Saturday, February 28, 2009

"...and yes I said yes I will Yes. "

That's my response to Google's wanting my personal information, my whereabouts, my browsing habits--whatever they want, they can have it, now that they have given us Gmail offline with its "Flaky Connection Mode" feature. Now you can move seamlessly between your computer's hard drive and Google's servers depending on whether you have online access and how good your internet connection is. It's like having the best of both worlds of Outlook Express and Webmail... Gmail users, check it out.

Why is Obama's Justice Department using Bush administration state secret arguments to squash lawsuits? Glenn Greenwald stays on the case.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hominid highlights (or, Is that a handaxe in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?)

Friday is science day on this blog (sometimes) and it is most certainly Science day, ie, the day that my favorite scientific journal is published. As we often do, my partner on the human evolution beat, Ann Gibbons, and I have weighed in with the latest news about what hominids were doing and when. Ann's online story, about some 1.5 million year old Homo erectus footprints discovered in Kenya, has also received a lot of play in the general news media (thanks in large part to the efforts of our public relations department.) As Ann reports:

... a team led by Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom scanned and digitized at least four trails of footprints laid down over several thousand years at Ileret. The researchers were able to use the size, spacing, and depth of the impressions to estimate the weight, stride length, and gait of the ancient walkers. As the researchers report in tomorrow's issue of Science, the new footprints show that these early humans were pushing off the ground with their big toes--or toeing off--and shifting their weight over these digits in the same way as modern humans. H. erectus's feet had clearly evolved a modern shape, with the big toe parallel to the other toes and a pronounced arch, says paleoanthroologist Brian Richmond of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Read the rest at the link, which is free for 4 weeks from today.

Meanwhile, yours truly has been looking into what some call the "sexy handaxe theory." As I explain in a Random Sample in today's issue of Science (subscription required):

Did prehistoric lasses make passes at lads with hand axes? In 1999, scholars proposed that the tear-drop shaped, often beautifully symmetrical axes produced by early humans were more than just tools. Rather, suggested Steven Mithen of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and science writer Marek Kohn in a paper in the journal Antiquity, the best hand axes were the product of Darwinian sexual selection: a signal to gals that their makers had good, or at least handy, genes.

Now, two anthropologists writing online this month in PaleoAnthropology argue against sexual selection. April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada and Melanie Lee Chang of the University of Oregon, Eugene, call the hypothesis "evocative and romantic." But they say that the evidence for it doesn't hold up: For example, Mithen and Kohn argued that the axes' symmetry did not make them better tools, but Nowell and Chang cite several studies concluding that symmetry made the tools easier to control. The women also suggest that even early human females would have been seeking qualities in their mates--such as "niceness" and compatibility--more lasting than a well-turned hand ax. Kohn insists that he and Mithen aren't suggesting that female choice was "frivolous or superficial" but was based on how males performed difficult tasks.

Whoops, there I've gone and given you the entire text, so hope my editors will see this as a nice teaser for you to subscribe to the journal and not haul me off to copyright court. But in another free feature, on our Origins blog I also explore whether or not handaxes were really what most archaeologists think they are--a tool used for cutting plants or butchering animals--or if, as Australian archaeologist Iain Davidson has argued, they are what was left over when early humans struck off flakes, which were the real tools.

Complicated today, complicated in prehistory--that's us humans!

More about stone tools. An undergraduate archaeology student and expert knapper describes the mental and physical processes he goes through while making a hand axe, on the Origins blog. Fully illustrated!

Bonus blog: Why didn't Darwin discover Mendel's laws?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to make a nuclear bomb

I assume, or at least very much hope, that all readers of this blog are aware of the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was released from Guantanamo this week after seven years of imprisonment, and allowed to return home to Britain. There is overwhelming evidence that Mohamed was tortured with the full knowledge and complicity of both American and British officials, and very little evidence that he was actually guilty of terrorist acts or planning them.

In today's Los Angeles Times, columnist Rosa Brooks, who just happens to be the daughter of the progressive journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (and a writer every bit as talented and wise), offers an interesting twist on the case: One of the key pieces of "evidence" against Mohamed was that he had read a satirical piece Ehrenreich wrote 30 years ago entitled "How to Build Your Own Home H-Bomb." Brooks says that the article, which appeared in the lefty magazine Seven Days,

...was chock-full of helpful tips for would-be nuclear bomb makers. For instance, it advised those struggling to enrich uranium to make "a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the [bucket] around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes."

As a result of the torture, Brooks points out,

...Mohamed began to confess to an impressive range of sins. Pressed for details about his purported nuclear know-how, for instance, Mohamed admitted that he had, indeed, once read my mother's article on the Web, but said it was just a spoof.

They didn't get the joke. According to Mohamed's attorneys, who have had access to classified records, the article seems to have been deemed a crucial piece of "evidence" against their client. An intelligence-community game of Telephone ensued, in which Mohamed's "confession" that he'd read up on the manufacture of nuclear weapons was passed along from interrogator to interrogator, until U.S. authorities convinced themselves that Mohamed was part of a dangerous nuclear plot against the United States.

Mohamed is now free, and yet there are disturbing signs that the Obama administration might want to cover up for the Bush administration's crimes--a policy that seems to be behind several perplexing Justice Department actions in recent weeks--by refusing to release details of Mohamed's torture and imprisonment. If Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder persist in such a position, they will become enemies of truth, civil liberties, and the U.S. Constitution. Binyam Mohamed and his attorneys reportedly refused to agree to a gag order that U.S. authorities (we are talking about the Obama administration here again, remember) wanted to impose on him.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose? Let's hope not.

Meanwhile, on the disloyal opposition: Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker gets on Bobby Jindal's case for distorting, as Republicans are so very good at doing, the rationale behind spending money on certain scientific projects. "Government-waste cheap-shot artists," is what Charlie calls these intellectual midgets, aptly so.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I'm just back from a short trip to London, where one of the highlights was the "Babylon: Myth and Reality" exhibit at the British Museum, which continues until March 15 and is well worth your time. As the title implies, Babylon, about 85 kilometers south of Baghdad, was one of the great capitals of the ancient world (and most closely associated with King Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 BC); but it is also a center-point for myths and stories that still resonate today. The Biblical stories of the Tower of Babel, the "writing on the wall," Daniel in the lion's den, and many others are set in Babylon, which was also a center of science and mathematics, great architectural experiments, and good old-fashioned decadence.

The exhibit explores the real city and the legends it inspired, and ends with a slide show about the great damage United States troops did to the site--the military built a camp right on it--after the invasion of Iraq. The slide show was put together under the direction of John Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East Collections at the British Museum and a tireless advocate for protection of Iraq's archaeological heritage, which was decimated under the U.S. occupation. It took courage for the British Museum to so directly criticize American actions, and they should be congratulated for doing so.

More culture: Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I'm not very good at writing about music, other than on its possible evolutionary significance, which I do often for Science. But I do know that Puccini's "Turandot" is far and away the greatest opera ever written and that Van Morrison is the only man on this sorry planet who can sing worth a damn (quite a few women, on the other hand, can sing very sweetly indeed.) So naturally I preordered this new album and plunked it on the CD player as soon as it arrived. Contrary to the lukewarm, albeit sympathetic, review that James Parker gave it in Slate, this album is just pure bliss. Van Morrison is notoriously uneven in live performances, but when he knows his reputation is on the line he can soar straight into the stratosphere. I have heard him live twice in my life, once during the 1970s at the old Keystone club in Berkeley, and a few years ago here in Paris, I think it was at the Olympia. The experience was transporting in both cases; indeed, during his Paris gig, at one point I levitated out of my seat and was not quite sure where I was going to go next, sideways or straight up. A bit of an unsettling experience, although I eventually did find my seat again. At the Hollywood Bowl, he sailed through the old songs as if it were still yesterday. I just wish I had been there.

Slight U.S. shift on Israel? Glenn Greenwald thinks there might be encouraging signs. Let's hope he's right.

Palin in 2012! I gather that Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech to Congress was not the rousing success nor the launching pad for his presidential campaign that some Republicans had hoped for. No worries, the GOP has lots of other talent. After all, the wisdom of their economic plan--cutting taxes when fewer and fewer people are making enough money to pay them anyway, and letting the free market take care of things--should soon be obvious.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The news media and the war in Gaza

I'm still on a break until Wednesday, when I hope to be back in blogging action, so in the meantime please read this interesting interview with Robert Fisk--one of the few credible Western reporters in the Middle East--about the pathetic role of the Western media in reporting on Israel's recent assault on Gaza.

Also, many of you have probably read or heard that Amnesty International is calling for a suspension on arm sales to both sides of the conflict and a suspension of American military aid to Israel. Sounds like a great idea, but one that will obviously be way premature in the eyes of the Obama administration.

Photo: Robert Fisk.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

London break

Between deadlines and travel I have been neglecting the blogging the past couple of days, and now taking a few days in London to visit family and friends. So keep checking in and I will post something soon... meanwhile, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bush, Cheney, and the pardon that Scooter didn't get

Today's New York Times carries an interesting article entitled "Aides Say No Pardon for Libby Irked Cheney," by Jim Rutenberg and Jo Becker. The story reports on how insistently Cheney lobbied Bush for a pardon for his former chief of staff; Bush's refusal to do so leaves Libby a convicted felon unable to practice law, although his 20 month prison sentence was earlier commuted.

The article cites various sources about Bush's reasons for not agreeing to the pardon, which range from not wanting to revisit his decisions to not wanting to leave office with a pardon scandal swirling around his head as Clinton did (a scandal that came back to haunt Eric Holder during his confirmation hearings.) The story even ends on a pretty ridiculous note, as follows:

But a former administration official involved in some of the deliberations said the outcome of the lobbying effort was evidence of something else: “The biggest myth of the presidency is that Vice President Cheney always got his way.”

My own hunch is that Bush, dim bulb that he was, really did understand by the end of his presidency that the judgement of history was already upon him, and that it wasn't good. And I think he understood, and understands now, that his biggest mistake was following Cheney and his ideological gang off the deep end, letting them have their way on the most important things and leaving his presidency and the country (not to mention much of the world) in shambles. Small men like Bush think small thoughts and make their stands in small ways. For Bush, having failed for eight years to think for himself, refusing to pardon Libby was one of the few prerogatives he had left.

More on Bush-Cheney
. No sooner had I finished this blog post than I looked at the Times' Opinion section and saw that Maureen Dowd had pursued similar themes. Interesting stuff, check it out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chavez wins, socialism loses

I can't say it any better than my journalist/blogger pal/colleague Marc Cooper, an expert on things south of the (U.S.) border. Just as in Cuba, where after 50 years of "revolution" and two generations of creating the "socialist man" and the "socialist woman" the only person who can replace an ailing Castro is... another Castro... some Venezuelans (and American leftist fans of their demagogue-in-chief) have fallen for the temptations of one-man rule. Sez Marc:

In that respect, if Hugo Chavez wants to call himself a socialist and pretend that the armed forces that currently hold the levers of power in his country and who swear an oath to defend the fatherland, revolution and socialism are the armed representatives of the working class, I suppose that's his right. After all, if Dick Cheney can call himself a defender of democracy, why can't Hugo claim to be a tribune of socialism?

And he adds:

In broad terms, the vote can be called democratic. More or less the same as what passes for democracy in many places of the world. And Chavez was democratically re-elected president last time out. And, in case, anyone attempts to put some unsanitary words in my mouth, Chavez is the legal and constitutional ruler of Venezuela. Duly elected, lawfully elected.... and so on.

But he is the ruler. As none of the above negates or contradicts the rather obvious fact that Chavez intends to never leave office -- at least, not alive. His usurpation of any pluralism, of any semblance of debate and consensus in the most important levels of government is something that merits no celebrations and certainly bodes nothing very uplifting about the Venezuelan future.

Legal or not, democratic or not, Chavez is bent on and has effectively already achieved one-man rule. And that, brother, ain't got nothing to do with socialism.

Photo: Chavez looks ahead to a long tenure.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Human origins news from Chicago

While I hold the front in Paris, my human evolution team colleagues Elizabeth Culotta and Ann Gibbons are in Chicago reporting from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their adventures, along with those of our other colleagues at the meeting, can be found on Science's Findings blog. Among the highlights I have seen so far: The latest about the earliest known humans out of Africa at Dmanisi (dated 1.8 million years ago), an update on the latest Hobbit news from William Jungers at Stony Brook University (still looking a lot like a new species), a suggestion from University of Michigan anthropologist Milford Wolpoff that the just-sequenced Neandertal genome could be that of a modern human (a notion not taken too seriously by others), and a podcast about the origins of the human diet with Northwestern University anthropologist William Leonard.

I will update this post if any other human evolution news comes out of the meeting.

More findings: Ann Gibbons on "A Matter of Taste." She licks a strip of paper. Click to find out why.

Neandertals die young. Elizabeth Culotta tells us why.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Alison Des Forges

Alison Des Forges, one of the world's leading experts on the Rwanda genocide of 1994, was killed in the Buffalo airplane crash. You can read about her life and contributions in this tribute by Human Rights Watch, for which she was a consultant.

More thoughts on Des Forges. From New Yorker writer George Packer on his blog Interesting Times.

Israeli war crimes dossier thickens. A report in Sunday's Los Angeles Times from Khozaa in the Gaza Strip.

Friday, February 13, 2009


A team in Leipzig, Germany has announced a rough draft of the Neandertal nuclear genome, which promises to tell us--eventually--a lot more not only about our closest evolutionary cousins but also about ourselves, modern humans. My Science colleague Elizabeth Pennisi has a long piece about the genome and its implications in this week's issue, with reporting by Ann Gibbons, and it's accompanied by a "Neandertal Primer" prepared by yours truly. These links require a subscription to Science or institutional access, but here are a few teasers, beginning with the first paragraph of Elizabeth's story:

A half a gram barely tips the postal scale. But from a Neandertal fossil, it's a whopping big chunk of priceless material. Yet Croatian geologist Ivan Gušić readily gave that up on the gamble that 38,000-year-old bones from a cave in northwestern Croatia might help provide a glimpse of the Neandertal genome. This week, researchers announced that Gušić's gamble paid off: They have gotten their first peek at 3 billion bases of Neandertal DNA, and the view, although still hazy, is spectacular. Paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues have compiled a very rough draft of this genome, they reported in a press conference in Leipzig and in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Science's publisher) in Chicago, Illinois, this week.

And here is one segment of my Neandertal primer, which tells you everything you wanted to know about Neandertals but were afraid to ask:

What did they look like? Neandertals were once portrayed as brutish creatures, but scientists now think they resembled modern humans in many ways. Indeed, the late anthropologist Carleton Coon once suggested that a Neandertal dressed in a suit and hat riding the New York City subway would go unnoticed. The next time you ride the subway, look for someone with a stocky, muscular body with short forearms and legs; a large head with bony brow ridges; a jutting face with a very big nose; and perhaps reddish hair and fair skin.

Finally, I have written a post for Science's Origins blog on whether or not Neandertals were artists; that you can read for free at this link.

Photo: Neandertal in front, modern human in back, display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York/Frank Franklin II / AP file

Cheating over Cheeta? An article by Scott Gold in the Los Angeles Times suggests that someone switched chimps. Read it and weep.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Obama to Bush: your secrets are safe with me (especially the ones about torture)

No one can touch Glenn Greenwald when it comes to exposing not only the unconstitutional actions of the U.S. government but the complicity of those journalists who provide cover for the officials who carry them out. So I hope I won't be considered a lazy blogger if I turn you over to Glenn and his highly detailed analysis of the Obama administration's continuing to use the state secrets argument to prevent a case concerning torture of detainees to move forward in Federal court. Especially important is Greenwald's demolition of the excuses that Obama's apologists have used to try to paper over and justify this outrageous decision. And as a constitutional lawyer, he is the perfect person to do it.

Glenn's Salon piece also cites the New York Times' editorial on this subject today, entitled "Continuity of the Wrong Kind," which is equally scathing:

The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.

Is that clear enough for everyone? It would have been worse with McCain, sure, and I am willing to cut Obama some slack on certain issues, but this goes too far--way too far.

More on this topic. From Dahlia Lithwick at Slate.

Do we all have the capacity for inhuman cruelty? An excellent post by Liliana Segura about the meaning of Stanley Milgram's famous electric shock experiments and their more recent replication by Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University. Please give it a read (with thanks to PG for the link.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Another child killed by dogs

This is a 3 1/2 month old baby named Jaden Mack, from a village in Wales. He is now dead, killed a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Jack Russell at his grandmother's house. She was taking care of him while his parents were briefly away.

According to the BBC report on the child's death, one villager said the dogs were playful and "never seemed to be vicious". You've heard this one before, right? "Oh, he was such a sweet dog, he wouldn't hurt anyone." Until he does, that is.

I first became aware of this problem back in the 1980s, when I was researching a story for Los Angeles Magazine called "The Dog Wars." The story was really about the conflicts over what public spaces, such as parks, should be open to dogs and which not, plus neighbor conflicts over barking dogs. But when I began looking at newspaper clippings about dogs, I was absolutely shocked to find out that thousands of children in the United States and other countries are mauled and killed by dogs every year.

In the UK, after a spate of such deaths in the early 1990s, a dangerous dogs law was passed which is still in effect. The problem is that it is limited to just a handful of breeds, and yet thousands of children continue to be killed by dogs not on the list. A Staffordshire bull terrier? Not on the list, at least not technically, but everyone knows that breed can kill. So can Dobermans, German Shepherds, and a whole host of others.

This is really an example of society caring more about lives of animals than of children, otherwise the laws in the UK, the United States, and other countries would be much tougher. The list should be expanded; the dangerous dogs confiscated and killed; and their breeding outlawed. Period.

I realize this isn't going to happen soon. But until it does, many more babies like Jaden Mack are going to die. Does anybody really care, other than their parents?

Oh, Fluffy, cute dog, good dog, ooh Fluffy such a sweet dog! Makes me want to vomit.

Campus protests of Israel's military actions in Gaza:

An extract from this roundup:

Campus protests of Israel's military actions in Gaza, are growing — including in the United States. Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Rochester is claiming victory in the first "occupation" of a building at an American campus over the issue (although university officials say that the students signed up for permission to protest in a building Friday until midnight and so were there with authorization). The university and the SDS also have different versions of what both sides agreed to in order to end the protest late Friday. The SDS started its protest demanding that the university sell endowment holdings in companies that produce weapons or otherwise "profit from war"; that the university organize a day of fund raising for Gaza; that the university provide "necessary academic aid" such as computers and books to university programs in Gaza; and that a minimum of five scholarships be set up for Palestinian students. A blog by an SDS member involved in the protest says that Rochester committed to donate surplus goods to students in Gaza, to help create a Palestinian fund drive, to look for ways to provide scholarships to students from Gaza, and to "help organize a forum to expose or make transparent the investments of the university towards Israel." University officials said that they had agreed to the following: helping the SDS find ways to donate goods to students in Gaza, helping the SDS find ways to raise money for Gaza, working to identify schools in Gaza where students might apply to attend the university, and organizing a forum to explain to students how the university makes its investments. Rochester officials stressed that they would help any student group trying to provide assistance for groups that could benefit, and that there are currently scholarships for foreign students available, but that the university doesn't receive many applications from Palestinians. At the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, 40 students occupying a building agreed to leave, and claimed that the university had agreed to honor a boycott of Israel by canceling a contract with an Israeli water company. A university statement said that it was indeed canceling the contract, but that Strathclyde had already committed to stopping the purchase of bottled water on a large scale (for sustainability reasons) and that this made it appropriate to end the relationship with the Israeli company. The university also pledged to set up some scholarships for Palestinian students.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I'm shocked! Shocked! that we are spending so much to stimulate the economy

Alarm bells are ringing in Congress as Republicans and some Democrats balk at the price tag for getting the economy back on track. Funny, but I don't remember anyone getting panicky as the Bush administration's price tag for the war in Iraq approached and then exceeded the same amount. Republicans were all for it, and Democrats didn't have the courage to do what was needed to end it.

Meanwhile, Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein suggests that some of that money be spent on educating Congressmen and women about basic economics. Read his piece for a rundown on the nonsense that is passing for economic theory on the Hill these days.

Investment tip. Buy stock in companies that sell noise-cancelling headsets, now that WiFi has come to the crowded skies. I've got two pairs myself.

The Senate stimulus bill. It weighs in at 736 pages, ie more than a billion dollars per page, and worth every penny if it gets the economy moving again. Caution: large file.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How can I live on $500,000 a year?

That's what executives like Bank of America CEO Kenneth D. Lewis (pictured here) must be asking themselves as President Obama reportedly prepares to unveil a $500,000 cap on executive pay for companies that get bailed out. Lewis took home more than $20 million in 2007, according to the New York Times story linked to above.

Tough times for executives! I don't have a clue how they are going to manage, just as I don't have a clue what they find to do with all that money--I guess I am so far out of their league I can't even think what I would do if I had that much, rather than give quite a lot of it away (okay, right, I guess I could, um, invest it--no, that's not a good idea right now--or maybe buy material things with it, like, um, yachts and cars and maybe a big house in an exclusive neighborhood and expensive vacations and lots of meals in top restaurants... oh gosh, I've spent it all already!)

Now for some reaction to this severe step, from the same Times story:

“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus,” said James F. Reda, founder and managing director of James F. Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm. “And you know these companies that are in trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend.”

Mr. Reda said only a handful of big companies pay chief executives and other senior executives $500,000 or less in total compensation. He said such limits will make it hard for the companies to recruit and keep executives, most of whom could earn more money at other firms.

“It would be really tough to get people to staff” companies that are forced to impose these limits, he said. “I don’t think this will work.”

Maybe Reda is right, and top executives like Lewis won't accept such a big pay cut and will quit and take another job--where? Oh, right, at another company that is doing just fine and doesn't need government bailouts and can afford to pay $20 million a year to its execs. A company like, um, Caterpillar? GM? Ford? Maybe one of those big insurance companies? There's got to be one somewhere that just can't do without the talents of a major exec like Lewis who ran the Bank of America into the ground--my bank, you motherfucker! Where I have been a customer for 40 years as of 2009 and paid enough banking charges over that time to buy Lewis at least one of his Mercedes.

Here's another idea: Let's get some new blood in there to run these companies, some bright, upcoming execs who are public spirited and just want to run these companies for the public good, especially now that we the taxpayers are going to own most of them anyway. On $500,000, they will still be able to send their kids to the best schools and live in nice neighborhoods and drive nice cars and have good European vacations and eat in gourmet restaurants--who could ask for more than that?

Photographer: Stephen Hilger/Bloomberg News

Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The Times reports on moves by human rights groups to investigate violations of international law and pursue prosecutions against Israeli leaders; the Christian Science Monitor looks at how it's all going down in Israel itself (thanks to PG for the latter link.)

Don't mourn for Daschle. So says The Nation's John Nichols, whose online commentary makes it look like this is a blessing in disguise for Obama and the country: "The scandal over Daschle's lavish lifestyle and failure to pay taxes simply emphasized why the former Senate Majority Leader was exactly the wrong choice to serve in the administration of a Democratic president who aspires to make a break with the worst of the compromises that characterized his party during the Bush-Cheney era," Nichols says. Read on.

Internal wrangling in Obama's economic team. With some help from Joe Biden, according to Christopher Hayes in The Nation. Thanks to reg for the heads up.

100,000! That's how many unique visits this blog has now had since I started it last April. Not in the major leagues, I realize, but still not bad--thanks again to all.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lemon socialism

If anyone is wondering why Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is not a member of President Barack Obama's inner circle of economic advisers, they need only read his column in today's paper for the answer. In "Bailouts for bunglers," Krugman argues that the Obama administration and its economic leading lights are sticking taxpayers with all the risk while the people who got us into this mess stand to reap all the benefits:

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the Obama administration’s plan to support jobs and output with a large, temporary rise in federal spending, which is very much the right thing to do. I’m talking, instead, about the administration’s plans for a banking system rescue — plans that are shaping up as a classic exercise in “lemon socialism”: taxpayers bear the cost if things go wrong, but stockholders and executives get the benefits if things go right.

When I read recent remarks on financial policy by top Obama administration officials, I feel as if I’ve entered a time warp — as if it’s still 2005, Alan Greenspan is still the Maestro, and bankers are still heroes of capitalism.

But here are the key grafs:

But bank stocks are worth so little these days — Citigroup and Bank of America have a combined market value of only $52 billion — that the ownership wouldn’t be partial: pumping in enough taxpayer money to make the banks sound would, in effect, turn them into publicly owned enterprises.

My response to this prospect is: so? If taxpayers are footing the bill for rescuing the banks, why shouldn’t they get ownership, at least until private buyers can be found? But the Obama administration appears to be tying itself in knots to avoid this outcome.

Now, let's edit this last graf so that we cut out the phrase "at least until private buyers can be found?" To me, it now reads even better. When a homeowner defaults on a mortgage, he or she loses the house to the bank--they don't get it back at the end of the process after all the dust has settled. Likewise, the banking and financial industries have gone bankrupt. This is not just a matter of "fairness" to the taxpayers, it would be a major step towards solving the basic problem. Instead of private interests running the economy and pulling all the strings for the benefit of a few, the government would be running the show for the benefit of all--or, at least it would if we the taxpayers insist that it be so. And this would not necessarily mean the end of private businesses and private property, not at all. In fact, under government control, the banks would make loans to those who really deserve them instead of those who are slicing and dicing mortgage derivatives into ever more risky investments. The banks would become a force for real innovation and economic growth instead of whores and panderers to the giant Ponzi scheme that our economy has largely become.

I know what you're saying, the government would make a bad job of it. Krugman has an answer for that too, the all too obvious one:

Meanwhile, a Washington Post report based on administration sources says that Mr. Geithner and Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s top economic adviser, “think governments make poor bank managers” — as opposed, presumably, to the private-sector geniuses who managed to lose more than a trillion dollars in the space of a few years.

We've tried free market capitalism and seen where it got us. It's time for something at least a little different.

Cutting a deal with Rush Limbaugh. James Carville has a very amusing commentary on Rush's proposed stimulus package on CNN online. Among the gems, Carville refers to Limbaugh as "the moral and intellectual leader and most influential person in the Republican Party in the United States."

Is the entire bailout strategy wrong? Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, another of the "left Keynesians" along with Krugman, comments on CNN.

Advice to Obama on Afghanistan. From my Boston University journalism colleague, Nick Mills, an interview with BU Today. Obama appears to think that a military solution is possible in Afghanistan and Pakistan; he is most surely wrong, as were all others down through history.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Earlier start for human art?

Back in 2002, a team working at Blombos Cave in South Africa reported finding two 77,000 year old pieces of ochre (one of which is pictured here) etched with what appears to be a deliberate cross-hatched pattern. The findings were published in Science, and I wrote about them at the time. A couple of years later, the same team, led by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Bergen in Norway, reported equally old shell beads that may have been used as personal ornaments. Many, although not all, researchers interpreted these finds as evidence of early symbolic behavior and maybe even art. Indeed, the discoveries eventually convinced many scientists that symbolic behavior did not begin during the so-called "Upper Paleolithic creative explosion" in Europe 40,000 years ago but much earlier.

In this week's Science, I report on new finds of etched ochre, some dated 100,000 years old, from Blombos Cave. The work was presented at a meeting in Cape Town in January and is also in press at the Journal of Human Evolution. Here are a few extracts of my report:

To analyze the latest finds, Henshilwood teamed up with Francesco d'Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France and independent ochre expert Ian Watts, who is based in Athens. The trick with ancient ochre is to figure out what early humans were using it for. Many previous studies have concluded that ochre was often ground to make a powder, which could have been used to paint bodies--a form of social identification usually considered symbolic--or for more utilitarian purposes. For example, Lynnette Wadley of Witwatersrand has argued from modern-day experiments that ground ochre could have been used as a kind of glue to haft stone tools into wooden or bone handles.

So Henshilwood and colleagues focused their attention on 13 pieces engraved in ways that seemed inconsistent with grinding alone. Some pieces have lines arranged in apparent fan-shaped or crosshatched designs; others are etched in wavy patterns. Microscopic examination showed that these engravings had been made with a pointed stone tool and a finely controlled hand.

Of the 13 pieces, eight were found at levels reliably dated to about 100,000 years ago. And Henshilwood's team argues that the findings of similar etched pieces at both 77,000 and 100,000 years ago is particularly significant:

... some of the oldest pieces have a crosshatched pattern similar to that of the two original ochre pieces dated to 77,000 years ago. And other researchers have very recently discovered similar crosshatched patterns on a few African stone and bone objects thought to be as old as the new finds, or nearly so. This refutes suggestions that the marks are merely doodles, Henshilwood says, and suggests a 25,000-year tradition of symbolic representation.

I quote a couple of researchers who aren't entirely convinced, on various grounds, that the pieces indicate symbolic behavior. But even if they did, we will probably never know what they really meant to the people who engraved them.