Monday, December 21, 2009

Lessons for leftists in the health care reform debate

The slow blogging has been very slow lately, due to a series of deadlines, voyages, and distractions, not to mention a rethink about what this blog should be--still in progress, that last one.

Meanwhile some words of wisdom from my pal and colleague Marc Cooper, on his blog today. Among other things, he dismisses the silliness of those "progressives" who now think we should kill the Senate bill and wait for--what, the left to get its act together and actually organize the really big movement around health care that it has failed to organize up to now?

Well, give it a read. A couple of my favorite lessons:

"2. The system is not changed by people voicing or blogging their support or opposition for this or that. It is changed when people change it. Voting for a candidate is the first, not the last, step in engaging in real political reform."

"4. The bill taking shape in Congress will not provide Single Payer coverage because there was nothing near the mass political support needed to force Congress to pass such a sweeping measure. Indeed, there wasn't even enough pressure to force a "public option." Too bad but true. Don't tell me about polls supposedly showing this or that level of support. Show me what political and organizing action was taken to make those opinions count, please."

More lessons:

This would appear to be the latest way that leftists can prove they are politically superior to mere liberals. Some arguments against this self-defeating idea from Ezra Klein, and from Marc Cooper:

Of course it's not going to happen--the bill will not be killed--but it provides leftists with a good way to flaunt their powerlessness.

If the left wants to have some influence on the future of health care in the USA, it can let this bill pass and then build the movement for single-payer and universal care that it failed to build the first time around. It's never too late.

Worse than nothing? More analysis, and why something is better than nothing.

Don't scream, organize. So says E. J. Dionne, rightly so.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Alice Greenfield McGrath, R.I.P.

My good friend Alice Greenfield McGrath died yesterday, age 92. A fighter against injustice all her life, she is probably best known as the model for the character Alice in the Luis Valdez play and film "Zoot Suit," about the 1940's Sleepy Lagoon murders in Los Angeles. Alice was executive secretary of the Sleep Lagoon Defense Committee, which eventually succeeded in overturning the convictions on appeal.

Alice and I became close friends 25 years ago when I conducted an oral history of her for UCLA's Oral History Program. I last saw her in May on my annual visit to the West Coast.

I will have more to say about Alice soon, but some details of her life are given in a news story about her death in the Ventura Country Star.

The photo of Alice is taken in the basement office of her house in Ventura, California, where I was a guest many times over the past quarter century.

More about Alice. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

Another tribute to Alice. By

Friday, November 27, 2009

Is the Catholic clergy a glorified pedophile ring?

Whenever issues of alleged "morality" are being discussed, the Catholic Church seems to be front and center: Abortion, birth control, homosexuality, the right to die with dignity, etc. But one can only hope that the moral authority of the Church will be further eroded by the latest report into how the Archdiocese of Dublin "covered up" (read: aided and abetted) the sexual abuse of children by its priests over a period of some 30 years.

I have suggested in past blog posts on this subject that the Catholic clergy might actually be little more than a pedophile ring clothed in white robes. This might sound like hyperbole, but I wonder if it is. The report apparently puts the finger on just over 100 priests, but victim advocate groups say that there are allegations against 172 priests. A count of the number of currently serving priests in the Dublin Archdiocese (I had to count letter by letter from the priests listed on its Web site) comes out at a bit over 600. Of course, over 30 years there has been turnover and there were no doubt more than that, but the number of accused priests and the number of actual priests appear to be the same order of magnitude in statistical terms--and if those who were not caught are factored in, it would appear that a significant percentage of the clergy were involved either in the actual acts or in the coverups.

I am concerned that this worldwide scandal, which seems to have touched nearly every parish and every diocese in Europe and the United States, will continue to be seen as an aberration rather than the Church showing its true face. Catholics, along with non-Catholics, must ask themselves why high officials of the Church engaged in a coverup even though they knew better than anyone how widespread the abuses were. I suspect the answer is that pedophilia is endemic in the Catholic clergy, and not an exception. And that should be no surprise: Any religious order that prohibits its priests from marrying and engaging in normal sexual activity is bound to attract its share of perverted individuals--or to turn men who otherwise would have found healthy outlets for their sexuality into sexual predators.

Image: Front page of the Irish Independent after the release of a report earlier this year into the abuse in Catholic schools for poor and unwanted children.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will Afghanistan be Obama's undoing?

Early next week, according to all the news reports we have seen, President Obama will announce a major escalation of troop numbers in Afghanistan. This will be accompanied by a new "strategy" designed to get them in, do the job, and then get them out--an "exit" strategy.

Does this sound familiar? Yes it does, to anyone who has been alive during the past several decades, or to anyone who has studied the history of the past 50 years going back to the Korean War. The "strategy" will fail, just as it has in the past, the death toll will mount on all sides, and Obama's presidency--begun with such promise, and with important accomplishments such as health care reform already underway--will crash and burn just as Lyndon Johnson's presidency did in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Does anyone doubt that at least part of Obama's calculations in Afghanistan include the political attacks he would endure from the right if he were to pull most of the troops out of Afghanistan and forget about a military solution to the problem? If there is no doubt about that--and I think there is not--then Obama will be guilty of playing politics with the lives of American soldiers just as John McCain and Dick Cheney are doing now when they accuse the president of "dithering" over his decision.

What is truly sad here, in addition to the thousands of lives that will be needlessly lost, is that if Obama escalates in Afghanistan he will add to his enemies on the right those of us on the left who will have no choice but to build an antiwar movement directly opposed to his policies. To build such a movement takes passion, dedication, conviction, and a casting aside of the nuanced politics that might say something like, oh, I like what Obama is doing domestically, but I oppose his foreign policy. It will make those who campaigned and voted for him increasingly intolerant of the compromises he has made on health care reform, the economy, gay rights, and other key domestic issues. Over time, it will make the students who are taking over buildings at the University of California over fee increases into hardened antiwar activists, just as the cultural revolutions and free speech movements of the 1960s were radicalized once it became clear how hard the battle would have to be fought to end the Vietnam War.

Let's hope the news reports are wrong, and that Obama has been "dithering" because he has been considering another path entirely, because he has concluded along with pretty much everyone who knows anything about Afghanistan and its history that escalation will only bring disaster. But if that is not the case, then he is not the man I thought I had voted for (or at least he is no longer that man), and I will no longer be able to give him a pass. He will be my enemy, even if my eyes will fill with tears for what could have been every time I take to the streets to oppose his policies.

The Lost World of Old Europe. A terrific free exhibit for those interested in prehistory, and who find themselves in New York City between now and April.

Israel's collective punishment of Gaza-based students. The latest from Gisha, the Israeli human rights organization, on the case of Berlanty Azzam.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jeanne-Claude, R.I.P.

Balter speaks!

If you are in the vicinity of Brunswick, Maine on Monday, I will be speaking at Bowdoin College on the topic of "What Made Humans Modern: The Origins of Art and Symbolism." The details can be found here. But bring your woollies, it's cold up here!

I am in slow blogging mode right now, but watch for some changes to this blog and other developments in the New Year.

Photo: Bowdoin's Mary Frances Searles Science Building, where the talk will take place.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Washington daze

Hello to all, I've spent the week in Our National's Capital having meetings, lunches and dinners with some of science journalism's finest, plus a scientist or two. So blogging has been slow, although frankly I am giving some thought to the direction I would like this blog to go in over the coming months. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dolphin slaughter in Denmark

Those who receive this blog by direct email will find the previous post empty, because the photos of this dolphin slaughter in Denmark did not come through properly. Here are some of them, and the links. This was forwarded by a member of the Science for the People listserve. I can't vouch for the information but the photos would seem to speak for themselves.

petition site is

Videos at #

Friday, November 6, 2009

Massacre at Fort Hood

Americans have choices about how they react to the terrible, tragic massacre that took place yesterday. They can simply condemn it and feel morally superior that they would never do such a thing; or they can try to understand why it might have happened.

Those in the second category might begin by reading this story in today's Washington Post. And possibly also this one about the high suicide rate at Fort Hood.

More shooting. This time in Orlando, Florida. Looks bad. I wonder when anyone will publicly raise the issue of gun control, or rather how guns are out of control. Don't hold your breath.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Holy Land

National Geographic has just published a special issue on The Holy Land, with a lead off essay by yours truly, entitled "In the Beginning." You can read it at this link, although to see the spectacular photographs you will have to buy the hard copy at a newstand near you.

No worries, though, I haven't fallen under the spell of religion. The "beginning" refers to the migrations of early humans who traversed the Levant on their way out of Africa.

On the origin of religion. While we're on the subject, my Science colleague Elizabeth Culotta has an essay in the current issue about how religion may have gotten started and what it might mean in evolutionary terms. She blogs about it here, and provides a link to the original article. (Update: She blogs about it again! Good stuff.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss est Mort

A great man is gone. R.I.P.

More about him. From my Science colleague Constance Holden.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Too much money for "glamorous" diseases?

I hope that Mickey Chopra, chief of health at Unicef, is being misquoted in the following lead of a story in the International Herald Tribune today:

JOHANNESBURG — Diarrhea kills 1.5 million young children a year in developing countries — more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined — but only 4 in 10 of those who need the oral rehydration solution that can prevent death for pennies get it.

“All the attention has gone to more glamorous diseases, but this basic thing has been left behind,” said Mickey Chopra, chief of health at Unicef, which is trying to put diarrhea back on the global health agenda. “It’s a forgotten disease.”

The online version of the story, from which I have clipped these grafs, has the following headline: " As Donors Focus on AIDS, Child Illnesses Languish." The headline in the Paris printed edition is just as bad: "With focus on AIDS, deadlier ills are forgotten." The reporter is Celia W. Dugger.

I say that I hope Chopra is misquoted because no health expert in their right mind would call diseases like AIDS and malaria "glamorous," certainly not for the adults and children who die of them or are left orphaned when their parents die (malaria is most certainly a major killer of children.)

But even worse, this attitude reflects the mind-numbing stupidity and cowardice of those who would play one disease off against another, when the truth is that governments around the world--particularly the richest, that of the United States--are spending way too little money on diseases of all kinds and way too much money on wars, armaments, and other harmful and wasteful expenditures. But no, let's blame the victims of their disease because the victims of our disease aren't getting enough help and support. Not only is this idiotic, but it is self-defeating: The people who hold the purse strings like nothing better than when we fight over the crumbs they throw our way.

Photo: A Nigerian AIDS patient.

Innocence still no excuse in Texas. Please read this remarkable story in The Austin Chronicle about attempts to retry a former murder suspect against whom there is no credible evidence. They even want to bring in some dog-sniffing junk science to help them do it. I guess ambitious politicians in that state can't go wrong by executing the innocent. (thanks to PG for spotting this item.)

It's time to file obstruction of justice charges against Dick Cheney. The evidence is in.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Does Grandma play favorites?

On Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a very interesting paper from Leslie Knapp of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues that seems to provide additional support for the "grandmother hypothesis,"
the idea that the human menopause evolved because it allowed older women to help their daughters raise their own children.

Support for this notion of an evolutionary tradeoff between spreading one's own genes by having one's own children and doing so by helping grandchildren to survive has been inconsistent. The new study may show why: How strong the effect is depends on how closely related a grandmother is to her grandchildren.

Researchers seem surprised that this correlation is so strong, but the statistical significance is very high. Nobody is suggesting that grandmothers deliberately favor certain of their grandchildren, however, and the mechanism for this is still being worked out. The authors suggest a few possibilities, which I list at the end of my story.

Photo: A grandmother and child from Malawi/Rebecca Sear

Whatever happened to Kenyanthropus platyops? My latest post for Science's Origins blog may seem somewhat inside baseball, but I assure you it's an important issue for human evolution researchers.

The Other Israel Film Festival is taking place next month. "Since its establishment in 2007, The Other Israel Film Festival had become a leader in the presentation and promotion of films by and about the Arab citizens of Israel," its Web site explains.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More proof that the private health insurance industry is full of shit

Not that we really need it, but do read this Los Angeles Times story about how Anthem Blue Cross denies coverage to some people for pre-existing conditions and then takes their money anyway--and more of it--as the administrator of a California state health insurance plan for those who can't get it privately. Mindboggling!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Israel rations Palestinians to trickle of water, says Amnesty International

This is a headline news story on the BBC, but don't count on hearing much about it in the U.S. press. Amnesty's press release, and the full report, are available at this link.

Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev, who is trotted out to deny every charge leveled against Israel, has been trotted out once again to blow smoke rings around the accusations. On the face of things, if I had to decide who has more credibility, AI or the Israeli government, can anyone guess which I would choose? Nevertheless, please read the report and decide for yourself.

While I am on the subject of Israel, I had meant to comment on an item buried in the New York Times a few days ago, about Richard Goldstone asking the U.S. government to specify the concerns it had with his report finding Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes during Israel's assault on Gaza last winter. At the end of the story we find this very revealing passage:

Obama administration officials have made more detailed criticisms of the report, usually contending, as did Douglas M. Griffiths, the American delegate to the Human Rights Council, that it was unfair to Israel.

Explaining his vote against endorsing the report, Mr. Griffiths said that, “While Justice Goldstone acknowledged Hamas’s crimes, in examining Israel’s response sufficient weight was not given to the difficulties faced in fighting this kind of enemy in this environment.”

The problem here is that Goldstone's inquiry found that Israel had deliberately targeted civilians in some cases, and in others acted with wanton disregard for civilian life. Both are crimes under international law, which requires nations taking military action to make every effort to protect civilian lives--even if that creates "difficulties." This the Israeli military clearly did not do, and by not recognizing the validity of Goldstone's findings, the Obama administration is simply once again avoiding its responsibility to keep Israel from committing war crimes with weapons that American taxpayers provide it.

More on Gaza's water problems. From the BBC, reporting on a sewage crisis.

U.S. official resigns over Afghan war. A news story worth reading in the Washington Post. The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy is unraveling, smart people are deserting--in the long run this could be a good thing for Afghans and Americans alike.

More thoughts on Afghanistan, which is getting very bloody for U.S. troops. Aren't those who are trying to rush President Obama into making a decision about Afghanistan strategy playing politics with the lives of our young men and women serving there? Of course they are. So who has the courage to accuse them of that directly? How about some timid Democratic politicians afraid of their own shadows and everything Fox news says getting some guts?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Primatologists Go Ape Over "Ardi"

Today on Science's Origins blog, I report on the first public debate over the significance of Ardipithecus ramidus, the candidate human ancestor and subject of a detailed series of reports--covering 108 pages--in the 2 October issue of Science. In a nutshell, primatologists are taking issue with the "Ardi" team's contention that chimpanzees are no longer good models for the last common ancestor between that species and our own, Homo sapiens, which went their separate evolutionary ways at least 5 million years ago. The debate unfolded at a meeting last week of the Royal Society in London, entitled "The First 4 Million Years of Human Evolution," at which yours truly was in attendance.

Give it a read, you'll be glad you did (and if you have any questions you can ask them in the Comments section of this blog.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In Defense of the 'Balloon Boy' Dad

Please DO NOT miss Frank Rich's column in today's New York Times, one of his wisest and most insightful ever into the warped perspectives of the news media and those of us who consume what it dishes out. A key setup graf:

Certainly the “balloon boy” incident is a reflection of our time — much as the radio-induced “War of the Worlds” panic dramatized America’s jitters on the eve of World War II, or the national preoccupation with the now-forgotten Congressman Gary Condit signaled America’s pre-9/11 drift into escapism and complacency in the summer of 2001. But to see what “balloon boy” says about 2009, you have to look past the sentimental moral absolutes. You have to muster some sympathy for the devil of the piece, the Bad Dad. And you can’t grant blanket absolution to those in the American audience who smugly blame Heene and television exclusively for the entire embarrassing episode.

Read the whole thing.

Photo: Richard Heene (L) reacts as he holds his son Falcon Heene outside their house in Fort Collins, Colorado.— Photo from Reuters/File

Polanski. Good work from the Los Angeles Times' Joe Mozingo on how a rape got watered down to sex with a minor.

How influential is FOX news? My Boston University journalism colleague Chris Daly puts this in some perspective. The answer: FOX has a small part of the market. But that doesn't stop everyone on both the left and right from pretending that it has great clout. Could that be a convenient fiction for both sides? Especially Democrats who need excuses for not doing what they were elected to do?

The coverup continues. Of Bush administration abuses of power, but this time it's the Obama administration carrying it out. The New York Times pens a particularly good editorial on the subject.

Insurers poised to reap benefits from healthcare overhaul. So says the Los Angeles Times. Read it and weep.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Louis Leakey speaks at UCLA

Okay, I have a confession to make: Despite more than a decade covering human evolution for Science and other publications, it has taken me until this year to get around to reading my colleague Virginia Morell's superb biography of the Leakey family, "Ancestral Passions" (available from I always note when and where I buy books, and that note says March 2001. My embarrassment is slightly lessened by the fact that my wife read it almost immediately, usually in bed where she does most of her reading, and would relate interesting and/or amusing episodes to me.

This is all introduction to what I really want to say, which is that today I landed on page 322 of the paperback edition and learned that Louis Leakey (who died in 1972) gave a talk at UCLA in March 1969. I was an undergraduate student at UCLA at that time, but I have no memory of his being there. This is probably because I was completely and totally embroiled in the anti-Vietnam War movement at the time, as a member of the radical, leftwing Students for a Democratic Society.

Looking back on these events, 40 years ago, and given my current nearly all-absorbing passion for understanding human origins, it is hard to believe that I would have passed up this historic chance to see and hear one of the leading pioneers of the field. But it was a different time, with different concerns, and perhaps I was too young to realize or understand that there is an unbroken thread between where humanity came from and where it is going. For reasons still unknown and mysterious, we are the one species on earth that can see far into the future and, within certain constraints, determine its own destiny. It is up to us whether war continues or not, whether the planet survives, and whether we live in poverty or abundance. Scientists like Louis Leakey (despite all of his particular faults, which Virginia catalogues honestly but affectionately in her book) gave us the foundation to make this connection between our past and our future. And much as I wish I had set aside the time those four decades ago to hear him speak, at least he and his accomplishments are speaking to me now.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Innocence is no excuse in death penalty cases

I hope everyone is following the controversy in Texas over Governor Rick Perry's attempt to cover up his role in the execution of an apparently innocent man, Cameron T. Willingham, accused of killing his three children in an arson fire that turned out not to be arson.

Here's the news:

Three weeks ago Mr. Perry replaced the chairman and two other members of the State Forensic Science Commission, which was about to hold hearings on the evidence in the case. The new chairman, a close ally of the governor, promptly canceled a hearing at which a second, independent arson expert was to testify. The commission’s expert, Craig L. Beyler of Baltimore, had concluded in a lengthy report that the evidence did not prove that Mr. Willingham set the fire that killed his three daughters in 1991.

Since then, the governor has found himself on the defensive, with editorial writers, columnists and political opponents in both parties accusing him of trying to protect his future at the expense of determining the truth.

I guess executing innocent people is too much even for death-penalty happy Texas. Or maybe Perry is just guilty of giving the death penalty a bad name:

So popular is the death penalty here that Mr. Perry’s main opponent in next year’s Republican primary for governor, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, has taken the rather novel approach of suggesting that his actions have lent ammunition to opponents of capital punishment.

“The only thing Rick Perry’s actions have accomplished is giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty,” she said in a statement. “We should never do anything to create a cloud of controversy over it with actions that look like a cover-up.”

But I would like to think that maybe some Texans actually have a conscience, even if their governor does not.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CNN: Dump Dobbs

A friend has asked me to pass the following on, and I am happy to do so. Lou Dobbs is the worst kind of racist scumbag, and I think it's just a matter of time before CNN realizes that he is a liability. Of course, we can count on Fox "News" to pick him up if so, but at least he will be more in his element.

Dear friends and family,

We've been talking about how Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck are promoting hatred of Latinos and other minorities in our country on our airwaves. We know that hate kills. Hate spread by a major media outlet, considered very credible is intolerable and extremely dangerous to our democracy as well as to individual human beings. This affects each of us, even if we are not latino.

In just one week, CNN will launch its “Latino in America” series, which tells the stories of Latinos from across the country. There’s just one thing missing: Lou Dobbs. That’s right. Four hours about the Latino experience in America, and not a word about the man who spends every weeknight telling lies about immigrants and spreading fear and hatred toward Latinos.

Together with award-winning filmmaker Arturo Perez, we're calling out CNN's hypocrisy with a powerful new video: “CNN: Lou Dobbs or Latinos in America?” Please help us grow the campaign by watching the video and sharing it far and wide.

The campaign against Lou Dobbs, is clearly getting to him. He’s railed against us on his radio show,1 and rumors are now swirling that he’s looking for other jobs at more conservative networks2. Now is the time to keep the pressure on. Please watch the video, and then share it with your friends and family. We’ve set up a special page to make it easy:

Thank you and Adelante!

Favianna, Roberto, Laurie and the rest of the Presente.Org team


1. “Dobbs Takes Aim at HuffPost Critic,” Huffington Post, 9-23-2009

2. “Fox’s Volley With Obama Intensifying,” New York Times, 10-11-2009

Roman Polanski. Some interesting background and perspective on the case in Slate.

Health Insurers Emerge as Obama's Top Foe in Reform Effort

That's the headline of a story in the Washington Post today. Duh! But certainly just as well. Perhaps it will make the issues clearer, that this is a battle between the American people and the parasitic bloodsucking worms who make the decisions about whether they live or die. Time to pull the plug on them!

(Photo: ChristophrHiestr)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let Rush Limbaugh buy the Rams

I see in today's New York Times that the Reverend Al Sharpton is urging opposition to Rush buying the St. Louis Rams. My first thought is that since the Rams left Los Angeles, my home town, I don't much care what happens to them. My second thought is that it's perfectly appropriate for a war-loving lunk like Limbaugh to own a team in one of the most violent sports on earth, "professional" football (remember George Carlin's routine on the difference between baseball and football? If not, check it out here.)

But most important is my third thought, which is that people on the liberal and left side of the political spectrum are so freaked out about the American right-wing taking over the nation's political discourse that they have done little to prevent the American right-wing from taking over the political discourse.

A perfect example is the health care debate. One would think that pro-reformers would have learned from the Clinton health-care debacle of the 1990s that this would be a big fight and that Obama would not be able to do it all alone, he would need troops in the streets. And to be fair, there are many dedicated activists, including those in the wonderful California Nurses Association, who have fought bravely and fought hard. But there has been nothing anywhere near the kind of mass movement around this issue necessary to counter the health industry's juggernaut of lobbyists and lies. Why not? Because too many liberals and leftists think that crying and moaning over the big bad right's terribly unfair tactics is good enough. It's not.

It's time to get tough, just like Rush and those big bad football guys. It's time to tell the American right to get fucked, to ride roughshod over them just like they have done to the rest of the country all these years; it's time to realize and understand that the majority of Americans want health care reform, want out of Afghanistan, want help for people losing their homes, and want to put the corporations into regulatory straightjackets so they can never sink the economy with their greed again. The left can have tea parties and town meetings too, and it's time to start having them.

As for President Obama, he's either with us or against us. Something tells me that once he has the troops he needs, he will do the right thing. But it's up to us to provide them.

In need of inspiration? Yesterday singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie spent the hour with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! Give it a listen. Lots of songs, lots of wisdom.

More wisdom. From Andrew Bacevich in the Boston Globe, about the endless war in Afghanistan and what Obama's choices mean. A key graf:

As the fighting drags on from one year to the next, the engagement of US forces in armed nation-building projects in distant lands will become the new normalcy. Americans of all ages will come to accept war as a perpetual condition, as young Americans already do. That “keeping Americans safe’’ obliges the United States to seek, maintain, and exploit unambiguous military supremacy will become utterly uncontroversial.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What, me worry about Pakistan's nukes?

Let's see, "militants" can invade the Pakistan Army headquarters and take dozens of hostages, but no need to worry about the security of Pakistan's nukes, right? At least that's what Hillary Clinton is telling us. How does she know?

I guess anything that would be a distraction from Iran's nuclear program--which the C.I.A. still insists is not a nuclear weapons program--is just not something that we should worry our little heads about.

As I have said before, let's worry first about the nations that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, before we worry about nations like Iran that have. And someone remind me just why Israel has not signed the treaty? Did God give the Chosen People an exemption? (and before you call me an anti-Semite, remember that I am Jewish.)

Update: I turns out that the police had warned the Army a raid was being planned, according to the New York Times. Yup, really inspires confidence that those nukes are secure.

Ardi update. The Discovery Channel has a very cool and detailed interactive "handbook" to the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus and what it all means. Check it out here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Goodbye to Tarragona

On my way back to Paris via Barcelona, but had a chance this morning to run around Tarragona with my camera. Well worth a visit. The inhabitants live among archaeological ruins, mostly Roman. But very hot even in October!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Flapping mouths won't bring peace

It's times like these that I get pretty fed up with the blogosphere, the punditosphere, and all the other spheres of empty talk. The Nobel committee is not going to take back Obama's Peace Prize no matter what anyone says, so why don't the critics give it a rest and tell us what they are doing for peace themselves. How about a donation to a peace organization or a group working for nuclear disarmament, for starters? There are also organizations working to stop the world-wide arms trade. But perhaps it is easier for those who have never lifted a finger for world peace to question the modest but non-negligible efforts that Obama and his team have actually made.

Update. Despite the cacophony there has been some intelligent comment, and as usual some of the best of it comes from Glenn Greenwald.

Update II: More good sense, even if it doesn't agree with Greenwald's take on things, from Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times. I personally tend to agree more with Rutten than with Greenwald, even though both make good and relevant points.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Greetings from Tarragona

I've been on the road for the past week, attending a meeting in this archaeologically rich city (won't tell you now which meeting.) But here is a momento for the moment, hope to be back to more regular blogging next week.

Friday, October 2, 2009

When is a war crime not a war crime?

When everyone decides to look the other way, that's when. Sadly, even the Palestinians have chosen to go this route, at least temporarily, according to a report in today's New York Times. Here's the news:

In a startling shift, the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council dropped its efforts to forward a report accusing Israel of possible war crimes to the Security Council, under pressure from the United States, diplomats said Thursday.

Why? Because it might deflect the "peace process," according to the wise American diplomats who put the pressure on. And why is that?

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned the Palestinians and international powers earlier Thursday that any action to advance the report would be a denial of Israel’s “right to self-defense” and would kill any chance of peace talks.

Apparently Israel's right to self-defense includes the right to commit war crimes, according to this twisted logic--but it is logic that the United States is now buying into. Oh, by the way, war crimes by Hamas also get a pass, but that seems to be okay with Israeli leaders too.

As you know, Israel (and the U.S. government) have been protesting that the report by Richard Goldstone, a Jew very sympathetic to Israel, was biased and its conclusions preordained in some way. That might be true, in the sense that if the police catch me standing over a dead body with a revolver in my hand and my DNA all over the corpse, it might be a strike against me when my trial starts. Thirteen hundred Gazans died during the Israeli onslaught last winter, and even the Israelis admit that at least a third of them were civilians (the Palestinians say at least half.) And no one is arguing that the Israeli military didn't kill all those people. We have the bodies, we have the weapons, and we know who pulled the triggers. Why all the surprise and indignation at how the investigation turned out?

Photo: Richard Goldstone.

David Brooks gets it right. About the right-wing media shock jocks Rush Limbaugh, et al. In his column today, Brooks points out that they are a niche not a movement, do not represent a large number of voters, but that doesn't stop both Republicans and Democrats from making them out to be influential powerhouses--for their own convenient reasons. I'm most interested in the Democratic Party, which likes to pretend that this bogey man is bigger than he really is, and moves ever rightwards as a result. They used to call it preemptive capitulation, today they call it being realistic, but it stinks either way.

Chicago out. Should this be any surprise? Could the President of the United States showing up to lobby be seen as anything other than strong-arm tactics? Backfire!

La Bohème in the suburbs

We've had a heavy dose of science and politics on this blog these past days, now for some culture. Last Tuesday, September 29, the French-German public television network ARTE broadcast one of the most sublime performances I have ever seen: A production of Puccini's La Bohème set in a housing project in the suburbs of Bern, Switzerland. The project is clearly for middle class rather than poor people, but nevertheless the concept was terrific and the execution of it near perfect. You can watch it (with commentary in French and lots of interruptions for reactions from people in the projects, which are actually quite interesting) in two parts at the links given below from ARTE's Web site. Be sure to watch all the way to the end, because Mimi's death scene is so original and powerful that it will knock you out (at least it did me; oh, sorry for the spoiler, Mimi does die at the end!)

The photo above is of Maya Boog, who plays Mimi, and Saimir Pirgu, who plays Rodolfo. That's the housing project in the background, of course.

Part I at this link.

Part II at this link.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Yes Men Fix the World

"Comedic vigilante justice!" - USA Today
"Hilarious, therapeutic, inspiring."
- Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine
"We think it is a serious matter when people willingly
misrepresent themselves." - Exxon
Announcing: The Yes Men Fix the World
Announcing the start of the national theatrical run of THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD, the award-winning, gut-busting wake-up call that follows two gonzo political activists from NYC to India as they pull off the world's most outrageous pranks and expose the worlds greediest corporations. Beware, Corporate America: the Yes Men are here!

Playing Oct. 7-20, TWO WEEKS ONLY
@ FILM FORUM - West Houston St. (west of 6th Ave), 212.727.8110
Showtimes: daily at 1:00, 2:45, 4:15, 6:00, 8:00 and 10:00 pm
The Yes Men will be at most screenings the first week (Oct. 7-13).


First five hundred people to see the film will get a free copy of the fake New York Post ("We're Screwed!").
First thousand people to see the film will get a free copy of the fake New York Times ("Iraq War Ends!").

Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.


By now many of you will have heard about the publication in Science of a series of long awaited papers on the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus ramidus, a fossil hominin that is already telling us more than we ever knew before about the earliest stages of human evolution. I will be back later with links and more information, but meanwhile here are early breaking stories from the New York Times and the BBC.

And yes, take it from me, these finds merit all the hype they are receiving, if not more.

Update I: Some background from my colleague Ann Gibbons, including a video well worth watching featuring Ann and team leader Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley.

Update II: A good image-laden backgrounder by Jamie Shreeve of National Geographic.

Update III: John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, whose anthropology blog is always of interest, has a lengthy post on Ardi.

Update IV: All of the papers and other materials about Ardipithecus ramidus are now available free from Science at this link.

Monday, September 28, 2009

No special treatment for Polanski

I don't usually weigh in on cases like this, but those who think that the charges against Polanski should be dropped without him showing up in court in Los Angeles (where the judge who currently has jurisdiction in the case has already gone on record agreeing that there was judicial misconduct three decades ago) are really pushing hypocritically for a double standard for artists and filmmakers.

Polanski committed a serious crime to which he pleaded guilty. If the defendant were Rush Limbaugh instead of Polanski, everyone would be whistling a different tune (on both sides of the issue!) It also does not matter that Polanski's victim has "forgiven" him and also wants the charges to be dropped. Rapists are prosecuted in the name of the people, not solely in the name of their victims, for obvious reasons: Society at large has an interest in preventing such behavior.

I have little doubt that Polanski is now rehabilitated and no threat to society; he was a different person in a different place psychologically when he committed the crime. But we have legal mechanisms for making such decisions and Polanski now has no reason to think that he will again be the victim of judicial misconduct. He should give up his fight against extradition and return to Los Angeles, so everyone can get on with their lives. Maybe he will even be able to accept an Oscar for one of his films in person some day.

A similar take... from Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post.

And from the New York Times editorial page on Wednesday. The arguments some are making on Polanski's behalf, that he has already paid and atoned for the indiscretions of his youth, are also made today by those who think Nazi fugitives from justice should be allowed to live out their lives in peace. As a Holocaust survivor, Polanski should be particularly sensitive to the hypocrisy of such arguments. And those who make them should try to remember that in the United States at least everyone is supposed to be equal under the law.

And most eloquently, a piece in today's Los Angeles Times by Steve Lopez, entitled "Polanski's defenders lose sight of the true victim," which includes detailed excerpts from the girl's Grand Jury testimony.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iraq war resister Ehren Watada finally allowed to resign from the Army

Finally, an end, or at least a new chapter, in the saga of this brave young man. The U.S. Army, having failed to convict him by court-martial and having failed to convince a federal judge that he should be retried, has let Watada resign as he initially requested, citing the illegality of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, in today's New York Times, Frank Rich ponders the parallels between JFK's dilemma over whether to escalate or de-escalate in Vietnam in the early 1960s and Obama's at least momentary hesitation to agree to the military's request for more troops in Afghanistan. A chance for Obama to avoid turning his presidency into the kind of disaster that neither Lyndon Johnson nor George W. Bush had the wisdom and the courage to avoid; perhaps Ehren Watada's courage could be an inspiration to Obama at this crossroads in history. At the very least, it should be inspiration to the rest of us.

Some good sense (and even a little knowledge) on Iran's nukes. From Scott Ridder in The Guardian. Read it, and consider that the biggest saber-rattler re Iran, Israel, is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why not? Iran is, whatever one might think of its compliance. The hypocrisy of this situation might escape many Americans and Israeli apologists, but it doesn't escape the Muslim world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Netanyahu cheapens the Holocaust

Why is it that you have to go to the Israeli press to find good sense about the Israel-Palestine conflict? Gideon Levy provides a little balance to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, in which, as Levy points out in a column in Ha'aretz, the Israeli prime minister cheapened the memory of the Holocaust twice:

Once, when he brandished proof of the very existence of the Holocaust, as if it needed any, and again when he compared Hamas to the Nazis.

Levy goes on:

And it is doubtful that any historian of stature would buy the comparison the prime minister made between Hamas and the Nazis, or between the London Blitz and the Qassam rockets on Sderot. In the Blitz, 400 German bombers and 600 fighter planes killed 43,000 people and destroyed more than one million homes. Hamas' Qassams, perhaps the most primitive weapon in the world, have killed 18 people in eight years. Yes, they sowed great terror - but a Blitz?

But my favorite line from this column:

Talk of security and victims may still have buyers among the WIZO women of America, but that's it. For a regional power that has almost every weapon in the world in its arsenal and is fighting primitive terror organizations, it is a bit difficult to be taken seriously when talking about security, especially when said security is only for Israelis.

Which reminds me, Israeli leaders and the Obama administration are still banging on about how biased and unbalanced Richard Goldstone's report on Israeli and Hamas war crimes in Gaza was, even though it called out both sides for its violations of international law--despite the fact that the death toll on the Palestinian side was 100 times that on the Israeli side. It's time for war crimes prosecutions, and let the chips fall where they may.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When Darwin met a Neandertal

As many readers will know if they have been paying attention during this 150th anniversary of its publication, On the Origin of Species makes no mention of human evolution. Darwin did not get around to that controversial subject until his 1871 Descent of Man. Yet there was plenty of evidence for the antiquity of humanity, including the 1848 discovery of a Neandertal skull and other bones on Gibraltar and the 1856 discovery of Neandertal fossils in Germany's Neander Valley. Although the 1848 fossils were not recognized for what they were until much later, the Neander finds, which came three years before the publication of Darwin's breakthrough book, were clear evidence for his ideas.

On Science's Origins blog, I report on a talk given at a human evolution meeting last week in Gibraltar, by Alex Menez of the Gibraltar Museum, which described Darwin's first encounter with a Neandertal skull. Check it out, I think it's a cool story.

Photo: Courtesy of Clive Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Obama and the burqas

I see an interesting juxtaposition between two news stories published in the past 24 hours. The first, a piece in yesterday's New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise reporting from Mingora, Pakistan, relates how the women in this Swat Valley city had to put on burqas when the Taliban took control, and then were able to take them off when the Talbian were driven out by a military operation. The second story, in today's Times, tells us that Obama is considering a strategy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan, cutting the number of American troops and focusing more on rooting out al-Qaeda and less on trying to defeat the Taliban (this is reportedly Joe Biden's idea.)

As the White House debates the issue, it is hard for any compassionate person to not feel torn by the dilemma the West is facing. The Taliban is a horrible, oppressive, brutal collection of men who richly deserved to be sent to their rewards (except, perhaps, those young men who have been suckered by the ideology of its leaders and might eventually be convinced to change their views of the world.) And yet they are not going to be defeated by Western military might, as has become increasingly clear. So what will defeat them? Other than those who have signed up for the joke called the "Afghan Army," mostly for the pay, where are the Afghan men willing to take up arms and fight the Taliban in the name of freedom? Where are the Afghan women who would rather take up arms and maybe die rather than put on a burqa?

Perhaps they are out there, waiting in the wings. But until and unless the U.S. and its NATO allies leave the fighting to the Afghans, we will never know. And the Afghans will not have to make this choice for themselves. Perhaps we are afraid that they will choose the Taliban after all?

It may sound callous, but the lessons of Iraq tell us that Western paternalism has its limits, and its terrible costs.

Does "Creation" lack the spark of genius?

That's the conclusion my colleague John Travis, European Editor of Science, comes to about this otherwise laudable attempt to portray the human side of Charles Darwin, in a new film that has yet to find a distributor in the United States. John reviews the film for Science's Origins blog, and it is clear that he wished he could have liked it more:

According to the movie’s press material, the film portrays the “powerful story of Charles Darwin and the single most explosive idea in history. … In Creation, the battleground is a man’s heart. Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, Darwin finds himself caught in a struggle between faith and reason, love and truth.” What this ultimately means is that the movie centers on why Darwin was so slow to publish On the Origin of Species, attributing the delay to his illness, his grief, and his desire not to offend the world, or at least his wife. In other words, instead of dramatizing how Darwin traveled the world and arrived at the most explosive idea in history, Creation is ultimately about the world’s biggest case of writer’s block.

That's just one paragraph from John's insightful review, please read the rest. Oh, and if you live in the United States, do lobby for its distribution in a cinema near you. The film may be flawed, but not as flawed as the arguments of the creationists who would love to see it suppressed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Sunday in Ronda, Spain

I'm on my way home from a meeting in Gibraltar, so stopped off for a day in this southern Spanish town nestled in Andalusia's rugged Serrania de Ronda mountains. It is famous for many things, but perhaps most of all for Spain's oldest bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros. Ernest Hemingway hung out here, of course, along with Orson Welles and Rainer Maria Rilke. They are all gone now, but tourists flock to Ronda by the thousands even this late in the season. You can't blame them, however: No one can expect to have a place this beautiful all to themselves. The photos above hardly do justice, but they are my modest offering.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uninsured at higher risk of death

It might seem intuitively likely that people without health insurance are at a higher risk of death, but here is a new study in the American Journal of Public Health that proves it.

A multimedia take on this subject
: "We're Number 37." Thanks to EG for the tip.