Thursday, April 30, 2009

Greetings from paradise

My blogging has been intermittent the past week because I was between Paris, Boston, and Santa Cruz, California, where I am now. At least once each year, I visit a group of friends in this town by the sea (who shall remain nameless, lest their reputations be tarnished by being publicly associated with me.)

When I visit, I stay with a friend who is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who built his own wooden house on a bluff overlooking the sea. Here is the view from his terrace, the sea is a little faint in the distance but you get the idea.

I'm working on some interesting stories for Science and other publications, which I will be telling you about soon, and the world of politics continues to be outrageous enough that I will be back to commenting on it very soon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hope in the Middle East? Read Roger Cohen.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has really been ripping into the obfuscations of Israeli leaders lately, and he does it again today with a very interesting piece focusing on Hillary Clinton's recent experiences on the West Bank. It is hard to accuse either the Times or Cohen of anti-semitism (a last name like Cohen provides a bullet-proof shield against such charges, although there is still the disgusting and intellectually dishonest charge of "self-hating Jew" to be thrown around.)

I think that Clinton has always understood the real situation in Israel and Palestine, although her opportunistic chasing after the Israel lobby and currying favor with what she assumed was majority Jewish opinion has kept her from playing a positive role in the Middle East debate. Until now, that is, according to Cohen:

The criticism of the center-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come from an unlikely source: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s transitioned with aplomb from the calculation of her interests that she made as a senator from New York to a cool assessment of U.S. interests. These do not always coincide with Israel’s.

I hear that Clinton was shocked by what she saw on her visit last month to the West Bank. This is not surprising. The transition from Israel’s first-world hustle-bustle to the donkeys, carts and idle people beyond the separation wall is brutal. If Clinton cares about one thing, it’s human suffering.

In fact, you don’t so much drive into the Palestinian territories these days as sink into them. Everything, except the Jewish settlers’ cars on fenced settlers-only highways, slows down. The buzz of business gives way to the clunking of hammers.

The whole desolate West Bank scene is punctuated with garrison-like settlements on hilltops. If you’re looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start.

Most Israelis never see this, unless they’re in the army. Clinton witnessed it. She was, I understand, troubled by the humiliation around her.

Now, she has warned Netanyahu to get off “the sidelines” with respect to Palestinian peace efforts. Remember that the Israeli prime minister and his right-wing Likud party have still not accepted even the theory of a two-state solution.

Read the whole article. I hope Cohen is right; but most importantly, he is a new and important voice for the kind of even-handed American policy towards the Middle East that we desperately need.

Photo of Roger Cohen: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Arrest Dick Cheney now!

It's too late to impeach Cheney, but why is he still walking the streets? I don't know about where you live, but here in Massachussetts the statute of limitations for crimes such as armed robbery is 10 years. If someone robbed a liquor store five years ago and then talked about it on Oprah, would the government say, oh, that's in the past, we need to turn the page?

Well, there is no statute of limitation on war crimes, and in recent weeks Dick Cheney has repeatedly confessed his knowledge of, and approval of, the torture of terror suspects (I won't insult your intelligence by providing the links, because readers of this blog pay attention to the news.)

Even if his lawyers could claim he wasn't really in the chain of command, I am sure there are plenty of legal theories that would make him an accomplice and co-conspirator. Or at least, shouldn't someone be trying them out? It's one thing to make excuses, as President Obama and Attorney General Holder have done, for CIA personnel who supposedly operated under "terrific stress" and were only following orders as they tried to prevent another 9/11 (although international law does not recognize such excuses.) It is another thing altogether to have a former vice-president pretty much dare the Obama Justice Department to indict him for war crimes by confessing to them publicly every chance he gets.

But there are still those who think that the law is only for people like you and me and armed robbers who hold up liquor stores to feed their families or their drug addictions. Chief among them seem to be our political commentators, who, in a seemingly endless series of what I called "thumbsuckers" in the previous post, are trying to sound tough on accountability while opposing holding anyone truly accountable. In today's Los Angeles Times, for example, Doyle McManus, in an opinion piece entitled "Examining torture in the Bush era," takes just such a position. After much ruminating about whether torture was "effective" or not, McManus ends as follows:

The central question today isn't whether some CIA contractors overstepped the blurry lines of their rule book, or whether a few pliable lawyers in the Justice Department produced legal opinions to satisfy their bosses. We know they did. Now we need to ask why the government was unable to correct an erroneous course for seven years, except when the Supreme Court forced it to -- and then only minimally. We don't need criminal prosecutions; we need public accountability at the top. Starting, for example, with public testimony from Dick Cheney.

Now just what kind of "accountability" are we demanding from Cheney? Public testimony before a Congressional panel, and then letting him return to Wyoming to hunt and fish and live the good life with all the millions of dollars he has stocked away over the years? For Cheney, such an appearance would be just another chance to justify his conduct. Why not let him do it in a courtroom before a judge and jury instead?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

If Jay Bybee has regrets he should say so publicly

The Washington Post carries an interesting, albeit ultimately unsatisfying, article about torture memo author Jay Bybee's apparent private regrets about helping to provide cover for the Bush administration's illegal interrogations of terrorism suspects. The story quotes so many of Bybee's friends and associates to the effect that Bybee regrets either the memo itself or the way it was used (I count a total of six such sources, all but two anonymous) that it would be a reasonable hypothesis to assume Bybee either put them up to it or privately approved their talking to the press.

If so, Bybee's attitude makes a stark contrast to that of John Yoo, who has vociferously defended the memos--so much so that he might find himself under even more fire at UC Berkeley when he tries to return there from his sabbatical at Chapman University's law school.

But pushing your friends out there to make your excuses for you is just another example of the kind of moral cowardice we see so much of lately; it was typified by Colin Powell's becoming an anonymous source for so many journalists in recent years, without having the courage to publicly state that he had hitched his wagon to a disastrous foreign policy (his endorsement of Barack Obama, and his explanations for why he was doing so, was as close as he ever got.)

If Bybee does have regrets, it is particularly important that he express them publicly now (and what is to stop him? Federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, give speeches all the time) at a time when Dick Cheney and the flapping heads at most media outlets are right now discussing whether or not torture was "effective," when the Geneva Conventions say it is always illegal whether it is "effective" or not.

The next thing you know, some people will be advocating overturning the Supreme Court's Miranda decision on the grounds that when police beat up suspects they sometimes get true confessions out of them. What's that you say? Some people are already arguing that?

Jay Bybee, this is your moment. Make us proud of you, speak it loud, and I promise not to sign any more petitions for your impeachment.

Image:Jay Bybee/Think Progress.

Afterthought. When a reporter does this kind of story--and we see them often--it would be a service to the readers to give them some sort of hint about how the article originated. Did the reporter (Karl Vick) approach Bybee's friends and associates, or did some of them approach him? We need to be able to judge how much a journalist might have been manipulated by his sources.

Another thumbsucker on the "effectiveness" issue. Again in the Washington Post, for Sunday. You know, nearly every government that tortures people cites the exact same excuses, national emergency, the fight against terrorism, etc. I guess when a "democracy" tortures that is okay, or at the least we can have a democratic debate over whether torture was "justified" once we find out all the details. Is it old-fashioned to say that when something is both morally and legally wrong you just don't do it no matter what the "justification"? Oh, and that goes for the militants who will torture and behead Americans they capture and kidnap, and who will now feel even more "justification" for the torture that they commit because of the torture we commited. Even a lunkhead like John McCain understood that.

More on torture's effectiveness. Here is a somewhat better and more relevant article from Sunday's Los Angeles Times, by Greg Miller, which points out that CIA officials never seriously evaluated whether torture was "effective" at all compared to other interrogation methods. If not, then the statements today of folks like Cheney on down can be discounted (in other words, they are total bullshit.) So was the Bush administration simply on some sort of revenge kick for 9/11? That's a cool way to make policy, dude!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back in Boston

I'm back in Beantown for several days, before heading to the West Coast for the month of May. So look for more frequent comments on the American political scene, some nice travel photos, the usual science blogging, and perhaps a few surprises. Things are off to a good start: That's the sun I see outside my window in Chestnut Hill.

Stop attacks on researchers who work with animals. Speaking of the West Coast, my colleague Greg Miller, a correspondent for Science based way out there, covered a rally on the UCLA campus (my alma mater) in support of biomedical research. Click the link to check out his report on our ScienceInsider policy blog.

Save the Globe! The Boston Globe, that is. They've already deep-sixed the Monday health and science section and now the New York Times Company, which owns it, is thinking about pulling the plug on the whole operation. A solidarity site can be found here along with a petition to sign.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Hobbit meets its public

A cast of Homo floresiensis is on display during a conference on the diminutive species at Stony Brook University entitled “Hobbits in the Haystack.” I hope to have more news about this meeting soon, but note that you can watch a live Webcast beginning 9:30 am today EDT.

Photo: Stony Brook University.

The Israel lobby in action

During the first 24 hour news cycle on allegations that Representative Jane Harman of California was trading favors with the Israel lobby over the case of Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman--former analysts for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), aka The Israel Lobby, who were indicted for spying for Israel--the focus has been largely on Harman and the possibility that she engaged in unethical and quite possibly illegal behavior. Assuming that news leaks of wiretaps allegedly catching Harman in the act are accurate, she could be in considerable trouble both politically and legally.

But the episode (again, if reports are accurate) is also very revealing about how the Israel lobby operates. According to the Times report I link to above:

The official with access to the transcripts said someone seeking help for the employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent pro-Israel lobbying group, was recorded asking Ms. Harman, a longtime supporter of its efforts, to intervene with the Justice Department. She responded, the official recounted, by saying she would have more influence with a White House official she did not identify.

In return, the caller promised her that a wealthy California donor — the media mogul Haim Saban — would threaten to withhold campaign contributions to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who was expected to become House speaker after the 2006 election, if she did not select Ms. Harman for the intelligence post.

If the "caller" did indeed have authorization from Saban to make such a promise, it would mean that either AIPAC itself and/or its supporters attempted to intervene in an ongoing criminal case and was willing to use extortion against a U.S. Senator to deliver its part of the bargain. (The "caller" has not yet been identified, but that will come.)

It is not surprising that the Israel lobby operates this way, since the primary allegiance of its members is to Israel and not the United States and it represents a wing of the Jewish community that believes any actions are justified in the defense of the Jewish state. One can only hope that more details of this side of the story will be revealed in the days and weeks to come.

By the way, this is one more example where important news is being broken by smaller media outlets and bloggers. Kudos to Congressional Quarterly columnist Jeff Stein for breaking the story.

PS--Read the Times piece carefully to see that Harman may be doing some fancy footwork to avoid admitting to the allegations.

Photo: Haim Saban.

More on Haim Saban. A profile in the Los Angeles Times.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The 267th waterboarding should do the trick

"We can't turn the page until we first read the page" --Senate Judiciary Commitee chair Patrick Leahy.

The New York Times reports today that two al-Qaeda suspects were waterboarded 266 times between them, obviously more than we have been led to believe in previous reports and testimony before Congress.

One passage in the Times report stands out in my mind:

The New York Times reported in 2007 that Mr. Mohammed had been barraged more than 100 times with harsh interrogation methods, causing C.I.A. officers to worry that they might have crossed legal limits and to halt his questioning. But the precise number and the exact nature of the interrogation method was not previously known.

If true, this suggests that C.I.A. officers were aware that their actions were or might have been illegal despite the "torture memos" written by John Yoo and other Bush administration lawyers who wrote their legal opinions to order, and to curry favor with their bosses. And it makes President Obama's pre-emptive amnesty for those officers (that is, in effect, the result of his political decision not to prosecute them) an exercise in obstruction of justice.

Perhaps, however, Obama's Justice Department knows that such a move will increase the likelihood that C.I.A. officers will talk to the media and Congressional committees (and perhaps stories such as this in the Times and other news outlets are already the result of those off-the-record conversations with reporters.) Whatever the case, the truth will out, and it will be worse than we ever imagined.

PS--The new story also points out the need for caution in the use of sources, such as former C.I.A. agent John Kiriakou who was widely quoted as saying that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded for only 35 seconds before breaking and telling everything he knew. According to one of the 2005 Justice Department memos, Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 85 times in August 2002. And by the way, this story was broken by bloggers, as the Times acknowledges in its article, who took a close look at the memos and saw what other reporters had not.

Protecting the torture memo authors.
The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is now also opposing prosecution of the lawyers who provided cover for the Bush administration's illegal acts, quoting Rahm Emanuel to that effect. The blanket amnesty is moving up the chain of command... is the message that justice cannot be bent to the whims of politics not getting through loudly enough?

John Yoo defends himself. Before a skeptical crowd in Orange County, California, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Free Roxana Saberi!

Yet another journalist is jailed for doing their job, this time in Iran. A solidarity site can be found here, and I will post anything else I find about other support activities.

Granting anonymity to "sources." Glenn Greenwald has an important post excoriating the increasingly common practice of letting politicians and officials say whatever they want without having to disclose their identity, and granting anonymity without sound journalist reasons. Greenwald has been on this case for some time now, and while I have tended in the past to see it as business as usual in Washington his outrage has convinced me it is a very important issue. While the New York Times' habit of explaining why anonymity is given often seems hackneyed, we clearly need journalists to justify it in every case.

Einstein's brain

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on the latest in the long saga of Einstein's brain. An anthropologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Dean Falk, has taken a new look at photographs of the brain (pretty much all that is left of it) and found some very interesting and unusual features in both its parietal cortex and motor cortex. The parietal cortex finds could be related to Einstein's claim that he thought in images and sensations rather than words, and the motor cortex features might be related to his musical training with the violin. (The link to the story is free for four weeks from publication.)

All this is speculative, of course, although Falk compares Einstein's brain with those of many other "controls" to come up with her conclusions. Give it a read and see what you think.

At the bottom of the story, I link to a terrific article by Frederick Lepore, a neurologist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about the history of Einstein's brain and attempts to study it as well as Lepore's own thoughts and reservations about what we can and cannot conclude from its unusual parietal lobes, which had also been spotted by an earlier team I mention in my story. I highly recommend it.

One big remaining issue, of course, is whether Einstein's brain became unusual because he was a genius or whether he was a genius because his brain was unusual to begin with. Falk and others I interviewed think that the brain's shape was determined largely by genetic factors, although the unusual configuration of its motor cortex could have been due to his early violin training. As for his genius in physics, Falk says that this was probably a combination of the brain he was born with and environmental factors, as Einstein had a very nurturing homelife especially in his early years.

Also in ScienceNOW: The latest in the saga of Homo floresiensis, aka The Hobbit, from my colleague Elizabeth Culotta. Did modern humans copy the toolmaking techniques of this tiny human? Check it out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The torture memos

You can download and read all of them on the ACLU's Web site.

Obama's decision not to prosecute CIA officers who "relied" on these memos to engage in torture may not be consistent with international law, which prohibits torture no matter what the circumstances and justifications. But the door is still open to prosecuting Bush administration officials who authorized and sanctioned torture, and we must insist that it stay open.

Photo: John Yoo.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Barack Obama, Commander-in-Chief

Well, let's just say the Somalian pirate saga could have turned out differently, but fortunately it didn't. By all indications Capt. Richard Phillips was a good man who deserved to be rescued, and Obama's standing order to use force if his life was in jeopardy turned out to be a good move--for Phillips, his family, and for Obama's presidency.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Being an archaeologist

Just back from India and a little jetlagged, so nothing brilliant to say today. Meanwhile, enjoy a couple short videos by University of California, Berkeley archaeologist Colleen Morgan about being an archaeologist. A number of archaeologists introduce themselves in the first video, and then explain what they like about archaeology in the second. She made these for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Archaeologist's son freed. While we are on the subject, many of you may have read that John Solecki, an American official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees working in Quetta, Pakistan, was freed from captivity on April 4. Solecki was kidnapped in February by a group calling itself the Balochistan Liberation United Front. John Solecki is the son of Ralph Solecki, the noted Columbia University archaeologist who excavated the Neandertal site of Shanidar in Iraq.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Paris City of Night

I'm pretty tied up here in Hyderabad, India, on the second leg of my three-city lecture tour about "What Made Humans Modern?"
So for today's post I will plug a new book by my friend and colleague David Downie. The blurbs are from the back cover, but anyone who knows David's writing will want to pick up a copy of this asap.

"A fast-moving, atmospheric thriller. Best to start reading this one early in the evening... unless, that is, you don't mind losing a night's sleep!"
——David Hunt, best-selling author of The Magician's Tale

"Unputdownable——a real page-turner. No one should miss this."
——Anton Gill, author of the world best-selling series The Egyptian Mysteries

Paris is alluring and seductive, but by no means benign, as Jay Grant well knows. Orange alerts make people trigger-happy. Red and black alerts are worse. They transform the City of Light into a hellish City of Night...
Paris City of Night

June 18, 1950: The blurry image of escaping Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann wells up in a CIA darkroom in pre-dawn Paris.

December 26, 2007: Madeleine Adela├»de de Lafayette, celebrated R├ęsistance and Free French hero, former CIA deputy chief of station in Paris, is found dead in her mansion fronting the Eiffel Tower. Few know she was a key player in the misguided Allied effort to fight Communism by smuggling Nazis to freedom. So was William Grant, Madeleine's favorite operative, also recently deceased.

December 28, 2007: As the countdown to New Year's Eve flashes from the top of the Eiffel Tower, vintage photography and Daguerreotype expert Jay Grant, "son of a spook," races to piece together a deadly picture-puzzle. Why were Madeleine and his father William murdered——and whose side is the CIA really on? Someone is trying to kill Jay before he can crack a code embedded on a set of Daguerreotype plates and flush out terrorists plotting to attack Paris. Persuing Jay through the menacingly dark City of Light are a shadowy recycled Cold Warrior, a sexy Homeland Security officer, and his father William's aged, fanatic former colleague, a man whose mission is no longer beating the Commies but battling radical Islam, even if it means destroying parts of the city he loves...

"A wild ride through the dark side of Paris."
——Diane Johnson

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In the Lodhi Gardens

The Lodhi Gardens of New Delhi are probably famous enough that I don't have to say much about them, other than offer these modest photos. They can't convey the wonderful sounds of birds singing and the fresh breezes that blow through this paradise, but for that you must come and visit yourself--if you are not yet among the lucky ones to have already done so.

Delhi: last day

I am off to Hyderabad tomorrow, so had my final swing through Delhi today. The photos you see are a view from a rickshaw in old Delhi; a "yes there are cows on the streets" photo, although the city authorities are trying to get rid of them because they have caused too many accidents (the Hindustan Times today carried a story about twin brothers who were killed when they swerved to avoid a cow and got crushed under a bus); a visit to Ghandi's cremation place and the eternal flame (set in the middle of broad, beautiful gardens); a "yes there are elephants on the street" photo; and the Baha'i Temple in Delhi (with a view of people lining up to store their shoes and then lining up again to retrieve them, which takes most of the time at least when you visit on a Sunday.)

I've also had a number of political discussions with Indians from various walks of life. Everyone is very worried about the rash of terrorist incidents in Pakistan, which as you know spilled over into India during the terrible attack on Mumbai. Indians are broadly concerned about all of the aid Barack Obama is now giving to Pakistan, arguing that the billions the USA has already given has only led to more terrorism rather than less. I will leave the discussion there for the moment...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Delhi days: in the National Museum

My photographic skills do not seem stunning today (not that I am much of a professional even though I manage to get my photos published reasonably often) so here are a few ordinary shots from a trip to Delhi's National Museum. The two bronze statuettes you see are 12th century; so is the seated Vishnu made of granite, which sits in the museum's courtyard; and the little figurine is from one of the ancient Indus Valley (Harappan) civilizations, although I can't tell you which one because that display was poorly labeled. The figurine dates somewhere between 2000 and 2700 BC, as closely as I could figure.

Also included is a photo of the kind of auto rickshaw I used to get back and forth between the India International Centre and the museum. The driver did not try to cheat me on the way there, but the driver on the way back did. Customer beware!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Scenes of Delhi

I am spending my first day in Delhi and having a busy time, being shown around by my colleague and friend, Science's correspondent here, and giving an informal talk this evening to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. So please forgive me if I don't have the time to label these photos and tell you what they are; I will try to do better later on. Just enjoy them, as memories if you know Delhi and as enticements if you do not.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

India bound

This post is true, despite what day it is: I will be off on an 8-day, 3-city speaking tour in India beginning tomorrow, at the kind invitation of the Indian Academy of Sciences. My topic is "What Made Humans Modern?" This is a subject I have written about many times for Science, not that I necessary know the answer. But the question is one of the most important in human evolution studies: How did Homo sapiens evolve the advanced cognitive abilities that have allowed our species to pretty much take over the planet, for better or for worse. My talk will focus on the origins of art and symbolism, a subject I recently wrote about as part of Science's Darwin anniversary series.

I will be speaking at various venues in New Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai (Madras.) If you are in Delhi this Saturday evening, come hear me at the India International Centre. Information is at this link, and if you scroll down to April 4 (the very bottom as of today) you will see the details for my talk. The image at left is the flyer of one of my two talks in Hyderabad, on April 7, at the B.M. Birla Science Centre, which looks like a pretty cool place judging from its Web site.

By the way, please let me know if you have any trouble with the link to the Science article "What Made Humans Modern?" at the top of this post, as I have had some reports of problems. If so, I will get my Web person to fix it.

PS--If all goes well I will be blogging about my trip, with photos, whenever I can; although my hosts will be keeping me very busy!

George W. Bush surrenders to international court

I am just as shocked as you to learn this news. Early this morning Western Europe time, former President George W. Bush walked through the front doors of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Saying farewell to a small crowd of family and well-wishers, and with a copy of the Geneva Conventions tucked into his briefcase, Bush humbly surrendered to court officials.

"I just wish I had read the Conventions earlier," Bush told reporters, adding that Dick Cheney had assured him that administration lawyers had already gone through them with a fine-toothed comb and that it was not necessary for the president to take time out of his busy schedule.

Hours later, speculation was still rife over who would represent Bush before the court. Rumored attorneys include John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz, but those reports could not be confirmed.

Meanwhile, in other news, Minnesota Republican senatorial candidate Norm Coleman bowed to the inevitable and gave up his fight against Al Franken. Reacting to the decision of a three-judge panel that yesterday dealt yet another setback to his bid to overturn the election results, Coleman said simply, "I knew all along that I was wrong. What a jerk I am."