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Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel, RIP

America has lost its greatest chronicler and oral historian. Please take some time and listen to Stud Terkel's radio programs on his Web site. I remember driving across the country in the summer of 1974, listening late into the night to his gravely voice and the stories of the unsung, unknown Americans he immortalized.

Between about 1981 and 1988, I worked as an oral historian for the UCLA Oral History Program, and Terkel was definitely one of my most important influences.

Update: The New York Times has just published an obituary.

It's going to take a whole lot more than a Democratic majority to save us. So says my journalist-blogger-prof pal, Marc Cooper, in one of his last columns for the L.A. Weekly--with which he has had a parting of the ways. As Marc points out, Obama's election is just the first step in the political process that must now take place.

Over-confidence or justifiable confidence? Charles Blow makes fun reading in the November 1 New York Times. Why not just be happy and get out the vote--the rest will be history.

Sorting out the bears

In today's issue of Science, I write about two papers--one published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the other published last July in BMC Evolutionary Biology--that report the complete sequencing of the mitochondrial DNA of the extinct cave bear. Why is this a big deal? Two reasons: First, researchers have been unsure about the structure of the bear family tree, how many genera to put the bears in, and how each of the 8 living species of bears is related to each other, as well as to extinct bears that lived in the past. The new papers appear to resolve at least some of these issues to everyone's satisfaction, although there are remaining questions, such as when the explosive radiation of the genus Ursus took place. And second, the researchers have, for the first time, sequenced mitochondrial DNA from animals living during the Pleistocene period (1.8 million to about 10,000 years ago) that were not preserved in permafrost, thus overcoming an important ancient DNA technical hurdle.

The link to the story requires a subscription to Science, but here are a few tidbits from the story--which includes details about a priority fight between the teams that published the two papers.

What kind of bear was Winnie-the-Pooh? Author A. A. Milne christened the fictional character after the teddy bear of his son, who in turn had borrowed the name from an American black bear in the London Zoo called Winnipeg. Yet for decades, researchers have argued about whether Winnipeg's scientific name should be Ursus americanus or Euarctos americanus. Indeed, although there are only eight species of living bears, scientists have come up with at least half a dozen versions of the bear family tree.

Now a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) online this week helps untangle bear phylogeny by presenting "the first mitochondrial genome" from the extinct cave bear, Ursus spelaeus. But another paper, published with little fanfare last July, also reported the complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the cave bear, as well as that of the extinct American short-faced bear, Arctodus simus. The two teams are arguing about scientific priority. But for the bears, this means that two sets of data now illuminate their family tree, although the studies disagree about the timing of bear evolution.

Here's more:

... both groups agree on the outline of the bear family tree. They confirm that the giant panda was the first species to split off from the lineage leading to later bears, and both conclude that the cave bear shared a common ancestor with the brown bear and the polar bear, which turn out to be closely related to each other. Moreover, both teams slash the number of genera of living bears from seven in some schemes, to three for the Hofreiter group and four for the Elalouf group. They assign most species--including Winnipeg's--to the genus Ursus.

But in addition to the disagreement over priority, they also differ on when this all happened:

Yet when it comes to the timing of the recent bear radiation, the two groups part company. Elalouf concludes that it was only about 2 million to 3 million years ago, using a previous estimate of the giant panda's divergence at 12 million years ago as a chronological anchor point. Hofreiter's team anchors its tree with the much earlier divergence of the harbor seal and finds that the panda split off earlier, about 19 million years ago, and that the rest of the bears radiated about 5 million years ago. He notes that some aspects of climate changed dramatically about that time, when the Bering Strait opened and the Mediterranean Sea became drier. Other mammals also showed dramatic changes at this time, such as the split between the human and ape lineages.

Nevertheless, as I point out in the story, at least Winnie-the-Pooh finally has his scientific name.

Illustration: Artist's drawing of the extinct cave bear

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarah Palin's fruit flies

John McCain has displayed spectacular ignorance of science during this election campaign, first when he ridiculed spending on understanding bear genetic diversity and then when he called a request by Adler Planetarium in Chicago to replace its "overhead projector" an example of pork barrel spending.

Now Sarah Palin has gotten into the act, by criticizing funds for a fruit fly study in France. But as my colleague Martin Enserink points out in a post on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, the study has considerable merit--and could help California's fly-plagued olive industry. The link to Martin's story, here, is free for four weeks, and here are a couple of key paragraphs to get you started:

PARIS--Coming from Sarah Palin, it sounded like the ultimate folly: U.S. taxpayer money funding a study of fruit flies in Paris, France. But scientists jumped to the defense of the work that the Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate derided as wasteful on 24 October during a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The studies, actually carried out at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) laboratory near Montpellier, 750 kilometers south of Paris, may help protect California olive trees from a serious pest, scientists say.

And:

Palin's example came from the Web site of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private group claiming to fight government mismanagement that awarded Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) a "French Kiss Off Award" in April for obtaining $211,509 for research on the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae). As some bloggers were quick to point out, recent results from studies on other fruit fly species may help scientists understand autism, a disease Palin mentioned in her speech because her nephew has it. But the Thompson earmark is for the European Biological Control Laboratory (EBCL), administered by USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which studies ways to control invasive species in the United States by using their natural enemies.

Read the rest at the link--and don't forget to vote for and not against science on November 4.

Photo:
Nicolas Gompel and Benjamin Prud'homme

More on the fruit fly fracas: Can be found courtesy of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and a post by ace tracker Boyce Rensberger.

Good at polling, poor on freedom of the press. A New York Times editorial takes on Quinnipiac University's threats and intimidation against student journalists.

Rethinking the "Bradley effect." Not so much, concludes a story in the Los Angeles Times by Cathleen Decker.

Catholics for Obama. The L.A. Times' Tim Rutten comments on Obama's commanding lead among Catholics (who make up one-third of Pennsylvanians) despite church leaders' insistence that abortion is the number one issue in this election.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sunny Sunday in New York

It's pouring rain today in Manhattan, where I am having a little down time with my family, but Sunday was picture perfect. This blog does like to feature subjects other than politics, although lately it has been difficult--but diversity of subject matter will be the norm here as soon as we get Barack Obama elected.

Photos: Central Park/Michael Balter

John McCain: Redistributionist par excellence

Could there be a bigger joke than John McCain calling Barack Obama the "Redistributionist-in-Chief?" This is the guy who has voted against the minimum wage and other measures to give workers basic protections against exploitation time and time again. Instead of sidestepping this charge, Obama should turn it around on McCain with both barrels. There is no bigger redistribution of wealth in this country than that caused by the wage exploitation that is leading to an ever increasing gap between rich and poor, and which is the result of policies that McCain has supported unwaveringly. Obama is not a socialist nor a Marxist, but that does not mean Marx was wrong about how the rich get rich: By expropriating as much wealth as possible from those who really create it.

Update: Obama is speaking to a large crowd in Chester, Pennsylvania this morning, and he is doing a good job hitting on these issues.

Like, socialism. That's the title of a Hendrik Hertzberg comment in the new New Yorker. Great stuff (hat tip to JM for the alert.)

Capitalists for socialism? I wonder why the Financial Times has endorsed Obama...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Don't even think about trying to steal this election

I am sure most readers of this blog have read the numerous news stories about problems with voter registration lists, voting machines, etc. that are already cropping up across the country. CNN's Web site has a roundup of these problems and some specific examples that make it clear such worries could be well founded--especially the continual attempts by Republican operatives and secretaries of state to try to purge as many voters as they can from election rolls (particularly newly registered voters likely to go for Obama), not to mention more insidious techniques that seem to be in play.

So I am sure that I speak for tens of millions of people when I say that this time, unlike in 2000, we will not just sit by and allow the 2008 election to be stolen. If there is even a hint of such a thing in any state, we will fight it in the courts and if need be in the streets.

Election thieves, you have been warned.

They refused to attack. Talking Points Memo reports that dozens of call center workers walked off the job rather than read scripts attacking Obama.

Of overhead projectors and bears. I blogged earlier on both of these dumb remarks by McCain during the debates (see links in bold), and today (October 28) the Los Angeles Times carries an opinion piece by Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University on the Republican candidate's scientific errors.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Racists for Obama

Frank Rich's column in today's New York Times is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand why McCain is going to lose this election, including strategists for both the McCain and Clinton campaigns who thought and hoped that subtle appeals to racism would help turn the tide against the Obama juggernaut. I have quoted one segment in the "Quote of the Day" at the left, which I will leave up for more than a day, but you should definitely check one of Rich's links which I will put for you here: A piece about a week ago by Ben Smith for Politico called "Racists for Obama?" Here is the lead and bottom line.

New polling and a trickle of stories from the battleground states suggest that Sen. Barack Obama's coalition includes one unlikely group: white voters with negative views of African-Americans.

But please read both columns to get the full details. And understand why all the bloviating about the "Bradley effect" in this election will turn out to be so off base.

In fact, I am now going to make a prediction that only a few have dared speak aloud, partly out of superstition: Obama is going to win in a landslide.

More on that landslide. From a Democratic pollster in Salon.

One party government? Republicans are warning about giving the Democrats too much power. I share that concern, although from a left perspective rather than a right wing one. But do we really want a McCain presidency and a heavily Democratic Congress? That would be a good way to stall every initiative while the country is in crisis domestically and internationally. Let's give the Democrats all the power and see how well they do. There are plenty of progressives around to debate their every move and try to keep the Democrats from doing stupid things, so rightwingers, just sit back and let us do the work.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ashley Todd: The racism in the race

It's going to be interesting to see how this story plays out over the next few days. Did anyone in the McCain campaign, even at a lower level, put her up to this or suggest the idea in some way? Or did she think it up this stunt all by herself, which would leave us wondering why the McCain campaign is attracting racists?

Stay tuned.

Photo: Keith Srakocic /AP

More on this story: From Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, who wants answers about the McCain campaign's role--especially in hyping the story.

The aftermath of the Ashley Todd story. Interesting piece by Jay Bookman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The right really jumped on this story, perhaps, as Bookman postulates, because they realize how far many Americans have gone to overcome their racism in the course of this election.

The party of yesterday. Timothy Egan, in an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, gives yet more reasons why the Republicans are losing: they have turned their backs on the America of the future.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Obama endorsement stampede

I'm worried that someone is going to get hurt as Republicans rush to be among the first in their party to endorse Obama. Since Colin Powell gave Barack his blessing last Sunday, the number of conservatives jumping ship has grown exponentially. The list is now so long that I can't keep up with it, so I will refer you to the good folks at Talking Points Memo who gleefully post the name of each Republican who comes in out of the cold.

Look for the river to turn into a flood between now and election day. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history, and folks, these are historic times.

Great moments in election year blogging. Jon Swift dredges the rightwing blogosphere for Pulitzer quality material--and comes up with plenty.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama's grandmother

It was inevitable that the pundits would weigh the "risks" and "benefits" of Obama taking time out to visit his gravely ill grandmother. Liz Robbins, on the New York Times blog "The Caucus," sets the right tone for such commentaries. It is a legitimate topic, but don't be surprised if McCain campaign surrogates label it an election stunt. Here is a good answer to that in advance, cited by Robbins:

Though cynical observers will be inclined to think that Mr. Obama is using the visit to engender voter sympathy, Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers, believes that is anything but the case.

“This is an individual whose influence was much greater on him than his mother,” Mr. Ross said in a telephone interview, referring to Mr. Obama and Ms. Dunham. “I read his two books and I got the audio books. You don’t get the incredible emotional tinge without such deep feelings.

“I think that perhaps inadvertently, and perhaps tragically, this is showing a side of him that even the best and most eloquent presentations of himself can’t achieve. This is no stunt. This is the act of a loving grandchild.”

Photo: Barack Obama with his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, on a park bench in New York City while he was a student at Columbia University/Obama for America via AP

Gag me with a spoon department: Just surfacing from a deadline with just enough energy to say how unbelievable it is that they would send Sarah Palin out to attack Obama for his lack of experience (re Biden's remarks that the new president would face a crisis within six months.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Barack Obama broke his "promise" on public campaign financing

But I forgive him.

Afterthoughts (Oct 21): This post was intended to be somewhat facetious, but one commenter (see Comments below) took me to task on a couple of points. Indeed, while Obama did not actually "promise" John McCain to use only public financing--his agreement to do so would have been conditional on McCain renouncing 527 spending, although McCain could have done nothing to prevent it--Obama's own rhetoric was critical of campaign financing in general and many liberals and progressives were disappointed with his decision in the end, even while understanding the reasons for it. But the discussion raises a more basic point, as I say in the Comments section and will repeat here:

Some Obama supporters think that no one should make any criticisms of him until after the election. I disagree with that, and so do many many progressives who support Obama but have issues with him over FISA, Afghanistan, the bailout, and a number of other points. Obama supporters to his left need to have a constant dialogue with him as well as among themselves about these things, and that dialogue needs to be public if it is to be a useful discussion or even to take place at all. For example, Obama is about to make huge mistakes in Afghanistan, especially if he surrounds himself with many of the same foreign policy advisers that Clinton had. I will be posting more about this in coming days.

More on campaign financing: The New York Times features a front page story today (Oct 21) about how both campaigns have benefited from so-called joint fundraising committees that allow large contributions from wealthy donors. "Many of these large donors come from industries with interests in Washington. A New York Times analysis of donors who wrote checks of $25,000 or more to the candidates’ main joint fund-raising committees found, for example, the biggest portion of money for both candidates came from the securities and investments industry, including executives at various firms embroiled in the recent financial crisis like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AI," the Times reports.

Socialists disown Obama. According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, socialists (and academics who know what socialism is) are poo-pooing the idea that Barack might be one of them--he's not even a closet Marxist, they say. Shucks, no red flags over the White House.

Slime-roll: Talking Points Memo has begun to monitor McCain robocalls across the country.

Something to make you sleep better tonight:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell's punch

The pundits are all over the significance of today's news, which I think will be huge. I would just add one thought: Powell's calm, dignified recitation of McCain's faults and weaknesses as a presidential candidate, and his brushing off of the Bill Ayers nonsense and other extraneous matters, underscores just what a small and petty man McCain has become. I have little doubt that Americans are ready to embrace someone and something new.

Photo: UPI.

Powell's finest moment: So says Juan Cole, in a very good post that blogger Richard reproduces in the Comments below, but which I would also like to flag here (you may have to scroll down to find this because Cole's blog does not have individual post links.) Among many other things, Cole makes clear that Powell did not endorse Obama just because he is Black, as some rightwing slimeballs--including Pat Buchanan on Chris Matthews' "Hardball" last night and Rush Limbaugh on his radio show--are trying to make us think (by the way, I don't hear anyone saying that Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig endorsed John McCain because he is white, which makes such statements prima facie evidence of racism.)

How to deal with those robo-calls: Some advice from historian Andrew Hunt.

GOP Site Removes Call to Torture Obama. Read about it here.

Spread the wealth! As most of you know, McCain has been attacking Obama as a "socialist" these past days, based on a distortion of what Obama said to "Joe the Plumber." Yet another example of the McCain campaign's cluelessness: Spreading the wealth around might be sounding like a good idea to Americans struggling from the effects of an economic system designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

"Joe the Plumber" should vote for Obama. That's the implication of Monday's Paul Krugman column in the Times, which points out that plumbers would pay less taxes under Obama's plan (and Krugman exposes the faux populism of the Republicans while he is at it.)

Andrew Bacevich: A video of a talk the author of "The Limits of Power and the End of American Exceptionalism" recently gave at Boston University is available at this link.

Promises, promises. By the way, how is McCain going to keep all the campaign promises he is making with an even stronger Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, no matter who wins the presidential election? Just wondering.

U.S. casualties mount in Afghanistan

From today's New York Times. Is anyone paying attention?

The Department of Defense has identified 610 American service members who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations. It confirmed the deaths of the following Americans on Thursday:

BERTRAND, Cory J., 18, Specialist, Army; Center, Tex.; First Infantry Division.

FORTUNATO, Stephen R., 25, Specialist, Army; Danvers, Mass.; First Infantry Division.

MEDLEY, Preston R., 23, Sgt., Army; Baker, Fla.; First Infantry Division.

PENICH, John M., 25, Sgt., Army; Beach Park, Ill.; First Infantry Division.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

100,000 turn out for Obama in St. Louis

You probably know this already, but it's always nice to have photographic evidence. Now, if Colin Powell would just... Update: He did, he truly did.

Sleaze update: Talking Points Memo continues its heroic work of setting the record straight, this time concerning the slimy robocalls that the McCain campaign is puting out.

Palin's pollocks. According to the Los Angeles Times, there is a crisis in Alaska because global warming is pushing their pollocks to higher latitudes which include Russian territory. "Alaskan pollock are becoming Russian pollock, swimming across an international boundary in search of food and setting off what could become a geopolitical dispute," the article says. I think we need Sarah Palin to stay at home and deal with this crisis, don't you? And if she handles it well, perhaps she could consider running for vice-president again in say, 2016.

Is the private life of John and Cindy McCain of public interest?

It is only rarely that I disagree with Glenn Greenwald, but I have to take issue with his slam in Salon today of the New York Times' profile of Cindy McCain.

The article by Jodi Kantor and David Halbfinger, Glenn says, "dredg[es] up some unpleasant episodes in the distant past of her private life without adding any new information, sprinkling some innuendo about the McCains' long-distance marriage, analyzing her personality and health mostly with pure speculation, and just generally dissecting her private and emotional sphere for no apparent reason beyond idle voyeurism. Some of the facts discussed are, I suppose, arguably relevant (her connection to the Keating Five scandal and how Washington scorned her as a result of McCain's ugly treatment of his first wife), but the vast bulk of the article, while quite invasive, seems indistinguishable from lowly, rank gossip."

The article is not pleasant reading, to be sure, but the issues it raises about Cindy McCain seem very relevant to me. Many go to her honesty and the accuracy of various stories she and her representatives have told, including whether she really visited Rwanda in the midst of the genocide and whether she really had a stroke that left her disabled for several months (or if the "stroke" was really a cover for a short separation from her husband.) The article also raises the long-distance, and possibly distant, marriage of the pair, although it glances over this very lightly and does not come up with any clear answers.

Like it or not, Americans elect both a president and a First Lady (or First Man if we ever do send a woman to the White House.) The First Lady plays an important role, as Hillary Clinton did not cease to remind us during the primaries. And the Times article strikes me as a pretty standard profile of a woman who still could (unlikely as it might seem now) ascend to that particular height.

In trying to make his case, Glenn of course brings up the most important example of a private life gone public: The case of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Even as recently as the Bill Clinton sex witch hunt of the 1990s, examinations of a political figure's private life generally required at least some pretense of justification. Disclosure of private lives for its own sake wasn't really the prevailing standard, at least not overtly. The bottomless fixation on the Right -- and, just as much, in establishment journalism -- with the Clintons' marital life, Bill Clinton's specific sex acts and even his penile spots was "justified" by the claim that those facts were relevant to the perjury allegations. Those justifications were tenuous at best -- more accurately: absurdly false excuses for wallowing in their lives -- but at least the rationale had to be proffered.

This is a pretty standard argument, but one that I have never agreed with. The Lewinsky affair went straight to the question of Clinton's character, which was revealed as lacking during this episode. Most people, Democrat or Republican, appreciate that when a male boss has an affair with a secretary, intern, or other employee, ethical questions simply leap out at anyone but the most ethically challenged. Clinton exploited Lewinsky sexually, taking advantage of her crush on him to get blow jobs on a regular basis. Simple as that. If it came out today that John McCain (or George Bush, or Dick Cheney) had done the same thing, Democrats would be very happy to reap the benefits of such a situation. The fact that Clinton's indiscretions benefited the political right (and played a role in Al Gore losing the 2000 election) should have come as no surprise.

People on the left used to say that the personal is political and the political is personal--or perhaps they still do, I am not as up on left culture as I used to be. This still sounds correct to me.

Afterthought: The previous day, Glenn demonstrated eloquently and passionately that John McCain's real personal character, as revealed by the ugly and dishonest attack campaign he is waging, is most definitely relevant.

Obamania: 100,000 turn out to his rally in St. Louis today.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pathetic

It ain't over until it's over, but it looks like it's over. Many news stories have emphasized McCain's attack mode, and even made it sound as though the debate was some sort of draw, but McCain clearly lost (as both CNN and CBS polls made clear right afterwards, see Marc Cooper's blog for the statistics as well as comments that I fully agree with.)

I watched the spectacle with a pro-Obama friend, and what struck both of us was the way that McCain kept walking into the whirling blades of Obama's calm ripostes, as if he were in a catatonic state or sleepwalking and couldn't help himself.

Bill Ayers? Well, didn't McCain and his "advisors" realize that Obama had been rehearsing his effective response for weeks? (and that Obama would have the chance to deliver one of his most brilliant and devastating lines during the debate, that McCain had made Ayers the "centerpiece" of his campaign.) Joe the Plumber? Well, Obama was the one who talked to Joe, and clearly came off understanding his problems the best. McCain even briefly drudged up that "overhead projector" again! Doesn't his staff do any research before these debates? If so, they would know that the Adler Planetarium had made it clear McCain had it entirely wrong, but there he was pulling stale bread out of his pathetic little sack of dirty tricks.

Lawyers say that you never ask a question in court unless you know the answer in advance. McCain went on the attack, sure, but his attack was so ineffective that it just set Obama up for looking as good as ever. McCain came off looking the lesser man once again. I guess when you are the lesser man, it's hard to help it.

(Oh, and then there was this amazing moment, when McCain made light of concerns about the health of women who might need abortions to save their lives:)



And this one, when McCain drudged up the health care "fine" again. Remember what the lawyers say next time you debate, John, except, um, there won't be any more debates (with thanks to Talking Points Memo for making these videos available to us all.)



Jon Swift on Joe the Plumber.

McCain is not George Bush:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sneak preview of tonight's debate!

With profuse thanks to Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.

The race factor and the Obama effect

In today's New York Times, we are treated to the umpteenth article about the so-called "Bradley effect": The possibility that some voters are telling pollsters that they plan to vote for Obama, but who really won't because of racial prejudice.

This particular article, by Adam Nagourney and entitled "In Voting Booth, Race May Play a Bigger Role," is a good example of just how much some reporters and editors are stretching to keep the race story alive (I blogged yesterday about a blatant attempt by CNN to actually stir up racism by inviting watchers to email about why they wouldn't vote for a Black man.)

The Nagourney article does not actually cite any statistics, studies, or other data to back up its contention that race may play a role in the election. Instead, the article quotes three individuals involved in electoral politics on various sides of the issue. That makes this particular piece a made-up job, based on no new facts nor even new insights. (The same can be said for several other articles on the same theme in today's Times, all of which mostly deal with overt rather than covert racism; the paper runs a large photo of a southern racist who, referring to Obama's mixed heritage, cites the Bible against creating "other breeds.")

But I was particularly struck by a quote in Nagourney's piece from Harold Ickes, who was a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign:

“If he were white, this would be a blowout,” Mr. Ickes said. “I think the country has come a long, long, long way since the 1960s. I think everybody would agree with that. But if you talk to people in certain states, they will say there are impulses that do not benefit Barack Obama because of the color of his skin.”

I don't deny that some people won't vote for Obama because he is Black, and many of them say so openly--thus disqualifying them, by definition, as part of the Bradley effect, which refers to those whose alleged racism is hidden rather than overt. But is it true that if Obama were white this would be a "blowout"? I don't think so, and here I would like to indulge in some brief speculations of my own (note that I am clearly labeling them as speculations, which articles like Nagourney's fail to do.)

First of all, the latest poll numbers (ie the new CBS/New York Times poll) give Obama a 14 point lead over McCain, and Obama is leading by statistically significant margins in most of the swing states. If that is not already a blowout, I don't know what is. Second, I would argue that Obama is doing as well as he is not despite his being Black, but because of it. To put it more precisely, Obama is winning because of who he is. Can anyone name a Democratic Party politician who has Obama's charisma, his life experiences, his eloquence and passion, even his intelligence? Although I disagree with Obama on a number of political issues, and have said so repeatedly on this blog, there is no one on the political scene who comes close to matching Obama's appeal. Where does that appeal come from?

If anyone has not read Obama's book, "Dreams From My Father," they should do so--or rather, they should listen to Obama read it on CD, even if that version is abridged, or download the Audible version. Doing so will make clear the complex family background and life experiences that make Obama who he is, and also make clear that magically changing the color of Obama's skin would not make him more "electable." It would make him less so, because it necessarily would give him a different life than the one he has had.

So here is my little bit of punditry about race and the "Bradley effect": I think that Americans are going to elect Barack Obama president by a resounding margin not despite the fact that he is Black, but because of it. They will vote for him because he has a dramatically different story than that of the politicians they have voted for in the past, a story that resonates with authenticity and purpose. They will vote for him because they know by doing so they are bringing out the best in America rather than the worst; they will vote for him because of the thrill that it will bring them to thumb their noses at 400 years of history and show that they are not bound by its shackles; they will do so because they know that the whole world is watching and that billions of people on this planet will be proud of what they do on November 4.

Let's call it the Obama effect.

More on the Obama effect and "blackness." From "reg," a regular blogger on Marc Cooper's site, in response to my post above--a very eloquent and insightful analysis I would urge you to read.

Economy trumps race? So reports Truthdig's Bill Boyarsky from Ohio, in a very interesting piece.

The end of demographics? Slate examines the outdated use of demographic categories to predict voter behavior, using women as the example.

Update (October 18): The Hillary effect (and it's not helping McCain.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Early humans cross the wet Sahara, and bonobos make war as well as love

It's science time again!

Today my partner on Science's anthropology beat, Ann Gibbons, and I pull a double whammy with two important stories on our online news service, ScienceNOW. Mine, entitled "Out of Africa, Across a Wet Sahara," is at this link, and Ann's, "An Ape Shows Its Killer Instincts," is at this link. Both links are free for 4 weeks from today.

Mine starts out as follows:

Modern humans arose in sub-Saharan Africa as early as 200,000 years ago, but our species did not venture beyond Africa until at least 80,000 years later. Just why they took so long to travel north is not clear, but many researchers have suggested that the bone-dry Sahara Desert was a major barrier to migrations from the south. Yet a new study indicates that the Sahara was crossed by wide rivers during a wet period that began about 120,000 years ago, providing a hospitable corridor for humans on the move.

Ann's story begins:

Bonobos have a reputation as the hippies of the primate world, with a make-love-not-war image. But scientists appear to have underestimated their bloodthirsty tendencies. In a new study, researchers report observing wild bonobos hunting and eating monkeys, which shows that the apes are not so different from their more aggressive cousins, the common chimpanzees.

Be sure to click the links for more details. The human and chimp evolutionary lines split sometime between 5-7 million years ago, and the bonobos split from the so-called common chimps several million years later. But there may be no way of getting around the fact that violent behavior is part of the evolutionary heritage of all three species of apes. Bonobos do seem better at controlling those impulses than chimpanzees, however, and we humans are fully capable of doing so as well--that is, when we really want to.

The map shows river channels across the Sahara some 120,000 years ago. Credit: Anne Osborne, University of Bristol

CNN stirs up racism

I was just watching CNN while eating my lunch, and saw them do something that totally amazed and outraged me. They were inviting the audience to email them and say why they would not vote for a Black man. I kid you not. They read a few responses on the air, some of which sidestepped the question, but at least one individual responded that Obama would just work for Blacks, socialists, and Muslims.

This is incredibly irresponsible and provocative. In fact, despite Obama's winning the Democratic primaries, and despite his commanding lead in the polls--both evidence that most Americans have gotten past racism to judge an individual by the content of his character, as Martin Luther King insisted so many years ago--there are still those who want to make race an issue even when it is clearly not. Those people are either racists, or are opportunistically stirring up racism--and in the case of CNN, doing so to boost ratings, would be my best guess.

Shame on CNN, and shame on those who can't accept that racism, while not totally dead, is not playing much of a role in this election. If it were, the poll numbers would be much different.

The anchor during this segment was Kyra Phillips.

In defense of Bill Ayers. Read about it in Inside Higher Ed. And in the Wall Street Journal. (hat tip to Andrew Hunt for the second link.)

Supreme Court denies execution appeal by Troy A. Davis. Even though there is considerable doubt about his guilt. But why let that get in the way of political concerns? Only the governor of Georgia can save him now, but he will be looking at the next election. Life is cheap.

More breaking news: The new New York Times/CBS poll puts Obama ahead of McCain by 14 points. Ouch!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Impeccable timing department: Krugman's Nobel Prize

Could there be a better time for an economist (now) sympathetic to Obama to win the Nobel Prize? I don't think so! Let's hope that Krugman takes full advantage of this brief opportunity to get beyond the editorial pages of the New York Times and Rachel Maddow's show with his economic message.

Fire McCain's campaign! If you want a good laugh today, you can't do better than read William Kristol's column in the Times. He says McCain's "only chance" is to get rid of his campaign staff, stop the attack ads, stop emailing reporters, and for him and Sarah Palin to just get out on the campaign stump like the "happy warriors" they really are. "Set them free," Kristol pleads. Oh, have their campaign staff taken them hostage? In that case, by all means, let them loose--but in somebody else's country, please.

Day is night and night is day department: The Washington Post editorializes in clear fashion about Palin's mischaracterization of the abuse of power report as a vindication.

McCain hates the train. I've been meaning to point out, as many here probably know, that McCain is one of the staunchest opponents of Amtrak subsidies in Congress, and has done plenty to keep the system from growing. Now, just how does that square with his call for energy independence?

The man behind the bullshit about Obama

The New York Times has an important story today about Andy Martin, an apparently unbalanced anti-Semite who nevertheless has managed, beginning in 2004, to convince at least 10% of the nation that Obama is a Muslim. Martin's claims were recently featured without challenge in a Fox News documentary, which takes the situation to a new low and makes the Times story vital. Readers of this blog should do everything they can to get it into the hands of undecided voters.

I suppose it would be hopelessly idealistic to ask, "So what if Obama were a Muslim?" Would that disqualify him from office, or make him a terrorist? Obviously some people think so, which puts Obama supporters in the unenviable position of having to deny something which would be no shame to begin with.

Aren't you looking forward to this election being over? I know I am. Then we can get on to the task of bringing out the best in Americans instead of the worst.

Photo: Andy Martin/New York Times

Change of heart: George Packer's "Interesting Times" blog features the story of an Ohio Republican who has just early-voted for Obama. It makes encouraging, and of course interesting, reading.

Economy cratering, so is McCain: The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll gives Obama an almost insurmountable lead over McCain (with thanks to Marc Cooper's blog for flagging it.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

at Walden Pond

"When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find out that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new."
-- Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"

Photo: Michael Balter

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rolling Stone rolls over McCain

I've been waiting to comment on Tim Dickinson's hit piece on McCain in Rolling Stone, "Make-Believe Maverick," until I had a chance to read it through and see whether it provided anything new or was rather a useful rehash of what those of us who have been paying attention to the details of McCain's career knew all along.

My conclusion is that the story does not provide many new revelations, and is mostly based on secondary sources and a handful of new interviews. But while it is a rehash, it is a very useful portrait of the real McCain, and one that Obama supporters could use to good effect in convincing their McCain-supporting or undecided friends to join the good fight. The article makes it crystal clear that McCain is a total opportunist, despite his undeserved reputation for honesty and "straight talk," and it provides enough examples of the man's legendary temper to make all but the most rabid warhawks think twice about letting this guy anywhere near the nuclear trigger (or anywhere near a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Meanwhile, I don't have to tell many readers of this blog that McCain is veering close to a total meltdown. At the debate next Wednesday, I think Obama should call him out on the Bill Ayers attacks and the other lying ads McCain's campaign has been putting out. McCain is clearly on the defensive, and is paying a high price for waging a nasty campaign--as those videos of his confused reaction to a supporter calling Obama an "Arab" clearly show (see below.)

Oh, and Sarah Palin can discount the findings of the Alaska legislative investigation that she abused her power all she wants, it doesn't help the fact that this is another setback in a campaign that is already set back, way back.

Death to fascists: It will not be often that this blog celebrates the death of a human being, but there is cause to celebrate the fatal car accident that took the life of Austrian right-wing demagogue Jörg Haider. Haider was a major figure in the pantheon of latter-day fascists that includes France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. For more on his career, the Anti-Defamation League has a good summary.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Freeze all foreclosures and evictions nationwide!

The New York Times reports today that law enforcement officers in Chicago will no longer evict residents from foreclosed properties. The move was announced by Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart:

The department was on pace to conduct 4,700 foreclosures this year, nearly triple the number from two years ago, Sheriff Dart said.

Housing advocates said that they thought the measure was the first of its kind, but that in recent years, several sheriffs and judges around the country had taken other steps to slow foreclosure proceedings, like requiring lenders to produce titles proving they owned the properties in question. In Philadelphia this year, Sheriff John D. Green temporarily suspended sales of foreclosed properties.

Sheriff Dart said he took the measure because an increasing number of the residents being evicted were renters who might have been dutifully paying their rent, and might have had no knowledge that the owner was behind on the mortgage.

With the U.S. government bailing out pretty much the entire financial industry and planning to take over God knows how many banks, let's put a condition on the bailout: No foreclosures, no evictions, period, until further notice. Appropriate emergency legislation on the national and local level should be a high priority.

Photo: ABC News.

Let McCain be McCain: So says the always brilliant Jon Swift.

Trouble for Palin (and McCain): Looks like the New York Times has got the goods on Troopergate. How stupid for the McCain campaign to gamble all on the governor of Alaska.

McCain's latest lying attack ad: Is taken apart in the New York Times. Thanks to JT for alerting me to this.

Who is Bill Ayers? Not who he was, but who he is now. David Tanenhaus provides some insights in a Slate article.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

That pork barrel "overhead projector" McCain doesn't like

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago released this statement today (with thanks to DanO for alerting us to this on Marc Cooper's blog.) It is an example of McCain's total cluelessness that he would pick such a worthy project as his example of "earmarks" when there are so many other legitimate examples. The planetarium, as should be obvious, is a major venue for kids to learn about astronomy and get interested in science.

Last night, during the presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Senator John McCain made the following statement:

McCain: “While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he (Senator
Obama) voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”

To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to
replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation. Science literacy is an urgent issue in the United States.

To remain competitive and ensure
national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Senator McCain’s statements about the Adler Planetarium’s request for federal support do not accurately reflect the museum's legislative history or relationship with Senator Obama. The Adler has approached the Illinois Congressional delegation the last few years for federal assistance with various initiatives. These have included museum exhibitions, equipment and educational programs we offer to area schools, including the Chicago Public Schools. We have made requests to Senators Durbin and Obama, as well as to 6 area Congressmen from both political parties. We are grateful that all of the Members we have approached, including Senator Obama, have deemed our activities worthy of their support, and have made appropriations requests on our behalf, as they have for many worthy Illinois nonprofit organizations.

As a result of the hard work of our bipartisan congressional delegation, the Adler has been fortunate to receive a few federal appropriations the past couple of years. However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama's efforts. This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in the reports that accompany appropriations bills.

October 8, 2008


Afterthought October 9: I see that discussion of McCain's idiotic comment is all over the internet. Good. I hope the mainstream media picks up on it soon as well. Think about this: During a presidential debate, in front of the entire United States, McCain gives a poorly researched example of earmarks pulled out of a hat by some clueless campaign staffer, at best. This kind of contempt for the American people, and for the truth, should alone disqualify McCain to be president.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Great Debate

9:17 PM-- I would say that both candidates are off to a shaky start. Obama is struggling to make his own points while fighting off McCain's attacks, and McCain is struggling just to say something intelligent and relevant. I suspect they will find their stride shortly.

9:19 PM-- If Obama is going to talk about spending cuts, as he just did, he had better get Iraq into the discussion pronto. That is the major spending albatross on American taxpayers that can be laid right in McCain's lap.

9:22 PM-- Big mistake by McCain, dissing an overhead projector for a planetarium in Chicago. That's for the kids, knucklehead!

9:23 PM-- Did I just hear McCain say that retiree benefits are going to have to be cut? Actually, he is starting to get incoherent.

9:26 PM-- Obama just tried to point out that McCain's tax cut policy is going to increase deficits even more, but he mangled it. Perhaps he will get back to that later.

9:30 PM-- Obama is struggling to express himself... he needs to recover his bearings if he wants to gain ground in this debate and not just hold even.

9:34 PM-- Okay, Obama's hatchet vs scalpel analogy is good. Keep it up.

9:35 PM-- Good, McCain has set up Obama nicely on the tax issue. And unbelievably, he has done the same thing on the $5000 health care tax deduction. Brokaw has cut him off but he'll get back to it.

9:38 PM-- There we go. Small businesses, most get tax cuts. McCain has been misrepresenting Obama's position for months. Good riposte, Obama paints McCain as the suckup to the rich he really is.

9:43 PM-- McCain is stumbling over nuclear power, and again lying about Obama's position.

9:46 PM-- Drill baby drill? Better chill baby chill.

9:48 PM-- McCain is being very aggressive, and Obama is only just keeping up with it. One more reason to look forward to the day when this is over with.

9:51 PM-- Obama does very well on health care. Over to McCain.

9:52 PM-- McCain full of shit on his health care plan. This is a big mistake, most Americans are no longer scared of "socialized medicine." Again, incoherence.

9:54 PM-- Brokaw asks his first good question, is health care a right?

9:55 PM-- Obama answers the question straight on: Health care is a right. That might be the one point that gets remembered out of this debate. And zing! McCain voted against the expansion of healthcare for children, in lockstep with Bush.

10:00 PM-- Good to get Iraq into this at last, McCain is dead meat on this issue. And the link with spending. Obama is hitting his stride.

10:07 PM-- McCain incoherent again on the "McCain Doctrine" for use of military force.

10:14 PM-- McCain has a secret plan to get Bin Laden. Can't wait.

10:16 PM-- Does General Petraeus walk on water? Maybe he should be Commander-in-Chief given how often McCain mentions him, just like Bush did--although we don't hear much from Bush these days...

10:26 PM-- Pretty boring the past 10 minutes, with both candidates saying what they think they have to say, political correctness raises its head...

10:28 PM-- Okay, Obama doing well on the "talking to our enemies" issue.

10:30 PM-- Obama takes the money shot. He mixes the country up with the world, but we know what he means. And at least he has a good reason for running for president, which McCain can't say.

10:32 PM-- Whoops, did McCain just insult Americans' sense of geography? (of course, he's right, how many Americans could find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.)

Conclusion: Obama really had to struggle to keep up, although I think he did fine in the end. McCain should not be underestimated, although the next debate will favor Obama in its format.

The morning after: Once again, the CBS poll of uncommitted voters gives Obama the win, this time 40% to 26%, with 34% calling it a tie. CNN came up with similar results. This came as a surprise to many pundits, including myself, after the last debate, which we thought was pretty much a tie overall. Putting aside the possibility that the polls' methodologies are flawed, which is always possible, it may just be that the majority of Americans are becoming increasingly unresponsive to McCain's attempts to lie his way into office by misrepresenting his own record as well as Obama's, and that Obama's consistent attempts to tie McCain to the Bush administration's disastrous policies are working. It may also be--there's no way to put this gently--that the aging, chubby, physically awkward (partly due to his war injuries, sure), ungraceful, squeaky-voiced, puffy-faced McCain just cannot match the charisma of a tall, slim, handsome guy who glides around the debate floor like a slightly gawky Fred Astaire, especially when that grotesque physical presence so easily becomes a metaphor for the political putrefaction that is the last 8 years of Republican administration. So watch for Obama to pull even further ahead in polls later this week.

More morning after: Check out the roundup at Talking Points Memo, which includes the latest McCain and Obama ads. McCain, more of the same, hitting Obama's "liberalism"; Obama hits hard on health care, a real winner for liberals.

Widening gap: Gallup is showing Obama with an 11 point lead over McCain nationally, in a poll taken just before the debate.

McCain: War hero or coward? That's the question raised by a piece in Truthdig published yesterday by historian Mary Hershberger, which explores McCain's behavior during the disastrous fire that hit the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in 1967.

Betty Boop for President

Note that Betty was elected in the midst of the Great Depression.

John McCain and the Keating savings and loan fraud

Some Obama supporters are debating the wisdom of "dragging out" the 1990s Keating Five scandal at this point in the campaign, in the form of a 13 minute video released this week (see below.) The basic argument is that McCain has acknowledged his errors and the story is old news. I can see their point, but on balance I think this is a good idea. For one thing, it is not really old news, and McCain has never apologized for his central error: The political basis of McCain's support for Keating was his passion for deregulation, which he is desperately trying to get voters to forget during the current financial crisis. And I see no reason why the Obama campaign should refrain from using any ammunition it can against McCain at a time when he is mounting a despicable, dishonest, dirty and desperate attempt to lie his way into office. Given his now commanding lead in the polls, Obama has nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking every opportunity to remind voters how fully implicated McCain is in the policies that are now plunging the entire world into a recession or possibly even a depression.

Afterthoughts: News commentators are pretty much unanimous in pronouncing that McCain's new attack mode against Obama is an attempt to "change the subject" from the economy. If so, that's a pretty tall order at the moment, and one that will almost certainly fail. If anything, it just calls more attention to the fact that McCain has no answers; indeed, he is part of the problem, not the solution.

Behind the story: Luc Montagnier

Although I have shifted my focus to archaeology and human evolution in recent years, I served for a long time as Science's backup man on AIDS coverage, and handled the beat solo during 1998 when our main guy on the story--Jon Cohen--was on book leave. On January 16 of that year I published a story entitled "Has French AIDS Research Stumbled?" which included the following sidebar about Montagnier's role since the discovery of HIV. Those interested in the history and background of AIDS research might find it of interest.

The Twin Icons of French AIDS Research

Michael Balter

PARIS--Ask the average French person to identify France's leading AIDS researcher, and one name is likely to come up immediately: virologist Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Montagnier came to public attention in 1983, when he emerged as spokesperson for the group of physicians and scientists that first isolated HIV, the virus that causes the disease. And thanks in part to constant media exposure ever since, he has come to personify French AIDS research both within the country and internationally.

But ask a French AIDS researcher to name the most important figure in HIV research, and you are likely to hear a different name: virologist Jean-Paul Lévy. As director of the National Agency for AIDS Research (ANRS), the government's primary AIDS funding agency, Lévy's power to chart the course of French efforts against the disease is second to none. "If you want to do something, the only person you have to convince is Lévy," says a leading French AIDS researcher who asked not to be identified.

Yet, ironically, members of the original AIDS research team say it was Lévy's unwillingness to take the helm of AIDS research during the early days of the epidemic that paved the way for Montagnier's rise to fame. In 1982, suspecting that a retrovirus might be the cause of AIDS, immunologist Jacques Leibowitch, an early member of the group, asked Lévy and his co-workers at the Cochin Hospital in Paris--where Lévy now directs the Cochin Institute in addition to his ANRS duties--to help identify it. "I tried to involve them," Leibowitch recalls, "but they were reluctant and referred me to other groups." The team then approached Montagnier, who, together with Pasteur virologists Jean-Claude Chermann and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, eventually succeeded in isolating HIV.

As the senior member of that pioneering team, Montagnier became its spokesperson. "Montagnier had an openness of spirit and did not have preconceived ideas" about the cause of AIDS, says Willy Rozenbaum of the Rothschild Hospital in Paris, who was one of the first physicians to treat AIDS patients in France. Immunologist Jean Claude Gluckman of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris says Montagnier "played an important role" in those early days. "He agreed to work on the subject, which others refused to do."

There is another side to the coin, however. Many French AIDS researchers have come to feel that the intense media focus on Montagnier has downplayed his colleagues' roles. "To see him on television all the time is intolerable," says one former member of the team. Indeed, in a 1993 letter to Science, Gluckman attempted to set the record straight by detailing the important contributions made by other members of the group (Science, 26 March 1993, p. 1809).

Moreover, a number of researchers told Science, in recent years Montagnier's continuing media exposure has been less and less justified by his actual contributions to AIDS research. "He has come to occupy a place he doesn't deserve," says a Paris-based AIDS researcher privately. For example, several French AIDS investigators who spoke to Science cited Montagnier's long-running but unsuccessful attempts to prove that mycoplasma--a microbe that resembles bacteria but lacks a cell wall--works together with HIV to cause AIDS (Science, 18 January 1991, p. 271). Montagnier has also been criticized for associating himself with a widely publicized, but quickly discredited, claim by a group at the Pasteur Institute that a molecule called CD26 was a long-sought coreceptor for HIV (see main text). "He has lost a lot of credibility in the scientific world," says Rosenbaum.

In an interview with Science, Montagnier conceded that neither the mycoplasma nor the CD26 story has played out the way he expected. "It is now clear that some strains of HIV can produce AIDS without any cofactors," Montagnier says, although he believes that mycoplasma infection might have been an important cofactor when the virus first jumped from monkeys to humans, as has been proposed as the origin of the disease. As for CD26, he still believes that the protein "could play a role in infection, or could be yet another coreceptor." Montagnier also cites his group's ongoing work on the effect of HIV on apoptosis, or programmed cell death, of T lymphocytes as evidence that he has continued to make important contributions to AIDS research.

But whether Montagnier's high profile is still justified, he has little influence over the funding of AIDS research in France, apart from a considerable amount he has received from the AIDS telethon Sidaction for an independent research center he created at the St. Joseph Hospital in Paris. The real power, for the most part, is wielded by Lévy. About half of the ANRS's $40 million annual spending on AIDS research is reserved for special "coordinated actions," such as vaccine development and therapeutic trials, over which Lévy has considerable discretion; the remainder is awarded to investigators after peer review by scientific committees, whose members are appointed with Lévy's approval.

Some researchers complain that Lévy keeps too tight a grip on the reins of French AIDS research. "He is very authoritarian," says Gluckman, adding that the "policy of the ANRS has been to push people to have short-term results, and that kills risky research." Most ANRS grants run only 2 years, which many scientists complain is not long enough to make significant progress. "This favors unidisciplinary, academic research and does not allow a quick adaptation to new research challenges," says immunologist Brigitte Autran of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.

But Lévy disputes the contention that risky research is being stifled. "You will find very few proposals that have been refused," he argues. "The problem for the committees is to find something original. When we do find it--something truly original and not a fantasy--we support it." Lévy also argues that the system of 2-year grants encourages rather than inhibits shifts to new lines of research. "This field evolves so rapidly that it's not logical to support research for 5 years; it would be stupid. In most cases, the research is reevaluated, and if it is good, there is no problem with renewing it."

Despite the grumbling, however, most researchers who spoke to Science believe Lévy is the best person to lead French AIDS research. Says Simon Wain-Hobson, an AIDS researcher at the Pasteur Institute: "He has made mistakes, but he has probably done better than anyone else could have done."

Photo: Photolibrary via Cosmos