Friday, March 27, 2009

Doo Wop Classics

I don't know about you, but I can't do a stitch of work unless there is music playing. There are lots of Doo Wop sites on the Web, but here is a particularly good one I found today:

It's got a nice little player that cycles what its creators consider the 100 top Doo Wop classics, and for the most part I have to agree heartily with their judgement.

PS--The album cover pictured is from my favorite Doo Wop group, the Skyliners, probably known best for "Since I Don't Have You" and "This I Swear." But rock 'n' roll has a lot of unhappy stories, and one of them is that of lead singer Janet Vogel, who committed suicide in 1980 while she was still in her thirties.

More Doo Wop classics! At

The Taliban, united, can never be defeated (at least not militarily)

It's Science Friday and I've got little to show today, although I did write about early millet farming in China yesterday and there's a neat story on ScienceNOW today about termite queens (links to these stories are free for 4 weeks from publication.)

But it doesn't take an Einstein to see that U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is heading for disaster. Just today, the New York Times' excellent reporter Carlotta Gall writes that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are putting aside their differences and uniting to get ready for the "surge" of U.S. troops that President Barack Obama has ordered. Meanwhile, the Times also reports, Obama is setting "benchmarks" for the progress the Afghans and Pakistanis are expected to make in order to earn this timely American help in their struggles against the Taliban and Al Qaeda:

In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod governments in the region to take more responsibility for quelling the insurgency and building lasting political institutions.

“The era of the blank check is over,” Mr. Obama told Congressional leaders at the White House, according to an account of the meeting provided on the condition of anonymity because it was a private session.

Like I said, it doesn't take an Einstein to see the flaw in this strategy, especially since, as Gall indicates, Pakistan is part of the problem and not the solution:

At the same time, American officials told The New York Times this week that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency continued to offer money, supplies and guidance to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan as a proxy to help shape a friendly government there once American forces leave.

Believe me, I would take no satisfaction in seeing Obama's presidency wrecked over Afghanistan--that kind of attitude is more suitable for the Republican Party--but that is where we are headed. Obama is relying on the most conventional minds available (eg, military guys) to formulate his Afghanistan strategy, just as he relies on Lawrence Summers rather than Paul Krugman for his advice on fixing the economy. I still have hope, and I still think, yes we can, but only if we shift course quickly.

Iran to the rescue? There is overlap between Iranian and American interests in Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reports, because of Iranian alarm about instability, violence, and drug dealing in the area:

The Islamic Republic announced Thursday that it will join the United States in dispatching official delegations to two international conferences on Afghanistan. The Obama administration has welcomed Tehran's intended participation at one in the Netherlands.

Perhaps an indication that Obama at least wants to hedge his bets in the region. His mother (and grandmother) raised no fools.

Military guys said up stakes in Afghanistan, VP Joe urged caution. So reports the New York Times on Saturday.

Immunity for Radovan Karadzic? I don't know how many of you have been following the flap over Karadzic's claim that U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke promised him immunity from prosecution for war crimes back in the 1990s if he stepped down as leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Holbrooke has denied it, despite anonymous sources who insist it is true, and I am happy to believe either version of events. Why? Because it doesn't matter in the end. Holbrooke had no authority to give Karadzic immunity from charges before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which Karadzic no doubt knew even if he is raising it now to try to embarrass the Americans and turn his trial into a political show (pretty much the same strategy that the dear departed war criminal Slobodan Milošević used at his trial.) And if Karadzic did believe it? Well, all I have to say is: Sucker!

Torture update: From Glenn Greenwald. The truth is coming, thanks to British respect for the rule of law, Glenn says.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What's ailing Big Pharma

My friend and colleague Greg Critser has an opinion piece with this title in today's Los Angeles Times. Greg makes some important points about the morass that the pharmaceutical industry has gotten itself--and more importantly, the rest of us--into. Greg sez:

... Most of the drugs introduced to treat chronic disease over the last 20 years work for only about 50% of patients. So it's no surprise that pharmaceutical sales have tanked.

Pharma's troubles have been exacerbated by generic competition, which last year caused former cash cows Zoloft, Flonase and Ambien to post their worst returns ever. And future projections look even worse. As Bloomberg News Service recently reported, the world's pharmaceutical firms need to find replacements for $84 billion in sales now generated by products ending their patent life.

Yet if you ask the typical Pharma executive why sales are down, you get an alternative reality. The devil isn't in their drugs, it's in -- surprise -- onerous government regulation, penny-pinching insurers and, of course, that perennial boogeyman: healthcare reform. That's why they need to merge.

But the real problem, Greg says, is one that won't be solved by merger mania:

Why doesn't Pharma produce better drugs?

Read the rest, wise insights from the author of "Generation Rx," the book that asks the following excellent questions (taken from its listing on Barnes and Noble):

Greg Critser's brilliantly incisive Generation Rx moves the conversation about prescription drugs to where it hits home: our own bodies. How, he asks, has "big pharma" created a nation of pharmaceutical tribes, each with its own unique beliefs, taboos, and brand loyalties? How have powerful chemical compounds for chronic diseases, once controlled by physicians, become substances we feel entitled to, whether we need them or not? How did we come to hate drug companies but love their pills?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Maize's early days

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I write about two papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting the earliest known evidence for maize (aka corn) in the Americas. A team led by Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and Anthony Ranere of Temple University in Philadelphia dated microscopic maize fragments to 8700 years ago, found at the Xihuatoxtla Shelter in the Balsas River valley (pictured at right.)

The link is free for four weeks from today, so please give it a read. The photo in the inset depicts the unappetizing wild ancestor of maize, teosinte, which eventually was domesticated and took on the form we eat today (the yellow ear pictured is a genetic reconstruction, from crossing teosinte with modern maize, of what the earliest maize might have looked like.)

Photo credits: (rock) Anthony Ranere; (teosinte/maize) John Doebley

No doubt about Mt. Redoubt. Wow, now that the eruption is causing havoc and cancelled flights in Alaska, I will bet Governor Sarah Palin is pretty peeved with Bobby Jindal's dissing of volcano research right about now, right? Right?

When university journalism profs do their job too well. They don't get tenure. That's what happened to Christina Kopinski at Clark College in Washington state, anyway.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Toxic assets clearinghouse

This is great, the federal government is going to offload all those toxic assets we keep reading about. I'm figuring, since they are worth so little, the feds will offer little people like you and me top dollar to take them off their hands, kind of like volunteering for medical experiments or donating blood or allowing nuclear wastes in our neighborhood. This has got to be a great way to make some extra money for those of us who have been hit hard by the financial crisis, and...

Sorry, what's that you say? Oh. Never mind!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Has the country moved to the left of Obama?

Probably not, and I doubt that I have to prompt many visitors to this blog to read Frank Rich's column, but today's installment makes me wonder if Obama has not at the very least misjudged and underestimated the national mood (ie, the national anger) over the blatant robbery of U.S. taxpayers being carried out by AIG et al. It used to be that such shenanigans were executed behind closed doors; these days, corporate America carries out its corporate crimes right out in the open, in the light of day. That's how arrogant and self-confident they have become, even as the houses of cards they built are falling all around them (and the rest of us.)

And who is in charge of Obama's plan to turn the economy around? Two people right out of the culture that created the crisis in the first place, as Rich points out in his column entitled "Has a 'Katrina Moment' Arrived?":

The “dirty little secret,” Obama told Leno on Thursday, is that “most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal.” An even dirtier secret is that a prime mover in keeping that stuff legal was Summers, who helped torpedo the regulation of derivatives while in the Clinton administration. His mentor Robert Rubin, no less, wrote in his 2003 memoir that Summers underestimated how the risk of derivatives might multiply “under extraordinary circumstances.”

Given that Summers worked for a secretive hedge fund, D. E. Shaw, after he was pushed out of Harvard’s presidency at the bubble’s height, you have to wonder how he can now sell the administration’s plan for buying up toxic assets with the help of hedge funds. It will look like another giveaway to his own insiders’ club. As for Geithner, people might take him more seriously if he gave a credible account of why, while at the New York Fed, he and the Goldman alumnus Hank Paulson let Lehman Brothers fail but saved the Goldman-trading ally A.I.G.

When folks on the left began attacking Obama even before he took office for nominating such characters to his cabinet, I and many other defended the president-elect, saying basically that lefties needed to build a movement--ie, put up--or stop criticizing--ie, shut up. Well, the movement seems to have arrived, even if it is mostly spontaneous and not very well organized. Yes, this is the "populist" anger the media is telling us about. That is mediaspeak code for class warfare, and class warfare is a left perspective--like it or not and call it what you will. And yes, Virginia, there are social classes in the United States of America. We need more class warfare, not less, but no worries, it won't split American society down the middle. The rich, after all, are just a small fraction of the population, even if they continue to hold onto power even in an Obama administration. Our new president must be judged on how willing he is to cut them loose (oh, that goes for the health insurance industry parasites too, since opinion polls show that the majority of Americans, including the majority of doctors, favor a single payer plan.)

Barry Blitt/New York Times

Trouble in Afghanistan. Once again the U.S. military and Afghan officials disagree about whether a raid killed "militants" or civilians, according to a report in Monday's New York Times. Can anyone recall an episode where the U.S. turned out to be right?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Israeli soldiers say army rabbis framed Gaza as religious war

That's the headline of an online McClatchy Newspapers story by Cliff Churgin. This is a followup to testimony by Israel soldiers who "served" in Gaza reported by the daily Ha'aretz, which I have commented on previously.

Churgin writes:

Rabbis affiliated with the Israeli army urged troops heading into Gaza to reclaim what they said was God-given land and "get rid of the gentiles" — effectively turning the 22-day Israeli intervention into a religious war, according to the testimony of a soldier who fought in Gaza.

Literature passed out to soldiers by the army's rabbinate "had a clear message — we are the people of Israel, we came by a miracle to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, now we need to struggle to get rid of the gentiles that are interfering with our conquest of the land," the soldier told a forum of Gaza veterans in mid-February, just weeks after the conflict ended.

I'm beginning to think it's a good thing that right-wing racist/nationalist Avigdor Lieberman is likely to be foreign minister in a Netanyahu-led government. The world needs to see the true face of Israeli intentions, and the Obama administration needs a good excuse for changing America's coddling, indulgent policy towards the "Jewish state."

Christopher Hitchens weighs in on the rabbis. A good piece in Slate.

Zionism is the problem. I had been meaning to link to this opinion piece by Ben Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Times several days ago, but better late than never. I find it very encouraging that such things can now be printed in the mainstream media; it is only very recently that it has become possible, as Israeli actions are too much for honest Jews to bear.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tempest in a rice bowl

Continuing with Science Friday: In today's print issue of Science, I also report on a paper by Dorian Fuller of Universal College London and Chinese colleagues on the timing and pace of rice domestication, which has been one of archaeology's hot-button controversies for a long time. The link will only give you a summary of the story unless you subscribe to Science or have online access, but here are few excerpts from my piece:

Rice is delicious, nutritious, and the primary staple for about half of the world's population. Most researchers agree that humanity's close relationship with the grain (Oryza sativa) began thousands of years ago in China's Yangtze River valley, but they have sharply debated when prehistoric farmers began domesticating wild rice and how long they took to do it. On page 1607 of this issue, archaeologists argue that rice remains from a 7000-year-old site in the Yangtze delta point to a later and slower domestication than has often been claimed.

What is the evidence?

The new data come from the site of Tianluoshan, just inland from Hangzhou Bay, south of Shanghai. Excavations between 2004 and 2007 revealed the wooden posts of buildings from a prehistoric village, along with boat paddles, stone axes, and thousands of plant remains. A team led by archaeologist Dorian Fuller of University College London and dig director Guo-Ping Sun of the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in the city of Hangzhou analyzed some 24,000 plant remains from the site, including about 2600 rice spikelets, which are attached to the stalk and carry the edible grain. In wild rice, the spikelets ripen and then fall to the ground naturally, allowing the plant to reproduce. But domesticated varieties require human action, such as threshing, to tear the spikelets from the stalk. Archaeologists can often tell the difference: The bases of wild spikelets have a smooth scar where they were attached to the plant, whereas domesticated spikelets have uneven scars from being torn off.

The team focused on three archaeological levels spanning 6900 to 6600 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating of rice and other plant remains. (All dates are in calibrated calendar years.) Over that 300-year period, domesticated spikelets increased from 27.4% of the total to 38.8%; over the same time, rice increased from 8% to 24% of the total plant remains, which came from more than 50 species including wild acorns and water chestnuts. Fuller and his colleagues conclude that domestication was a slow process still under way 6600 years ago, and that the villagers of Tianluoshan relied heavily on wild plants--such as wild rice and acorns--at that late date.

Not everyone agrees, and I go on to quote other researchers who think that these conclusions are premature, and who also point to evidence that rice might have been domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago--eg at the site of Shangshan, about 150 kilometers southwest of Tianluoshan.

So think about all this next time you go for sushi--unless, of course, you don't care when rice was domesticated as long as the job got done.

Music makes the world go 'round

It's Science Friday, and what better way to end the week than with a musical interlude--musical research interlude, that is. Today in Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a study that suggests the ability to detect emotional expression in musical pieces is universal. That's Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany in the photo. He is playing happy, sad, and scary music (by Western standards) to the Mafa people, an isolated ethnic group in the Cameroon many of whom have never heard a radio or listened to Western music in any way. They still do pretty well detecting what emotions are being expressed. The study supports the idea that music is the result of Darwininan evolution, perhaps because it helped cement group solidarity or improved our ability to communicate emotional states.

You can read the entire story here, the link is free for four weeks from today.

Photo credit: Thomas Fritz.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

War crimes in Gaza: Israeli soldiers speak

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz has begun publishing an explosive series of articles based on testimony from Israeli soldiers about the brutal killings and wanton destruction they carried out in Gaza. One article today begins as follows:

During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive.

The soldiers are graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon. Some of their statements made on Feb. 13 will appear Thursday and Friday in Haaretz. Dozens of graduates of the course who took part in the discussion fought in the Gaza operation.

The speakers included combat pilots and infantry soldiers. Their testimony runs counter to the Israel Defense Forces' claims that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation. The session's transcript was published this week in the newsletter for the course's graduates.

In reaction to the Ha'aretz articles (be sure to check the paper in the days to come) the Israeli Defense Forces quickly announced that it was "investigating." The paper quotes defense minister Ehud Barak (who was one of the most gung-ho Israeli leaders during the assault on Gaza):

"We have the most moral army in the world," Barak told Israel Radio. "I spent dozens of years in uniform, I know what happened in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I say to you that from the chief of staff down to the last soldier, the most moral army in the world stands ready to take orders from the government of Israel. I have no doubt that every incident will be individually examined."

Update: The scandal over the soldiers' testimony is so serious that even the New York Times has picked up the story.

More background from Ha'aretz. In Friday's edition.

Meanwhile, Israel clamps down harder on Gaza
. The Israeli NGO Gisha reports on the latest restrictions on movements of goods into the territory.

The secrets of cassoulet.

A friend tipped me off to a story about cassoulet, the great southwestern French dish, in Slate, by Katherine Lanpher. The piece is pretty well informed, except when it says that a cassoulet should be topped with a bread-crumb crust: This is a no-no for all authentic cassoulets except possibly the version from Carcassonne (one of three cassoulet cities, together with Castelnaudary and Toulouse.)

I know about these things because I am the only American chevalier (knight) in the Great Brotherhood of the Cassoulet of Castelnaudary. The story of how I joined the brotherhood is told in an article in Saveur magazine that Lanpher links to right at the end of her piece, which I wrote several years ago, entitled "Searching for the Secrets of Cassoulet." I did not realize that it was available online until I read Lanpher's article, but it is well worth checking out if for no other reason than that it provides the authentic, Brotherhood-approved recipe for the cassoulet of Castelnaudary (the second of the two recipes provided, which is also at this link.)

With thanks to JML for alerting me to the Slate article.

Photo: Jean-Luc Barde for Saveur.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bullshit, bullshit, and more bullshit

Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system. But how else to respond to the protests of Republicans, who have banded together to try to defeat every one of Obama's major initiatives, that the president is not acting in a bipartisan manner? Bipartisanship has been tried and failed; time for the steamroller.

Photo: Sen. Judd Gregg called the administration's push for a budget shortcut the opposite of bipartisanship--Washington Post (Susan Walsh - AP)

Gaza solidarity at Sheffield University. Read about it here.

Humor department. Q: What's the difference between ignorance and indifference? A: I don't know and I don't care.

AIG outrage. The latest, in Thursday's Los Angeles Times, that Bush's Treasury department cut a sweetheart deal with taxpayer money.

Courage to Resist

As we all know by now, the Bush administration lied the United States into a war of choice in Iraq. Many Americans were hoodwinked into believing the lies, but many were not. Among them are young men and women who refused to go to Iraq, some of whom now seek refuge in Canada.

The organization Courage to Resist has news of the impending deportation from Canada of Kimberly Rivera, one of those war resisters. Here is a little of her story:

Kimberly was the first woman service member to seek refuge through the Canadian government. In January of 2007, while home from an Iraqi deployment she decided she could no longer, in good conscience, participate in the war and occupation taking place in Iraq. At that point she went to Canada with her husband and two young children. In November of 2008, the family grew when Kimberly had a new daughter, Canadian-born Katie.

Please check out the link and lend your support. And when these resisters do come home, let's be sure that the administration of President Barack Obama--who was among the first to see the war in Iraq for what it really was--drops any desertion charges against them.

Photo: Kimberly Rivera

The real AIG scandal. Read it and weep, at Slate. And what about the sacrificing auto workers, asks Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times? And how about perp walks instead of bonuses, suggests Robert Scheer on Truthdig.

Conservatives say racism is over. Okay, so we elect one half-Black guy to do the hardest job in the country and these bozos think we can forget the last 400 years. LOL!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jean Seberg, the Los Angeles Times, and the FBI

The Los Angeles Times Opinion page today carries a must-read piece by former Times staffer Allan Jalon about a smear the paper printed back in 1970 that was concocted by the FBI. Jalon's piece is prompted by the death of Times editor Jim Bellows last week, and points out that the paper's obituary of Bellows neglected to discuss what Bellows considered the worst mistake of his career: Allowing gossip columnist Joyce Haber to write a piece alleging that Seberg was pregnant not by her husband, French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, but a member of the Black Panthers. After Seberg lost the baby, she went into a psychological tailspin that ended in her death from an overdose of barbituates.

The rumor, as we have known since the 1970s, was planted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI as a way of getting back at Seberg for her political activities. Jalon points out that the anonymous tip was given to one of the Times' other editors, Bill Thomas, who passed it to Bellows who then passed it to Haber--who reported it without checking it out.

While a staff writer at the Times, Jalon worked on two stories in 2002 about the affair, and the Times of course deserves credit for printing them, as well as Jalon's new piece. But the paper obviously suffered a journalistic lapse when it failed to mention the episode in Bellows' obituary. As Jalon now says:

I find it ironic that The Times, after going to such lengths to explore the record of an egregious journalistic event that shadowed it for decades, should now turn around and act as if it never happened.

PS--Be sure to read the Time magazine story I link to above, which includes the following passage:

Haber insisted last week that her source for the column was not the FBI but "a journalist" whom she would not name. Said Haber: "I am beginning to wonder who my best friends are. Obviously, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have printed the item. It's absolutely shocking and appalling. I can now have no trust in anybody."

Madoff: How I Did It

Talking Points Memo does us the service of reproducing Madoff's statement to the court after pleading guilty to investment fraud. It's worth reading in full. But here is one key paragraph:

To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early 1990s. At that time, the country was in a recession and this posed a problem for investments in the securities markets. Nevertheless, I had received investment commitments from certain institutional clients and understood that those clients, like all professional investors, expected to see their investments out-perform the market. While I never promised a specific rate of return to any client, I felt compelled to satisfy my clients' expectations, at any cost. I therefore claimed that I employed an investment strategy I had developed, called a "split strike conversion strategy," to falsely give the appearance to clients that I had achieved the results I believed they expected.

Madoff is right that "all professional investors" expect to see their investments "out-perform" the stocks and bonds markets, and in fact investors of all stripes have this same desire. (As if the market had not already done very well over the past two decades!) I hate to have to keep dragging Karl Marx into this, but just how do investors think it is possible to take a certain amount of capital and transform it into a greater amount of capital, without the investor actually doing any work him or herself to make it happen? In the "legitimate" stock market, it happens when corporations keep wages and benefits low enough to make profits off of the labor of their workers. In the fantasy investment market run by people like Madoff, and indulged in by his large coterie of suckers, this kind of normal, everyday exploitation is not good enough. No, returns have to be even higher. Mutual fund managers, for example, have been able to outperform the market in some cases by "smart" investing--ie, picking winners and avoiding losers--but they, too, are not looking all that smart these days.

As I said in my previous post on Madoff, it all comes down to wanting something for nothing. And now Americans are losing all that "wealth" they thought they had, but really didn't, at a staggering rate. Or, I should say, many Americans are losing it. Many others never had it in the first place, despite working harder all their lives than "professional investors" could ever imagine doing. Might there be a connection?

Uncle Bernie and the Jews. If you have not already, be sure to read this piece by Joseph Epstein that appeared in Newsweek last January. Many wealthy and prominent Jews were victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme, but in a way they were also co-conspirators in the kind of mentality that Madoff preyed upon--the idea that some people are special, and deserve special treatment, special favors, and special rewards. As Epstein implies, Jewish tribalism cuts both ways: It plays a protective role for a group that has historically been persecuted, but it also makes Jews vulnerable to dangerous illusions. Here is my favorite paragraph from Epstein's article:

Madoff's handiwork might also not have been altogether without purpose if it eliminates a number of the trust funds wealthy Jewish parents, usually acting on the advice of savvy lawyers looking for tax loopholes, have conferred upon their children. The few young Jewish men I have known who have trust funds, making life all too easy, have somehow along the way lost both their Jewishness and, by not working for a living, their edge. It is one thing to live on your investments; it is quite another to live on the investments of money you yourself never earned.

Madoff had accomplices: His victims. So says Joe Nocera in a perceptive piece in Saturday's New York Times. A key paragraph:

At a panel a month ago, put together by Portfolio magazine, Mr. Wiesel expressed, better than I’ve ever heard it, why people gave Mr. Madoff their money. “I remember that it was a myth that he created around him,” Mr. Wiesel said, “that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret. It was like a mystical mythology that nobody could understand.” Mr. Wiesel added: “He gave the impression that maybe 100 people belonged to the club. Now we know thousands of them were cheated by him.”

Bonus video

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bernie Madoff, Slumdog Billionaire

It looks like Madoff has a good chance of being sentenced to the slammer for what will probably end up being the rest of his life tomorrow. At least, one can hope so. But as wiser minds than mine have pointed out, Madoff's Ponzi scheme is really just a symptom--albeit a whopping, $50 billion one--of the kind of fantasy world that investors, stockbrokers, and other financial "wizards" have been living in for the past decades. The fantasy, to put it simply, is that you can get something for nothing, that there is a free lunch, that money grows on trees--you get the idea.

Much as I enjoyed "Slumdog Millionaire" as entertainment, a great part of its popularity is no doubt linked to the fact that it tells a fantasy story, about a guy who goes on a TV game show, and, surprise surprise, wins! Yes, free money! No wonder it won an Oscar.

And nearly all of us have been suckered by this idea at one point or another. Real estate prices that keep rising? Hedge funds that keep paying high dividends? Even the economists fooled themselves into thinking that wealth can be created out of thin air. No wonder Madoff had such an easy time suckering people for so long.

I see a silver lining in the collapse of economies worldwide, despite all the suffering it will cause in the short run. We all have a chance to build societies and economies based on reality rather than pipe dreams, and a chance to reorganize our lives around the things that are truly valuable. Do we really need to drive shiny new cars? No? Then let the auto industry go bankrupt and let's find other, more worthwhile things to build and buy. Just for starters.

By the way, I have been meaning to mention, if you don't already know, that the best and most astute commentaries about economics and the current crisis are to be found on Doug Henwood's weekly radio program "Behind the News," which airs on at least two Pacifica stations. Best thing to do is subscribe to the podcast. Doug has long been editor of Left Business Observer, and believe me, at this point in history, left voices are the only ones worth listening to.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan... Journalists are under attack by the government that U.S. taxpayers are paying for.

I'm shocked! Shocked! To read that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are not going to get married after all.

When the Israel lobby operates behind the scenes, is it still the Israel lobby? Lots of links and insights on the Freeman fiasco, and thoughts on anonymous sources, from the ever relevant Glenn Greenwald.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yet another argument for single payer health insurance

According to today's Los Angeles Times:

The Department of Managed Health Care declines to require carriers to pay for applied behavior analysis, an expensive therapy that insurers contend is an educational service, not medicine.

By Lisa Girion

March 10, 2009

California regulators said Monday that insurers must provide speech, occupational and physical therapies to their autistic members but rejected pleas to require insurers to cover the cost of behavior therapy that aims to help patients live in society.

At issue is so-called applied behavior analysis, a therapy that teaches patients skills such as self-feeding and stopping injurious behaviors such as head banging. The therapy can cost as much as $70,000 a year per patient.

Parents of children with autism have argued in lawsuits and in complaints to regulators that insurers, by refusing to pay for an array of autism care, are ignoring the Mental Health Parity Act. The 2000 state law requires insurers to treat mental conditions the same as medical conditions.

Yes, being able to feed oneself and avoiding banging one's head against the wall are hardly medical issues, are they? At least not in the eyes of private health insurance companies. The best way to reform health care is to put those who stand in the way of people getting it out of business.

Can we talk? (about Israel's oppressive polices?) It's looking better all the time. Glenn Greenwald reports on the latest, including Roger Cohen's strong criticisms of the Jewish state.

Duck, that chimp is mad!

Humans are mental time travelers: We remember what we thought and felt in the past, and we anticipate what we might be thinking and feeling in the future. So we go food shopping when we are not hungry because we know we will be hungry later, and we put a box of tissues next to us when we start watching a sad movie because we know we might cry.

But do non-human animals do similar things? Researchers are divided on the question, and the evidence is ambiguous. But what might be the closest thing yet to a smoking gun is reported this week in the journal Current Biology. I report on the paper on Science's online news service ScienceNOW (the link is free for four weeks from publication.)

Here's the first paragraph of my story, please read the rest for more details:

In 1997, at the Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden, a male chimpanzee named Santino began throwing stones at zoo visitors. Although Santino was clearly agitated each time, as evidenced by his forceful stomping around the compound and hair standing on end, the chimp didn't just grab the first thing he saw and launch it. Rather, observations over the past decade have shown that Santino spends the mornings before the zoo opens gathering the stones and organizing them into neat piles as a sort of ammunition store. The chimp's preparation suggests that apes can plan for future mental states--in this case anger--a cognitive talent once thought to be unique to humans.

Photo: Santino and one of his ammunition stores/Mathias Osvath, Current Biology

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"I killed my baby."

I think I have a pretty good idea about who is going to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism this year. That would be Gene Weingarten, whose story about parents who accidentally killed their children by forgetting them in the backseat of their cars appears in today's Washington Post Magazine. Weingarten's story is compassionate but unsentimental, wrenching and moving while avoiding all sensationalism, and above all, nonjudgmental--just as, after reading this piece, we should be about the people who are now punishing themselves more than any court could do (yes, most were either not charged or found not guilty when they were.)

Read it, but be sure to have plenty of tissues near by. It could have happened to you--and don't fool yourself into thinking that it couldn't have.

Photo: Lyn Balfour, who left her 9 month old son Bryce in her car while it was parked at her place of work./Lisa Provence

Catholic pedaphile ring strikes again

I see that the Vatican has endorsed the excommunication of the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who had an abortion in Brazil after being raped. No word yet about the rapist being excommunicated. But then, abuse of children is not a major sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Glenn Greenwald Saturday

As many readers know, the most astute and principled commentator on the "war on terror" efforts of both the Bush and Obama adminstrations, and the Constitutional issues raised by them, is Glenn Greenwald. So once again I can do no better than simply and humbly link to his Salon post today, entitled:

Preventing a judicial ruling on the power to imprison without charges.

At issue is whether the President of the United States can throw someone in jail, even an American citizen, without charging him or her and without providing the detainee access to a lawyer. We know what Bush's position was; Obama still seems to be working his out, despite his campaign promises. Nevertheless, Greenwald does find some positive steps in the administration's latest move.

The torture of Binyam Mohamed. With American and British involvement.

Catholic pedaphile ring strikes again. I see that the Vatican has endorsed the excommunication of the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who had an abortion in Brazil after being raped. No word yet about the rapist being excommunicated. But abuse of children is not a major sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Science Friday

Every Friday, whenever possible, we will be featuring the latest scientific news. Here's this week's installment.

Expert On Anteaters Wasted Entire Life Studying Anteaters

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Gaza: "Closed Zone"

This is a short animated film, called "Closed Zone," by Yoni Goodman, director of animation for Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir" (also a superb film if you have not already seen it.) It was made in collaboration with the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which fights for freedom of movement for the people of Gaza. More details about the film can be found at this link.

Criticism of Israel grows on U.S. college campuses. A good roundup of recent events and activities from

Gaza home destruction "wanton." Amnesty International accuses Israel.

Bad news for science journalism
. The Boston Globe's Monday Health/Science section is no more, after more than 25 years. Christine Russell reports and comments in the Columbia Journalism Review's online "Observatory." I just visited the paper's stellar team with my Boston University students last semester, guess we were witnesses to history. Science and health coverage will continue in other sections of the paper, and the staff is trying to put a bright face on things, but this is not good at all. It leaves the New York Times Science Times as one of the few remaining dedicated science sections in the USA.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is criticizing Obama "playing into the hands of" the right wing?

From time to time, we've had discussions on this blog's Comments section about whether or not President Barack Obama should be directly criticized for some of his policies; and on one or two other list serves that I participate in, I have been similarly chastised for criticisms I have made of the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela on the grounds that they "play into the hands of" U.S. imperialism.

George Orwell, the greatest political commentator of all time, had some wise words about "playing into the hands of the enemy" in his "As I Please" column for the Tribune, which ran during 1944-45. Here is an excerpt from his column of June 9, 1944. I think it is still relevant today.

A phrase much used in political circles in this country is ‘playing into the hands of’. It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are ‘playing into the hands of some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.

For example, if you say anything damaging about British imperialism, you are playing into the hands of Dr Goebbels. If you criticize Stalin you are playing into the hands of the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. If you criticize Chiang Kai-Shek you are playing into the hands of Wang Ching-Wei — and so on, indefinitely.

Objectively this charge is often true. It is always difficult to attack one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other. Some of Gandhi's remarks have been very useful to the Japanese. The extreme Tories will seize on anything anti-Russian, and don't necessarily mind if it comes from Trotskyist instead of right-wing sources. The American imperialists, advancing to the attack behind a smoke-screen of novelists, are always on the look-out for any disreputable detail about the British Empire. And if you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums?

Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter, because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War, for instance, the dissensions on the Government side were never properly thrashed out in the left-wing press, although they involved fundamental points of principle. To discuss the struggle between the Communists and the Anarchists, you were told, would simply give the Daily Mail the chance to say that the Reds were all murdering one another. The only result was that the left-wing cause as a whole was weakened. The Daily Mail may have missed a few horror stories because people held their tongues, but some all-important lessons were not learned, and we are suffering from the fact to this day.

Five Days on the Digital Dirt Road. That's the title of a new multimedia report just released by, an organization devoted to making broadband available to everyone--ie, closing the "digital divide."

Israel plans massive increase in West Bank housing, potentially doubling the number of settlers

A report by the Israeli group Peace Now, based on Israeli government documents, concludes that the Ministry of Construction and Housing is planning to build more than 73,000 housing units in the West Bank. If the plan is enacted--and some of it already has been--it would double the number of settlers in the occupied territories. Here are the main findings:

• Total number of housing units in the published plans – 73,302, out of which, 5,722 are in East Jerusalem
• Total number of housing units in approved plans – 15,156, approx. 8,950 of which have already been built.
• Total number of housing units in planning stages – 58,146.
• If all the plans are realized, the number of settlers in the Territories will be doubled (an addition of approx. 300,000 persons, based upon an average of 4 persons in each housing unit).
• In Gush Etzion (Bethlehem area) 17,000 housing units are planned in areas outside the existing settlements.
• At least six (6) outposts are included in the Ministry of Housing plans (Magen Dan, Givat Hadagan, Givat Hatamar, Bnei Adam, Bat Ayin West, Hill 26).
• There are plans for huge construction to double the size of some settlements, including: Beitar Illit, Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Maaleh Adumim, Efrat and Geva Binyamin.
• Approx. 19,000 housing units are planned in settlements that are beyond the constructed path of the Fence (Kiryat Arba, Karnei Shomron, Ariel, Geva Binyamin, Immanuel, Revava).
• The plans in the settlements constitute 22% of the total housing units that are in planning stages in the Ministry of Housing.

The report has received little coverage in the mainsteam U.S. media, although it has been covered in Israel, a country whose citizens are much more honest about their real motivations than their defenders in the United States. Those motivations? To push the Palestinians onto ever smaller parcels of land on which to build their "state."

As the French daily Le Monde points out, in its own story on the Peace Now report, part of the Israeli strategy is to close the gap between the huge "settlement" (actually a full-sized city) of Maaleh Adumim and East Jerusalem, where Jewish settlement activity is also very active. This would have the effect of cutting the West Bank in two and insuring that the Palestinians are even more restricted to fragmented Bantusans reminiscent of South African apartheid. It would also greatly restrict Palestinian access to Jerusalem itself.

This is, and has been since 1967, the Israeli plan. The question now is whether Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will go along with it. I would like to think that the Obama administration is giving Israel just enough rope to hang itself; but for that to work, the Palestinians have to be very, very smart. And that means not creating any distractions that would cloud Israeli motivations, such as launching rockets into Israel from Gaza. There has never been more sympathy for the Palestinians in the world, and there has never been a better time to expose Israel's game plan to take over all of the West Bank. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The names of the dead

As the death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq falls, it is rising among GI's serving in Afghanistan (and also among Afghan civilians.) But the names of the dead are largely hidden in the back pages of the New York Times, and the sacrifices that they and their families have made have fallen off the radar screens of most Americans.

Indeed, it is amazing how little public debate there has been about the Obama adminstration's military strategy for Afghanistan, which could lead to a disaster as large or larger than that in Iraq and with possibly even greater consequences for the region (the theater of war includes nuclear-armed Pakistan, of course.) Iraq was George W. Bush's Vietnam; will Afghanistan be Barack Obama's Iraq?

Meanwhile, from page A10 of the Times:

The Department of Defense has identified 4,246 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war and 652 who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations. It confirmed the deaths of the following Americans last week:


CONNELLY, Brian M., 26, Specialist, Army; Union Beach, N.J.; First Armored Division.


BUNTING, Brian M., 29, Capt., Army; Potomac, Md.; 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

PATCH, Schuyler B., 25, Sgt., Army; Owasso, Okla.; 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

STREAM, Scott B., 39, Sgt., Army; Mattoon, Ill.; 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

THOMPSON, Daniel J., 24, Sgt., Army; Madison, Wis.; 715th Military Police Company.

A version of this article appeared in print on March 3, 2009, on page A10 of the New York edition.

What's the strategy in Afghanistan?Bob Herbert asks that question in the New York Times today. No one seems to have the answer, not even our Secretary of Defense. Herbert suggests that President Obama take a look back at the legacy of Lyndon Johnson.