical illusion, created by the fact that more girls take the test. "You're dipping farther down into the distribution of female talent, which brings down the score," Hyde says. It's not clear that statisticians at the College Board, which produces the SAT, will agree with that explanation. But Hyde says it's good news, because it means the test isn't biased against girls.

The study's most disturbing finding, the authors say, is that neither boys nor girls get many tough math questions on state tests now required to measure a school district's progress under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. Using a four-level rating scale, with level one being easiest, the authors said that they found no challenging level-three or -four questions on most state tests. The authors worry that means that teachers may start dropping harder math from their curriculums, because "more teachers are gearing their instruction to the test."

The results "essentially confirm" earlier studies--and they should finally put to rest the idea that girls aren't going into technical fields because they can't do the math, says Ann Gallagher, a psychologist who studies testing at the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pennsylvania. But she still thinks there may be cultural or psychological reasons for why girls still tend to lag behind boys on high-stakes tests such as the SAT. Among students she's observed, she says "the boys tend to be a little more idiosyncratic in solving problems, the girls more conservative in following what they've been taught."

Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

News update: The Washington Post reports today that U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan are getting around to launching an investigation into the spate of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes against supposed terrorists and Taliban. I earlier blogged about the failure of the American mainstream media to follow up on this story; I guess they were just waiting to see what officialdom would do, if anything. One can imagine guys (and maybe gals) sitting at computers fielding hot tips about insurgent movements and their superiors ordering airstrikes at pretty much anything that moves. I hope I am imagining it wrongly, and I hope that this investigation will end up saving some lives. I also hope that Americans, and that includes Barack Obama, will wake up to the looming disaster in Afghanistan--or have no lessons been learned from the Russians or even the war in Iraq?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Let those old people die

Should our Medicare dollars be going to keep old people alive? No, says Slate's "Human Nature" columnist, William Saletan, in a post yesterday called "Age, Wealth, and Medicare." Basically, Saletan complains that taxpayer money is being spent to put pacemakers in people over 90 years old, and that, he says, is wrong. His conclusion could not be more clear:

If you make it to 100 and can fund your own surgery, that's terrific. But Medicare should focus its resources on people who haven't been as lucky as you. Living to 99 is no tragedy. It's a blessing.

This, of course, is the same William Saletan who last year fell naively into the arms of "scientific racists" and managed to convince himself that some races were genetically inferior in intelligence to others. He then had to backtrack in a series of followups in which he finally admitted that he had failed to adequately check out his story, and particularly the context in which this debate takes place (the entire series is reproduced at the link provided.) So one would think that Saletan would be a bit more humble and think his columns through just a little more before putting his fingers on that keyboard.

The Medicare budget for 2008 fiscal year is about $465 billion. Total spending so far on the war in Iraq is $650 billion, as I pointed out in an earlier post. And yet Saletan, like so many who speak piously about the need to carefully allocate our precious taxpayer funds as if they were wise sages grappling with difficult ethical questions, seems to accept without a second thought the idea that Medicare spending should be tightened despite the aging of the population he himself mentions: "The population of U.S. centenarians (people 100 or older) has nearly doubled since 2000. Trends suggest that within 40 years, it could exceed 1 million."

Shouldn't those who talk about allocation of resources look at the entire picture before drawing conclusions about which expenditures constitute waste or are excessive? The Bush administration has made cuts in Medicare spending a central plank of its fiscal policy, but they don't blink an eye over requests to pour ever more money into our Iraq misadventure (neither does Congress, much, these days.)

God forbid that those who have managed to live a long life should be allowed to continue living it. Perhaps we should start asking for volunteers to be euthanized so we don't have to grow the Medicare budget to take care of all these malingerers who refuse to die at a reasonable age. Saletan, how old are you now? You are never too young to die for your country!

Photo: A 100-year-old woman paraglides off a mountain peak in Cyprus. Reuters.

Update: What do I see on the New York Times home page today? The Bush administration wants to divert $230 million in anti-terror funds to upgrade Pakistan's F-16 jets, which are not used in the "war on terror" but rather are on standby for war with India. I wonder how many pacemaker operations that money would fund?

Backdate: I do not mean to imply by this post, by the way, that just any old person is qualified to be president of the United States. A couple of days ago, in the L.A. Weekly, my pal Marc Cooper suggested it was time for the referee to step in and stop the fight.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hiding in plain sight: Radovan Karadzic

Much is being made of how dramatically Karadzic changed his appearance so that he would not be "recognized" while he was hiding from war crimes investigators as well as the Serbian police, who were supposedly looking for him all these years. According to today's New York Times: "Dejan Anastasijevic, a reporter who specialized in war crimes and followed his case closely for Vreme, a political weekly in Belgrade, said that based on the photograph at the press conference on Monday he would not have recognized Mr. Karadzic even if he had walked right by him."

Well, that's what good disguises are supposed to do. But strangely enough, the Serbian police have yet to brag about the years of dogged and skillful detective work that allowed them to find him anyway. As the Times also points out:

Despite what seemed to be the completeness of his disguise, it was not publicly known whether, as war crimes prosecutors have often alleged, the Serbian government had long been aware of Mr. Karadzic’s location and was only waiting for a convenient moment to apprehend him.

The arrest, nearly 13 years to the day after his indictment in connection with the massacre of nearly 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica, seemed aimed at strengthening Serbia’s ties to the European Union. A condition for membership remains the capture of Mr. Karadzic’s wartime ally, Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is also being sought for trial in The Hague on genocide charges.

Some analysts saw the arrest of Mr. Karadzic as an indication that General Mladic would soon be seized. Over the years, there were many reports that Mr. Mladic wandered around downtown Belgrade without hiding his identity.

Perhaps the Serbian police are at this moment regaling reporters about how they found Karadzic, and we will soon be reading all the fascinating details. Or perhaps they don't want to compromise their hunt for Mladic and will wait until he is captured to tell all. But they will tell us how they found these war criminals soon--won't they? I am sure that Serbian officials would not want to leave us with the impression that they have known all along where they were and that no detective work was actually required.

Or perhaps they figure no one will really care once the criminals are in The Hague and Serbia is a respected member of the European Union.

PS--If you think that a companion piece in today's Times entitled "Serbian Officials Provide Details on Arrest of Karadzic" sheds any light on this question, dream on. The article is entirely about the political changes in Serbia that made the arrest possible. Could the reporters on these stories have the courtesy to let us know that they have at least asked the right questions? But the Times' editorial page strikes the right tone of irony about Serbia's "investigative breakthrough."

Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images/New York Times

Afterthought: As a skeptical journalist, I don't give much credibility to rumors that Ratko Mladic is disguised as the head chef at a well-known gourmet restaurant in Belgrade.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In memoriam: Philippe Plailly

The world of science has lost one of its most talented chroniclers. Last Friday evening, photographer Philippe Plailly, founder of the Paris-based scientific photo agency Eurelios, was killed in the Dordogne region of southern France when the ultralight airplane in which he was a passenger crashed for reasons that are not yet clear. The pilot was also killed.

Philippe was working on a documentary about the Magdalenian period of the Western European Upper Paleolithic, which stretched roughly from 18,000 years to 12,000 years ago and produced some of the greatest examples of prehistoric art (including the Lascaux Cave.) The accident happened just south of Les Eyzies de Tayac, often called the "capital" of French prehistory because of the density of prehistoric sites in and around the town.

I had known Philippe and his partner, hominid reconstruction artist Elisabeth Daynès, for many years. Philippe's photos occasionally appeared in Science, including this cover for a special issue on hominid migrations that featured his rendition of Elisabeth's reconstruction of two hominids from the Georgian site of Dmanisi.

Philippe's death is a terrible tragedy, but at least he died doing what he lived for: Using his photographic skills to bring science to a wide public. He will be buried in Paris' Père-Lachaise Cemetery on July 24.

Cover photo: Philippe Plailly/Eurelios and AAAS.

PS--I did not have access to a photo of Philippe when I posted this but here is one from a photographer's Web site.

Monday, July 21, 2008

$656,000,000,000

That's how much U.S. taxpayers have been tapped so far for the Bush administration's war of choice in Iraq. Remember that number the next time someone tells you that there isn't enough money for _________ (fill in the rest of this sentence yourself; sample answers include universal health care, hospitals, schools, mass transport, social security payments, veteran's benefits, etc. etc.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gaudi, Barcelona, and science

We're still blogging from the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Barcelona, be sure to check out our posts at this link right here. Lots of good stuff from my Science colleagues (and one of two items of my own that you might find of interest.)

Our Science Careers colleagues are also blogging from the meeting, click here for more.

Last evening the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of Science, held a reception at Antoni Gaudi's masterful Batllo House. This is a photo of the exterior; I will be posting some photos of the beautiful interior in a day or two.

Photo: Shawn Lipowski/Creative Commons

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Neandertals and moderns may not have mated

That, at least, is the implication of a new ancient DNA study my partner on Science's anthropology beat, Ann Gibbons, reports about today on our ScienceNOW online news service. The link is free for four weeks from today, so please click on it right away. The gist of the story is that an Italian team has sequenced mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 28,000 year old Cro-Magnon bones, and that it does not show any similarities to Neandertal mtDNA previously analyzed. Cro-Magnons were modern humans, Homo sapiens, and lived in Europe around the time that Neandertals were on their way to extinction. Nevertheless, there were thousands of years of overlap between the two groups (most experts today consider them separate species), and it is possible that some of them interbreeded. While Neandertal DNA does not resemble that of people living today it is always possible that Neandertal sequences in the modern human genome were lost over time.

Here is the key paragraph:

In the new study, Caramelli's group isolated mtDNA from a different set of Cro-Magnon remains that had been found in the same cave in 2003. This time, only seven people handled the fossils, and the researchers verified that their DNA did not match that of the purported Cro-Magnon sequence. "In this case, we knew all the people that touched the bones," says team member Guido Barbujani, a population geneticist at the University of Ferrara, Italy. The team also had the work independently replicated, asking a lab in Spain to extract and analyze mtDNA from different splinters of skull and long bones. The upshot is that the Cro-Magnon mtDNA matches that of modern humans and does not contain patterns found in Neandertal mtDNA, the team reports online today in PLoS ONE. That result argues against the inbreeding hypothesis, says Barbujani. [[Note that the paper is available free at the "team reports" link]]

But the jury is still out, as Ann says. She quotes an ancient DNA expert who is still concerned about the pervasive problem of modern contamination in ancient DNA sequences.

Credit: Illustration by Knut Finstermeier; Neanderthal reconstruction by the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum Mannheim

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Science is Barcelona bound!

Beginning Thursday, the entire European news team of Science, including yours truly, will be descending on Barcelona for the Euroscience Open Forum. In addition to eating lots of tapas and generally hobnobbing with Euro-scientists and fellow journalists, we will also be blogging from the meeting. You can follow our adventures at this link. And when and if I get time away from this very arduous assignment, I will post tidbits here as well.

Photo: The Torre Agbar, by architect Jean Nouvel.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

McCain cover for the irony deficient

Okay, I hope all the Obama people are happy now. Liberals and progressives love it when Bush, Cheney, McCain et al. are sharply satirized, but lay a finger on Obambi and everyone is fuming with self-righteousness. And the New Yorker cartoon was meant to illustrate a story about fear-mongering against Obama! See previous post.

Cartoon: David Horsey/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Update (July 16): There's a nicely done commentary on the flap over the cover by Timothy Egan in the New York Times today, entitled "They Get It." It turns out they have irony in other parts of the country too, not just New York. And Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten weighs in as well.

Monday, July 14, 2008

That awful New Yorker cover is just so unfair to Obama!

Memo to all Obama supporters so outraged about the cover that they are spending hours blogging, commenting, and otherwise fulminating about it:

Please put your computers on standby, get up out of your chairs, and go spend the time instead campaigning or registering voters. But if you insist on sitting there, read editor David Remnick's interview on the Huffington Post or Andrew Hunt's blog post on the subject. And THEN get off your asses and do something constructive rather than whining over every little perceived insult to poor Obambi.

Addendum: I elaborated a bit on my attitude in the comments section in response to a post from Anne, but some readers might not see that--so here is what I said:

I fully understand why bloggers and other Obama supporters are complaining. My point is that true free speech requires that anyone be able to publish and express themselves in any way they wish, satirically, offensively, or otherwise, and nowadays people spend just too much time telling other people what they should and should not say. It leads to huge hypocrisy, because everyone ends up dishonestly apologizing for saying what they really mean (the Jesse Jackson episode is a good example.) Let everyone say what they want to say, and move on, rather than all this finger wagging and scolding nonstop.

Update: The New York Times publishes a piece today about how difficult comedians are finding it to make jokes about Obama. Here are a key couple of grafs:

Why? The reason cited by most of those involved in the shows is that a fundamental factor is so far missing in Mr. Obama: There is no comedic “take” on him, nothing easy to turn to for an easy laugh, like allegations of Bill Clinton’s womanizing, or President Bush’s goofy bumbling or Al Gore’s robotic persona.

“The thing is, he’s not buffoonish in any way,” said Mike Barry, who started writing political jokes for Johnny Carson’s monologues in the waning days of the Johnson administration and has lambasted every presidential candidate since, most recently for Mr. Letterman. “He’s not a comical figure,” Mr. Barry said.

The truth is, Obama supporters don't realize how good they have it. Their candidate weathered Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and all sorts of other setbacks to beat Hillary Clinton decisively, and their candidate is polling 4-12% (depending on the poll) ahead of McCain despite the much ballyhooed and much repeated claim that 10% of Americans think he is a Muslim (racists don't usually vote for Democrats anyway, remember?) Frankly, too many people are just too thin-skinned these days, and that goes for some of the Obama supporters who are screaming the loudest about this New Yorker cover. Meanwhile, their candidate, while not happy, is keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying on. Isn't that the kind of president we want? If so, we need his followers to be just as tough.

More on the New Yorker cover: From James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times, who says that Obama supporters are suffering from an "irony deficiency." Please read it.

Obama and Afghanistan: The New York Times also carries a sobering story about the Taliban attack on a NATO outpost that caused the death of 9 American soldiers. The article makes clear that U.S. and Afghan troops are being deployed out in isolated areas where they are very vulnerable. The U.S. is in big trouble in Afghanistan, the kind of trouble that sending thousands of additional troops is not necessarily going to solve. Just ask the Russians. At the moment, Obama has no good ideas about what to do in Afghanistan other than draw down troops from Iraq and send them into this new brewing quagmire. His supporters, and all Americans, should be very worried about this.

More on Afghanistan: And the wisdom, or lack of it, of shifting the war effort there from Iraq, in a commentary by Tom Hayden in The Nation.

Bastille Day--La Fete Nationale--July 14 parade in Paris

Today is the "national holiday" (Fete Nationale) in France, and as every year, there was a parade this morning down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. This year we had the good luck of watching it from the 4th floor balcony of an office building right on the avenue, thanks to some of my wife's clients who have their offices there. What follows is the best of the photos that I, far from a professional, was able to get from our vantage point.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the parade is always military in character, with marching soldiers, tanks, Humvees, jet planes, helicopters, and the grand finale--impressive to be sure--parachutistes who managed to land right in front of a beaming President Nicolas Sarkozy. I asked one of my wife's colleagues why the parade is so military when July 14, known to anglophones as "Bastille Day," actually marks the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789. Why not, I asked, include a little truck with the original of the Declaration of the Rights of Man? He didn't really know, although he thought that the holiday focused on patriotic tradition rather than revolutionary values. Another idea, I suggested less seriously, would be to allow First Lady Carla Bruni to organize a squad of super-models in between the military men. That got a laugh from everyone, because the French seem to be both proud of and embarrassed by a president head over heels in love with a model turned singer (and not that good a one, to be honest.)

One interesting aspect, at least to me: A couple of brigades of firemen were in the march, and they received the biggest applause from the crowd lined along the avenue when they passed. I would hate to think that the French are more appreciative of those who protect their individual houses than those who defend the entire country, but one never knows.

I am too novice a blogger (or Google's Blogger is too clumsy) to get the text aligned properly with the photographs, but watch out for the following: Police up on a roof watching for snipers (and ready to snipe themslves); the tiny figure of Sarkozy on the far side of the head of the Army in a jeep; the blue, white and red trails of jets as they pass overhead; and a couple of white United Nations vehicles stuck somewhat sadly between big green French tanks. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tony Snow

I'm sorry that Tony Snow has died, and I am sure he was just as much a "nice guy" as the Washington press corps is now falling all over itself to tell us. But let's get real: As White House press secretary, Snow's job was to shovel out the Bush administration's lies and bullshit. That he did a better job of it than Scott McClellan, and that he did it with a smile, just makes it all the worse. Too many people have died as a result of Bush administration policies to wait even a day or two to tell the truth about Snow's role.

Vlaminck in Paris--last days

My wife and I spent the morning at the Musée du Luxembourg, where an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Fauvist painter Maurice Vlaminck is entering its last week. If you are in Paris or can get here by July 20, you will have a chance to see this magnificent show. The last time I had such an emotional reaction to an exhibition was probably back in 1984, when the Metropolitan Museum in New York assembled more than 200 paintings that Vincent Van Gogh produced in a manic explosion of artistic activity during a short stay in Arles.

Actually, calling Vlaminck a "Fauvist" (based on the French word "les fauves," wild beasts) is a misnomer, because the Fauvist movement (which included Matisse and Derain) lasted only a short while, and Vlaminck went onto produce many so-called post-fauvist works during his long lifetime (he died in 1958 at the age of 82.) He was greatly influenced by Van Gogh in his early years, and by Cezanne after that, but that does not diminish his originality and the passion of his painting. Usually, my wife and I manage to escape from an exhibit's bookstore with nothing more than a few postcards. But this time we walked away with the catalog, the DVD, and a beautifully framed limited edition digital reproduction of "Village au bord de la Seine" (not the one pictured here, which is "Port Marly"--so many Vlaminck paintings are in private hands that there are few images on the internet.)

If you have the chance to see this exhibition, I strongly urge you to do so. Vlaminck is an under-appreciated painter and a show like this might not come along for another 50 years. If anyone knows where it might be going next, if anywhere, please let us all know.

Vélib celebrates its one-year anniversary

Vélib, the bicycle-sharing system in Paris, is one year old on July 15. There are some 20,000 bicycles and 1500 stations throughout the city. The system is cheap and designed for short-term rides: You pick it up at one station and leave it at another. With gasoline at $4 plus per gallon, perhaps some American cities should be considering this earth-friendly and pocketbook friendly alternative to gas-guzzling automobiles? (oh, and making Amtrak a truly national network would be great too.)

But for that to happen, some American political habits would have to change, including the practice of debating things to death until everyone is paralyzed into inaction. The secret of Vélib's success, in my view, was the determination with which Paris mayor Bernard Delanoë approached the project and the innovative way that he funded it. Instead of doing a "pilot" program like most American mayors would--you know, 300 bikes and then surprise, surprise when it was ineffective and people criticized it--the city of Paris committed itself from the beginning to creating the 1500 stations and ripping up the parking places necessary to make room for the bikes. Can you imagine the years of hearings in a city like Los Angeles before two parking spaces could be removed in front of a dry cleaners?

Perhaps I am exaggerating, and the centralist, authoritarian nature of French politics is not something many Americans would find attractive (and many on the political left would object to the way the Paris system was financed, which was to give the multinational company JCDecaux the city's billboards for advertising in exchange for creating and running Vélib.) But in America, we do need some sort of compromise between ultra-democracy and getting things done, or we end up with little real democracy (ie, the automakers rule) and little getting done.

If you read French, or want to practice, you can find out more about the spectacular success of Vélib here.

PS--Steven Erlanger has a good story about Vélib in today's New York Times.

Update (July 14): The Times editorializes today in favor of a bill doubling public funding for Amtrak. The editorial ends this way:

Even with a relative windfall, Amtrak will not be able to deliver a French-style bullet train that can hit speeds of 200 miles an hour. But the only sensible way to get there is by starting now, with the critical investment that Amtrak needs to keep the nation moving.

Actually, the French TGV not only "can" hit speeds of well more than 200 mph, but most TGV runs (including the Eurostar between Paris and London) average 186 mph along pretty much their entire trajectory. This required a very big public investment; but then, France is not spending $100 billion a year in Iraq.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Were a third of Guantanamo prisoners there by mistake?

In a post yesterday I talked about some details coming out of New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book about the Bush administration's "war on terror" and the issue of the Red Cross's confidentiality rule. More about the book's contents has come out today, which I originally included as an update to that post. But they are so important that I am reposting that update here:

The Washington Post today has more details from Mayer's new book, including the "revelation" (I put that in quotes because anyone paying attention already knew this basic fact) that a C.I.A. analyst had told the White House back in 2002 that up to a third of the Guantanamo detainees were there by mistake. According to the Post article:

But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees' cases, author Jane Mayer writes in "The Dark Side," scheduled for release next week.

"There will be no review," the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. "The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."

There's more:

According to Mayer, the analyst estimated that a full third of the camp's detainees were there by mistake. When told of those findings, the top military commander at Guantanamo at the time, Major Gen. Michael Dunlavey, not only agreed with the assessment but suggested that an even higher percentage of detentions -- up to half -- were in error. Later, an academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concluded that 55 percent of detainees had never engaged in hostile acts against the United States, and only 8 percent had any association with al-Qaeda.

This makes it absolutely incredible that anyone, least of all presidential candidate John McCain (not to mention members of the U.S. Supreme Court such as A. Scalia), would question the right of habeas corpus for the Guantanamo prisoners. But as we know, they did, in the strongest possible terms, and the court decision was only 5-4. That's one more reason why issues like Obama's position on the FISA bill really do matter: We are walking the fine line of abandoning the Bill of Rights or reinterpreting it out of existence.

Glenn Greenwald: Has also posted about Mayer's book today, well worth reading. And, Update Sunday July 13, Frank Rich has a long column inspired by Mayer's revelations.

Update: McCain Insults Belarus! As attentive readers know, yesterday McCain had to apologize for his campaign co-chair, former Senator Phil Gramm, who called the U.S. a "nation of whiners" over the economy. According to a news report today, McCain, when asked if Gramm might be Treasury Secretary in a McCain administration, responded: "I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I'm not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that." This seems to imply that Belarus is not a nice place, and also that only the sensibilities of the people living in its capital need to be taken account. Not only is McCain in trouble over the economy, his foreign policy skills aren't so great either!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Afghan civilian deaths, despite U.S. denials

I've been monitoring this story since last week when the U.S. denied causing civilian deaths in air strikes; meanwhile Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed investigators to look into it. The result, according to this Agence France Presse story: The civilian toll was even worse than first reported. I suppose the mainstream media will catch up with this story soon--or not.

US-led strikes kills 64 Afghan civilians

by Samoon Miakhial

Official investigations have found that US-led air strikes a week ago killed 64 people, most of them women and children, the heads of separate investigation teams said Friday.

The US-led coalition has denied killing civilians in the strikes on July 4 and July 6 in remote, mountainous areas near the border with Pakistan but said it was looking into the allegations. It says only militants were killed.

President Hamid Karzai appointed high-level teams to investigate the claims, which have attracted criticism from the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan parliament.

The team that looked into Sunday's strike in the remote Deh Bala district of Nangarhar told AFP they were shown the bloodied clothes of women and children killed in the strike that hit a wedding party and turned left buildings into rubble.

"We found that 47 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the air strikes and another nine were wounded," said the head of the mission, Burhanullah Shinwari.

"They were all civilians and had no links with Taliban or Al-Qaeda," said Shinwari, who is also the deputy speaker of Afghanistan's senate.

Around 10 people were missing and believed to be still under rubble, he said.

Another member of the delegation, Mohammad Asif Shinwari, said there were only three men among the dead and the rest were women and children.

Local officials said earlier the strikes had hit a party of mainly women and children escorting a bride to her groom. The bride was among the dead, they said.

The investigation team was to present its findings to Karzai in days.

A separate investigation into Friday's strike in the northeastern province of Nuristan had found that 17 civilians were killed there, said General Mohammad Amin, a defence ministry official who headed the team.

The coalition has said this hit "several" militants who were fleeing after attacking a base.

"We found that in the bombing 17 people were killed and nine were wounded, Amin said. "They are all civilians."

Afghan authorities said before that the dead included two doctors and two midwives who were leaving the area after the coalition said it was preparing an operation there.

The relatives of some of the victims were paid compensation, Amin said, warning the killings could see a backlash against the government and the international troops helping it to fight an extremist insurgency.

"If the government keeps quiet about these civilian casualties in Nuristan like in the past, it will be bad for the security of the province," he said.

Amin said the findings were due to be presented to Karzai on Saturday.

The coalition said it was investigating the incidents.

"Any loss of civilian life is tragic," said Nielson-Green, a coalition spokeswoman, told AFP. "We never target non-combatants. We do go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties."

Civilians are regularly caught in the crossfire of the insurgency, launched after the hardline Islamic Taliban regime was removed from power in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday that 250 people were killed or wounded in five days of military action and militant attacks starting July 4, a figure it said it "deplores".

This included in the US-led air strikes and a suicide blast outside the Indian embassy in Kabul on Monday that killed more than 40 people, including two Indian envoys.

The United Nations said last month that nearly 700 civilians had lost their lives in Afghanistan this year, about two-thirds in militant attacks and about 255 in military operations.

Photo: Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan.

The Red Cross and torture: Time to end promises of confidentiality? (Updated)

The New York Times today has a preview of New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.” According to the article, the book cites a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluding that the interrogation methods the C.I.A. used on some detainees constituted torture. The report was given to the C.I.A., which shared it with President Bush and Secretary Rice.

One key paragraph in the story:

Bernard Barrett of the International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on the book except to say that the committee “regrets that any information has been attributed to us” because it believes its work is more effective when confidential.

The ICRC has long maintained that it needs confidentiality to do its work. The reasoning is explained here in a recent interview with the organization's deputy director of operations. I would not say that the group's position is entirely unreasonable, but recent history has clearly shown that the campaign against torture--for example, that used by the United States since September 11, 2001--is much more effective when people worldwide actually know that torture is being used rather than being kept in blissful ignorance. Moreover, the confidentiality that is actually being protected is not usually that of the victims, but that of the government that is doing the torturing. In other words, governments will agree to let the Red Cross visit facilities as long as they can be assured that the truth will not get out; and there are some famous cases, such as the Red Cross visits to the "model" Nazi concentration camp Terezin in Czechoslovakia during World War II, where governments have succeeded in pulling the wool over the organization's eyes.

Perhaps it is time for the ICRC to reconsider its policy.

Update (July 12): The Washington Post today has more details from Mayer's new book, including the "revelation" (I put that in quotes because anyone paying attention already knew this basic fact) that a C.I.A. analyst had told the White House back in 2002 that up to a third of the Guantanamo detainees were there by mistake. According to the Post article:

But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees' cases, author Jane Mayer writes in "The Dark Side," scheduled for release next week.

"There will be no review," the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. "The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."

There's more:

According to Mayer, the analyst estimated that a full third of the camp's detainees were there by mistake. When told of those findings, the top military commander at Guantanamo at the time, Major Gen. Michael Dunlavey, not only agreed with the assessment but suggested that an even higher percentage of detentions -- up to half -- were in error. Later, an academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concluded that 55 percent of detainees had never engaged in hostile acts against the United States, and only 8 percent had any association with al-Qaeda.

This makes it absolutely incredible that anyone, least of all presidential candidate John McCain (not to mention members of the U.S. Supreme Court such as A. Scalia), would question the right of habeas corpus for the Guantanamo prisoners. But as we know, they did, in the strongest possible terms, and the court decision was only 5-4. That's one more reason why issues like Obama's position on the FISA bill really do matter: We are walking the fine line of abandoning the Bill of Rights or reinterpreting it out of existence.

Waterboarding afterthoughts: Many readers of this blog have probably seen, or heard about, Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded as part of his preparation of an article about torture in Vanity Fair. All I can say to my friends on the left is that I hope they viewed the video dispassionately and for informational purposes only--even if they might like to see Christopher subjected to "harsh interrogation" until he admits that the invasion of Iraq was wrong.

Did Chinese rice farmers kick off global warming 5000 years ago?

That's the question raised by a new study I report on in a brief news item in today's issue of Science. Rice farming takes place in a wetlands environment and produces a lot of methane, an important greenhouse gas. The link requires online access to the journal (a very good investment for anyone interested in science), but I am providing the text of it below.

Actually, as I quote University College London archaeologist Dorian Fuller, we should also be looking at the possible role of early cattle farming, which began nearly 10,000 years ago in the Near East. It looks as though the human carbon footprint may date from way back in prehistory, although I should stress that Ruddiman's hypothesis remains controversial. If you want to read more, check out his book on the subject, "Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate."

Here's my story:

WAS CHINA AN EARLY EMITTER?

Last year, China overtook the United States as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases. But archaeological evidence suggests that the Chinese are old hands at global warming: Rice farmers may have begun making significant contributions thousands of years ago.

A Chinese-U.S. team led by William Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist emeritus at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, surveyed 311 archaeological sites in rice-growing regions of China. It found that between 6000 and 4000 years ago, the number of sites increased almost 10-fold. The timing coincides with evidence from other studies that atmospheric levels of methane, a byproduct of many farming activities, including wetland rice cultivation, began to increase about 5000 years ago. These findings, published in the July issue of Quaternary Science Reviews, are in line with Ruddiman's controversial earlier claims that human contributions to global warming began long before the industrialization of the 19th century (Science, 16 January 2004, p. 306).

Dorian Fuller of University College London, an expert in prehistoric Chinese agriculture, says the study adds "important and compelling" information in support of Ruddiman's hypothesis. He says climate modelers should also start looking at other early sources of atmospheric methane, such as cattle herding, which likewise increased dramatically about 5000 years ago.

Other climate warnings: Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, has two news items today about the effects of global warming on animal life--one about fish, and the other corals. The links are free for four weeks beginning today.

Obama Update: Slate writers Doug Kendall and Dahlia Lithwick pen a very intelligent analysis of Obama's rightward shift in a piece called "Constitutional Drift: Obama veers to the right, but does he need to take the Constitution with him?"

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis

Serial rabbit killers, discrimination against gays, Obama's sellout of civil liberties--this blog is getting downright depressing. Time for something uplifting, like Jeffrey Siegel's latest jazz podcast: "A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Jazz, a Little Bit Blues." Jeffrey celebrates the unlikely pairing of Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis with a couple of tracks from their new album, plus lots of other good stuff in the same vein. Click, listen, and forget the world's troubles--oh, wait, we're talking about the blues. Whatever.





Rabbit Backdate:
That serial rabbit killer had better watch out, or this could be his fate:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Serial rabbit killer on the loose


Okay, this may seem funny, but to our family it's serious. Someone is killing pet bunnies in Germany, according to the BBC. Indeed, I was incensed while watching BBC World on television this morning and they cut away from this news story to cover Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statement at the G8 meeting.

Our family is the proud owner of a 6 year-old dwarf rabbit named Kiwi, which we bought for our daughter when she was 11. She is now more interested in boys than rabbits, but Kiwi is still an important member of our household (even if he can't be trusted alone for one second because he eats all the electrical cords.)

So all I can say is that I hope they catch that rabbit killer soon and shut him up in a hutch all his own.

PS--This photo, by Nancy Bea Miller, is not Kiwi, he is camera-shy, but a rabbit that looks a lot like him.

News Update: The July 7 issue of The Guardian, one of the U.K.'s leading dailies, features an article by writer Seumas Milne about Italy's campaign against its Gypsy (Roma) population. According to Milne, Gypsies are being singled out for fingerprinting and other discriminatory measures reminiscent of the country's Fascist past. Milne wonders why nobody, especially world leaders, is paying any attention. He adds:

It has been left to others to speak out against this eruption of naked, officially sanctioned racism. Catholic human rights organisations have damned the fingerprinting of Gypsies as "evoking painful memories". The chief rabbi of Rome insisted it "must be stopped now". Roma groups have demonstrated, wearing the black triangles Gypsies were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps, and anti-racist campaigners in Rome this week began to bombard the interior ministry with their own fingerprints in protest against the treatment of the Gypsies.

Read the entire article, if half of it is true, very alarming indeed.

Obama Update: Glenn Greenwald again excoriates Obama for voting in favor of the new FISA bill giving immunity to telecom companies and authorizing warrantless wiretapping. Hillary Clinton voted against it. There is simply no way to explain away this turnaround by Obama on a crucial civil liberties issue. If we have to hold our noses to vote for Obama, it does not bode well for his chances if the race with McCain tightens, nor for his presidency. This really was a question of principle, and Obama has badly failed the test. I must quote the last paragraph of Glenn's post, which really says what needs to be said:

Will Democrats ever learn that the reason they are so easily depicted as "weak" isn't because they don't copy the Republican policies on national security enough, but rather, because they do so too much, and thus appear (accurately) to stand for nothing? Of course, many Democrats vote for these policies because they believe in them, not because they are "surrendering." Still, terms such as "bowing," "surrendering," "capitulating," and "losing" aren't exactly Verbs of Strength. They're verbs of extreme weakness --- yet, bizarrely, Democrats believe that if they "bow" and "surrender," then they will avoid appearing "weak." Somehow, at some point, someone convinced them that the best way to avoid appearing weak is to be as weak as possible.