‘The Passion’ of the Americans

“The television airwaves have been filled for the last several days with a lot of back-and-forth about Mel Gibson’s new film, ‘The Passion of The Christ.’ A great deal of debate centers around whether Gibson has fashioned a broadside against Jewish people in the manner of the Medieval anti-Semitic passion plays of old… My question is much simpler: Why would Mel Gibson make a movie about people in the ancient Middle East and cast it with so many white people? To look at the central actors in this film, you’d think Jesus did his work near Manchester, New Hampshire instead of the Holy Land..” —William Rivers Pitt, truthout

Roam Between GPRS, Wi-Fi, and W-CDMA

T-Mobile Preparing Multi-Network Service: “At last week’s 3GSM World Congress, T-Mobile announced plans for a new service that will allow users to easily roam between various types of wireless networks.

At the conference in France, T-Mobile CEO Rene Obermann said his company is planning a new service that will let subscribers use either GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access), or Wi-Fi (802.11b), with their hardware device automatically choosing whichever is the better option at the time.” —Brighthand

What’s Right With Kerry

Just like George Bush, as Dean claimed in the heat of battle? “It is true that Kerry, another Yalie and Skull and Bones alum, has voted in favor of NAFTA and other corporate-friendly trade pacts, that he once raised questions about affirmative action (while still supporting it), that he has, like almost every Democratic senator, accepted contributions from special-interest lobbyists (while being one of the few to eschew political action committee donations), that he voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. But this hardly makes him Bush lite. There is, as evidence, his nineteen-year Senate record, during which he has voted consistently in favor of abortion rights and environmental policies, opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, led the effort against drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, pushed for higher fuel economy standards, advocated boosting the minimum wage and pressed for global warming remedies. But what distinguishes Kerry’s career are key moments when he displayed guts and took tough actions that few colleagues would imitate. One rap on Kerry is that he is overly cautious and conventional. He’s no firebrand on the stump, nor does he come across as the most passionate and exciting force for change. But his history in Washington includes episodes in which he demonstrated a willingness to confront hard issues, to challenge power, to pursue values rather than political advantage, to take risks for the public interest.” —David Corn, CommonDreams

What’s in a Name?

A Potful of Problems: “Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilman Eric Garcetti want to sell off the city.

On Tuesday, at their instigation, a City Council committee kicked around the idea of creating an official city beverage or setting up some other kind of licensing deal. From there, it’s only a short step to selling off the naming rights to municipal buildings, parks or neighborhoods. Who can doubt that that’s where they’re heading?

Yes, the city faces a $250-million deficit next year. But the idea of granting naming rights to the highest bidder is a recipe for civic humiliation. The city’s participation in any marketing deal will provide an implicit or explicit endorsement of a corporation and its products.

It’s happened elsewhere. Snapple is the official beverage of New York City, with the company paying $166 million over five years for that designation. Coca-Cola has signed marketing deals with Huntington Beach (for $600,000 a year), and East Lansing, Mich. (for $2 million over 10 years), while PepsiCo has agreements with San Diego (up to $23.6 million over 12 years), and Fresno (for $625,000 over five years).” —Gary Ruskin (Commercial Alert), CommonDreams

Scalia Took Trip Set Up by Lawyer in Two Cases

Apparently Scalia’s hunting trip with Cheney in the lead-up to hearing his case on the Supreme Court is not the first time the Supreme Court Justice whored for the old-boy network.: “Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the guest of a Kansas law school two years ago and went pheasant hunting on a trip arranged by the school’s dean, all within weeks of hearing two cases in which the dean was a lead attorney.

The cases involved issues of public policy important to Kansas officials. Accompanying Scalia on the November 2001 hunting trip were the Kansas governor and the recently retired state Senate president, who flew with Scalia to the hunting camp aboard a state plane.” —CommonDreams We might want to begin talking about more than recusals here…

‘The Passion’ of the Americans

“The television airwaves have been filled for the last several days with a lot of back-and-forth about Mel Gibson’s new film, ‘The Passion of The Christ.’ A great deal of debate centers around whether Gibson has fashioned a broadside against Jewish people in the manner of the Medieval anti-Semitic passion plays of old… My question is much simpler: Why would Mel Gibson make a movie about people in the ancient Middle East and cast it with so many white people? To look at the central actors in this film, you’d think Jesus did his work near Manchester, New Hampshire instead of the Holy Land..” —William Rivers Pitt, truthout

Humans are hardwired to feel others’ pain

“Humans are hardwired to feel empathy, suggests a new imaging study showing that certain pain-processing regions of the brain light up when a loved-one is hurt.

But no one actually ‘feels’ the physical pain of the ones they love. The UK researchers suggest that empathy is the result of our brain running a virtual simulation that represents only part of the other person’s experience.

‘That’ s probably why empathy doesn’t feel like pain in your hand,’ says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University College London, who led the study. ‘It feels like when you anticipate your own pain. Your heart races, your emotions are engaged. It’s like a smaller copy of the overall experience.'” —New Scientist I have previously written about so-called ‘mirror neurons’ discovered in othe primates and presumably active in humans as well, which activate brain regions mirroring the activity in another individual we are watching. This is more confirmation of what I suspect is a neurological basis for empathy. This New Scientist article states that humans are the only creatures capable of empathy, which has most likely been strongly selected for, given the adaptive advantages that would be provided by such a direct indication of the feelings or intentions of another with whom we are interacting. By extension, this is one of the foundations for social life. I doubt, both on the basis of the ‘mirror neuron’ evidence and the social organization of primate life, that we are the only species capable of empathy in this sense.

Meanwhile, I share the interest many behavioral scientists have in autism, which may provide crucial clues about the neurobiological fundaments of social life. The Boston Globe discusses the approach of Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, whose work I have previously discussed here and who feels that ‘mind-reading capacity’ (which he distinguishes in a not entirely convincing way from ’empathy’ by using a nonintuitive, narrow definition of the latter) is hard-wired. He also feels it is an essential basis for social interaction and ascribes the social deficits of autistic patients to defects in their mind-reading capacity. This may be the foundation for the oft-mentioned impairment in autistics’ capacity for ‘theory of mind’, in short the ability to envision others around one having internal experiences and feelings similar to one’s own. Studies have shown that autistic subjects do not use the specialized person-perception circuitry humans have evolved but rather process their perceptions of people in different brain regions which are involved in the perception of objects. Baron-Cohen feels he can measure ‘mind-reading capacity’ with a test that taps into one’s ability to decipher someone’s internal state by reading subtle clues in their eyes. Baron-Cohen also has another test you can take to measure your AQ, or autistic quotient (abit simplistic but, presumably, the higher your AQ the lower your ‘mind-reading’ ability). I recently heard Fred Volkmar, an autism researcher at Yale, present his fascinating work in this area. Using Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a source of rich emotional interplay without much ‘action’, he shows with eye-tracking cameras that autistic subjects do not follow the flow of emotion in the characters’ interaction but focus on out-of-context cues. Interestingly, they in particular do not look at the eyes of the characters, often preferring to focus on their mouths.

Link between vaccine and autism "entirely flawed"

Medical journal says it regrets publishing Wakefield’s research on MMR. Controversy has raged for years, particularly in the UK, over reports of a link between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) immunization and the development of autism. Now The Lancet, the British medical journal in which the original findings of Andrew Wakefield were published, finds that his report was compromised by undeclared conflict of interest and other methodological and ethical flaws in his research design which, had the editors known, should have precluded the publication of the findings. Rates of MMR vaccination in the UK have declined significantly in the wake of news of this putative association. —Nature

Doonesbury’s Bush Contest Yields No Winner Yet

“A $10,000 reward offered by the “Doonesbury” comic strip for proof that President Bush (news – web sites) served in the Alabama National Guard during the Vietnam War has elicited over 1,300 responses but turned up no credible evidence yet, the cartoonist said on Friday.

With so much controversy surrounding Bush’s National Guard service, a credible witness would have turned up by now if there was one, said Garry Trudeau. ” —Yahoo! News

And the Oscar for Worst Oscar Goes . . .

‘As tonight’s ceremony approaches, the foreign-language category remains Oscar’s annual head-scratcher. Ask anyone in the industry about this year’s nominees — which include one critical hit, “The Barbarian Invasions” from Canada, and four films that barely register — and you’ll find varying levels of bafflement. “For the most part, of the films that are selected, I don’t think anyone understands why,” says Ryan Werner, head of distribution at Wellspring, which releases a number of foreign titles each year. Mark Urman, of ThinkFilm, says, “I can’t tell you how many people were shocked by the nominations this year.” Both were hoping their company’s films would be included, but their sentiments are shared by executives and voters alike.’ —New York Times

U.S., Pakistan Deny Bin Laden Was Captured

“Pentagon and Pakistani officials on Saturday denied an Iranian state radio report that Osama bin Laden was captured in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan “a long time ago.”

The claim came as Pakistan’s army hunted terror suspects in a remote tribal region along the border, believed to be a possible hiding place for the al-Qaida’s leader.

The director of Iran radio’s Pashtun language service, Asheq Hossein, said the report was based on two sources — one of whom later told The Associated Press he was misquoted.

The report said bin Laden had been in custody for a period of time, but that President Bush was withholding any announcement until closer to November elections.” —Yahoo! News

Funny, at dinner just the other night, I had suggested the same paranoid conspiracy theory. My dinner companions shared the skepticism of the Pentagon and its Pakistani allies . I am not convinced.

The Meaning of Crown

In the nursery rhyme, Jack

fell down and broke his crown.

Why was Jack wearing a crown?

If he was a prince, why

was he fetching a pail of water?

Or was he a boy

pretending to be a prince?

Or was it rather the crown

of his head? If so it must

have been quite a fall to pitch

him that headlong. And who

was Jill and why

did she come tumbling after?

What made these two

so accident prone?

Did Jack care?

No. He was an empty boy.

Rumors of a Strange Universe

“Only a few short years ago, when the APOD editors were in graduate school, the pervasive, cosmic Dark Energy was not even seriously discussed. Of course, it now appears that this strange energy dominates the cosmos (as well as lectures on cosmology) and provides a repulsive force accelerating the large scale expansion of the Universe. In fact, recent brightness measurements of distant and therefore ancient, stellar explosions or supernovae indicate that the universal expansion began to speed up in earnest four to six billion years ago, when the Dark Energy’s repulse force began to overcome the attractive force of gravity over cosmic distances. The Hubble Space telescope images above show a sample of the distant supernova explosions, billions of light-years away, in before (top) and after (bottom) images of their faint host galaxies. Hubble measured supernovae also hint that the Dark Energy’s repulsive force is constant over cosmic time and so could be consistent with Einstein’s original theory of gravitation. If the force actually changes with time, the Universe could still end in a Big Crunch or a Big Rip … but not for an estimated 30 billion years.” —APOD

Massachusetts Supreme Court Orders All Citizens To Gay Marry

“Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 5-2 Monday in favor of full, equal, and mandatory gay marriages for all citizens. The order nullifies all pre-existing heterosexual marriages and lays the groundwork for the 2.4 million compulsory same-sex marriages that will take place in the state by May 15.

‘As we are all aware, it’s simply not possible for gay marriage and heterosexual marriage to co-exist,’ Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall said. ‘Our ruling in November was just the first step toward creating an all-gay Massachusetts.'” —The Onion

War is declared

Andrew Sullivan on Bush’s bigotry amendment proposal. “Those of us who supported this president in 2000, who have backed him whole-heartedly during the war, who have endured scorn from our peers as a result, who trusted that this president was indeed a uniter rather than a divider, now know the truth.” He nails it elegantly — Bush is dragging the Constitution into the culture wars, and all for narrow re-election purposes. Unfortunately, abit of schadenfreude is in order here; too bad Sullivan didn’t see sooner how antithetical Bush is to his lifestyle and human dignity.

Defiant Downloads Rise From Underground

“More than 300 Web sites and blogs staged a 24-hour online protest yesterday over a record company’s efforts to stop them from offering downloadable copies of ‘The Grey Album.’ A popular underground collection of music, ‘The Grey Album’ mixes tracks from the Beatles’ classic White Album with raps from Jay-Z’s latest release, ‘The Black Album.’

The protesters billed the event as ‘Grey Tuesday,’ calling it ‘a day of coordinated civil disobedience,’ during which more than 150 sites offered the album for download. Recording industry lawyers saw it as 24 hours of mass copyright infringement and sent letters to the Web sites demanding that they not follow through on the protest.” —New York Times

A new way to view London:

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From a toilet. “Visitors to Britain will find a new stop on London’s site-seeing route this spring: a usable public toilet enclosed in one-way mirrored glass situated on a sidewalk near the River Thames. The contemporary art exhibit, which allows the user to see out while passers-by cannot peep in, toys with the concepts of privacy and voyeurism.”

Look on the dark side of life

Karen Armstrong starts with an observation about the popularity of children’s literature dealing with misery and sorrow (she mentions Jacqueline Wilson, with whom I am not familiar, but that darned Lemony Snicket series comes to mind) and ends up extolling the value of an unflinching look at the misery and sorrow that surrounds us in the real world.

“Increasingly it is becoming unacceptable to voice legitimate distress. If you lose your job, become chronically ill, or fall prey to loneliness or depression, you are likely to be told – often abrasively – to look on the bright side. With unseemly haste, people rush to put an optimistic gloss on a disaster or to suggest a patently unworkable solution. We seem to be cultivating an intolerance of pain – even our own. An acquaintance once told me that quite the most difficult aspect of her cancer was her friends’ strident insistence that she develop a positive attitude, and her guilt at being unable to do so.” —Guardian.UK

One of Armstrong’s corollaries is the danger of fundamentalist religion, with its ‘anaesthetic approach’ both in personal and political life. Although it is a sweeping generalization, this arguably predisposes fundamentalism against an all-embracing compassionate approach to others’ suffering. [I have previously aroused the ire of at least one FmH reader by endorsing another weblogger’s observation about the impaired capacity for empathy that underlies neo-conservatism.] Armstrong ends with where she must have begun, with the Buddhist outlook which is integral to her message; the centrality of suffering (rooted in impermanence) is embodied in the first of its Four Noble Truths. In a modern psychiatric context too, I have long been intrigued by the adaptive advantages that probably underlie the persistence of the depressive outlook in the modern psyche.

The third man

“This time around, the Democratic establishment has been hyperventilating about Ralph. They should pass out a few brown paper bags at party headquarters and tell the elders to breathe into them until they calm down.” —Guardian.UK [thanks, miguel]

And: Ralph Nader Requests Secret Service Protection: “The two leading Democratic presidential hopefuls will soon have something else in common with Ralph Nader.

Immediately after announcing his intention to run for President as an Independent candidate, Nader put in a formal request for the same Secret Service protection that John Kerry and John Edwards receive.

By law, a candidate is eligible for Federal protection if a series of standards are met, including public prominence as measured by polls and fund raising. Or, as in Nader’s case, if 63 million registered Democrats want to kill him.” —The Specious Report (“spreading rumors, half-truths and misinformation since 1789”) [thanks, walker]

E-Voting Activists: Vote Absentee

“Activists in two states launched campaigns to urge voters to cast paper absentee ballots in their March primaries, warning that the electronic, paperless voting machines used in those states are open to fraud and may not count votes accurately.

The California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter education organization, and the Campaign for Verifiable Voting, a Maryland citizens group, cited concerns about insecurities of the electronic voting systems and the lack of paper audit trails to assure voters that their ballots are cast and counted correctly.” —Wired News

Is there an echo in here?

At least intermittently throughout the existence of FmH, I have shared the confusion about the point of weblogging that is one of the hallmarks of any weblogger trying to do anything more serious than an online ‘dear diary.’ One of the forms it took once upon a time during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq (and, indeed, the bombing of Afghanistan) was consternation about the lack of civil exchanges with the ‘warbloggers’. But eventually I became comfortable with my dismissal of both their ideas and their rhetorical tactics, and that was when the trouble began. Of course people continue to take offense at my relentless condemnation of the dysadministration and the fact that I demonstrate no intention to respect their feelings on the matter. [That others may find it boring in its relentlessness is another matter, and is of concern to me…]. It’s not just that I have my opinion, it’s as if I am saying, but it’s that my opinion is better. [That is what I am saying, and I would contend that that is what everyone feels about their beliefs; it is just that I am more explicit about saying so.] Months ago, there were several exchanges here about whether my opinionation represents closed-mindedness. It was the first time I noticed, in Rebecca Blood’s usage, the term “echo chamber” connoting people only echoing like-minded ideas around and around the net and never engaging in constructive dialogue with people whose opinions differ from theirs. Now it is apparently the newest darling meme. Since the Dean campaign, largely net-based, collapsed, folk wisdom has it that the insular “echo chamber” nature of the online Dean community contributed to the downfall by somehow impairing participants’ abilities to respond to realities instead of lulling themselves with out-of-touch colllective beliefs.

This Salon essay by David Weinburger dismantles both this notion of what went wrong with Dean and, more importantly, the concept of the net as echo chamber. My response to critics was along the lines that “my mind isn’t so open that any ol’ thing can wander in”, that not all opinions are inherently equal and automatically worthy of the same respect, that the idea that polite conversation with one’s ideological adversaries is the route toward reconciliation and accord is naive and unrealistic, that I am comfortable with my opinionation and entitled to be confident about my beliefs. If I didn’t say so, I meant to say that that does not automatically make me utterly inflexible or exclusionary, but that I enjoy (not so much preaching to the converted but) helping build a like-minded community on the web. Despite the name of this weblog, I am not looking for fanatical adherents [which is why I quickly dropped the conceit of referring to my readers as ‘Followers’!]. On the other hand it strikes me as a rather pitiful reflection on a person, who disagrees with me so much that they become apoplectic at my remarks, that they would continue to come to FmH for too long just to vent their spleen. Although I have sometimes enjoyed tapping into my reservoir of rage, it becomes old very quickly if I am not among good company.

Weinberger agrees that it is not necessarily cause for concern that people congregate with like-minded souls on the internet. “The fact that conversations start from a base agreement is not a weakness of conversations. In fact, it’s a requirement.” Certainly, if the large-scale agreement is all that happens, the conversation will not be very useful and the appeal of the website will not sustain itself, but fortunately “conversations iterate differences within agreement.” Too much explicit repetition of the ‘founding argument’ is probably what is responsible for the ‘echo chamber’ metaphor, but, Weinberger reflects, “so what?”

The underlying question — does the web inherently cause people to solidify or diversify their beliefs? — is a thornier one, probably best answered “yes” (g). Seriously, though, it is deserving of closer examination than the overly simplistic take on it the critics of the echo chamber phenomenon evince. First of all, Weinberger rightly calls into question the assumption that it is necessarily bad to solidify beliefs. Secondly, even if one spends most of one’s time on the net among like-minded ideas, that does not mean one spends all of one’s time in the echo chamber. Thirdly, “being grounded in some beliefs is a condition for having any beliefs. And that has nothing to do with echo chambers.”

Weinberger shares my dismissal of the naive belief in the possibility of engaging in “deep, meaningful and truly open conversation with people who fundamentally disagree with us.” This concept is perhaps the most difficult and unpalatable for slavish adherents of an unsophisticated version of the democratic ideal to grapple with. But it is why the ‘melting pot’ notion of democratic society has been replaced by a more nuanced notion of a pluralistic multicultural society. Even the Founding Fathers engineered a system based on majority rule [not that I am a fan of the utter dismissal of the minority position that the Founding Fathers’ paradigm promotes, however] rather than consensus, which the activist circles in which I have travelled have often attempted on principle to use as a basis for collective decision-making but which only works, if ever, when the base of agreement on the ‘founding argument’ is very firm and only the details are left to haggle over. Face it — the US is a deeply divided society, far less cohesive than most others in the Western world from my experience, or at least with fewer viable mechanisms for enfranchising the disenfranchised. Don’t try too hard to look for what unites us beneath our differences; despite all the flag-waving, it isn’t there. Our closest approach to it seems to be the destructive bellicose jingoism that emerges at times of threat like 9-11, and even that doesn’t work for me and many others. But placing us on permanent WoT® footing by manipulating our fear makes sense as the dysadministration’s best opportunity at a common denominator they can continue to use as a control handle.

Weinberger concludes:

We are at a dangerous time in the Internet’s history. There are forces that want to turn it into a place where ideas, images and thoughts can be as carefully screened as callers to a radio talk show. The “echo chamber” meme is not only ill-formed, but it also plays into the hands of those who are ready to misconstrue the Net in order to control it. We’d all be better off if we stopped repeating it and let its sound fade.

Sorry, David, to merely be ‘echoing’ you. I usually like to have a more complicated reaction to a piece, finding the differences within the agreement indeed. And I agree that, usually, posting a piece in order merely to comment that, yes, you agree, is pretty insipid. But, yes, I agree. I am pointing to your piece because you reiterate my take on the issue more eloquently and authoritatively than I have been able to do.

You Could Get 10 Years in Prison Just for Reading This

“I have on my desk right now a copy of the new Rhode Island’homeland security’ bill proposed by Governor Carcieri. It’s an 18 page document, and right on the first page, before talking about weapons of mass destruction or poisoning the water system or anything else that a rational person might consider ‘terrorism’, it says ‘any person who shall teach or advocate anarchy’ will go to prison for ten years.

Let me make this clear. I am an anarchist. I write an anarchist blog. Don’t be fooled by the pop-culture references and the fact that I maybe don’t fit whatever rock-throwing stereotype is the current popular view of anarchism. I am facing ten years in prison for writing if this bill passes, because I am not going to stop being an anarchist just because some dumbass politician wants to tell me what I’m allowed to believe.” —David Grenier, CounterPunch [via wood s lot]

Survey: Anger Toward Bush Intensifying

A subtext to this year’s presidential campaign is the intense anger that many Democrats are directing toward Bush, an attitude that has been growing in recent months.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “There are people who just really, really hate this person.”

Fully a quarter of Americans – mostly Democrats – tell pollsters they have a very unfavorable opinion of the president, more than double the number from last April. When only Democrats are polled, more than half report they feel that way. —Washington Post

Maybe this, rather than Nader’s entry into the race, represents the real danger for the Democratic campaign, in several senses. First, because anger provokes a backlash, and there are none better at lashing back than the current crop of Republican dirty-tricksters.

Anger is not necessarily a productive emotion when it comes to politics. The anger against Bill Clinton was so fierce and over the top that it helped him in 1996 and then again during the impeachment in 1998. People got more angry at those yelling at the president than at the president himself.

— Republican Pollster Frank Luntz

Second, this apparent gift the Democrats are being handed can derail the focus of the campaign. The common wisdom is that a growing base of disaffection with Bush might make the campaign complacent, when what they ought to be doing is reaching out for the moderate swing voters. This position is amply argued today over at BillMon’s. I see that suggestion, however, as possibly even more dangerous. I have long argued that the best way to defeat Bush is not with an insipid least-common-denominator platform but a bold and well-defined progressive and populist one. It is arguable that Gore lost alot of votes in 2000 because he reinvented himself every week in response to the pollsters’ latest advice on what the public wanted. A chameleonic moving target of a candidate may be the last thing the swing voters potentially fed up with Bush need. Especially if the candidate turns out to be Kerry and the Republican innuendo is all about him being a weirdo Massachusetts liberal, the Democratic campaign ought to be in no small part about the reclamation of that L-word and, as Joseph Duemer points out, who gets to control the meaning of the Vietnam myth.

Lies, Damned Lies and Bush Campaign Rhetoric

Josh Marshall does a great job giving the lie to Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot’s statement the other day to NPR interviewer Juan Williams that Bush had tried to volunteer to go to Vietnam but had not been chosen. As Marshall shows, this is handily contradicted by Bush’s own recent statements. Let us hope the mainstream press does not accept the falsifications unchallenged. If you are an NPR listener and particularly if you happened to hear Racicot’s statement, perhaps you should start with a letter or an email to NPR about your concern that they are being lied to and suggesting they investigate further in directions similar to those in which Marshall goes?

lie (n.): (1) A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood. (2) Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. Syn: canard, cock-and-bull story, falsehood, falsity, fib, fiction, inveracity, misrepresentation, misstatement, prevarication, story, tale, untruth. Informal: fish story, tall tale. Slang: whopper.

Pestilent Plum?

“In his new book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, (Long Island lawyer Michael) Carroll raises a disturbing question: Is there a connection between outbreaks of Lyme disease and West Nile virus and Plum Island research? Old Lyme, Conn., the location of the disease’s initial 1975 outbreak, is close to Plum Island. While the case for the lab being the source isn’t cut and dry, many scientists have had a hard time finding a conventional explanation for the sudden emergence of the debilitating disease in Connecticut, which is spread though ticks. Carroll makes a strong case that the lab is the only logical source. The story of the West Nile virus, which also suddenly appeared in close proximity to Plum Island, is not as clear. But Carroll proves how the connection between the lab and disease outbreaks cannot be ignored, though most journalists and activists who have touched the story have been labeled ‘conspiracy theorists.'” —Guerrilla News Network

The Lone Ranger Of Righteousness

It’s My Right to Run: “(Ralph Nader’s decision) marks a fundamental shift from an ethic of responsibility to one of damn the consequences, no matter how much populist precedent he tries to dress it up with.” —Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. AlterNet Nader’s assertion, as I heard in an interview with NPR yesterday, that he will draw more heavily from disaffected Republicans is self-serving and fatuous if not frankly delusional! In any case, some disenchanted Republicans are considering crossing over to defeat Bush this time.

Nader may, as his supporters claimed in 2000, not steal as many votes from the Democrats as claimed if he mostly draws on people who would othewise have boycotted the big-party contest. But that may be a vanishingly small number this time around, given the difficulty of getting on the ballot in a significant number of states and especially if the Green Party does not support his run, as indications suggest. I suspect (and hope) that, after four years of W, most of those who would “otherwise have stayed home in 2000” may have long since decided they have to hold their noses and go for Kerry or whomever the Democrats front this time. Although they may consider the two-party system an obscenity, it is the reality in the 2004 election. As I have said here before, I used to be holier-than-thou, proclaiming that the outcome of the Presidential contest could not make enough of a difference to justify the quadrennial passion it provokes. I was somewhat surprised and ashamed at the energy I spent thinking about the 2000 election. In 2004, while I am not sure the country can be governed well, it is desperately clear after the first Bush dysadministration how poorly it can be governed, to our collective detriment and jeopardy.

W’s Reality Gap

“George W. Bush is different, very different. Other presidents have misled, deceived, even lied. When Ike was asked his worst mistake, he candidly said, ‘The lie we told [about the U-2].’ LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin were examples of both deception and self-deception.

The problem today is not simply that ‘Bush is a liar.’ While only he knows whether he’s intentionally saying untrue things, it is a provable fact that he says untrue things, again and again, on issues large and small, day in and day out. The problem is not ’16 words’ in last year’s State of the Union but 160,000 words on stem cells, global warming, the ‘death tax,’ the Iraq-9/11 connection and the Saddam-al Qaeda connection, the rise of deficits, cuts to Americorps, the air in downtown Manhattan after 9/11. On and on. It is beyond controversy that W ‘has such a high regard for the truth,’ as Lincoln said of a rival, ‘that he uses it sparingly.’

Why this penchant for falsehoods?” —Mark Green, co-author (with Eric Alterman) of The Book On Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (Viking 2004), AlterNet

Pestilent Plum?

“In his new book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, (Long Island lawyer Michael) Carroll raises a disturbing question: Is there a connection between outbreaks of Lyme disease and West Nile virus and Plum Island research? Old Lyme, Conn., the location of the disease’s initial 1975 outbreak, is close to Plum Island. While the case for the lab being the source isn’t cut and dry, many scientists have had a hard time finding a conventional explanation for the sudden emergence of the debilitating disease in Connecticut, which is spread though ticks. Carroll makes a strong case that the lab is the only logical source. The story of the West Nile virus, which also suddenly appeared in close proximity to Plum Island, is not as clear. But Carroll proves how the connection between the lab and disease outbreaks cannot be ignored, though most journalists and activists who have touched the story have been labeled ‘conspiracy theorists.'” —Guerrilla News Network

For want of a word

“Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out – as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking. Aikhenvald told Adrian Barnett about the race to record languages.” —New Scientist [thanks, jude]

Scenes from a Bigfoot Conference

“Skepticism about Bigfoot’s existence was in short supply at this conference. Speakers took it as a given that America’s version of the abominable snowman does exist, though they differed on what exactly the creature might be.

Bigfoot enthusiasts these days tend to fall into two camps: those convinced that the creature is merely a flesh-and-blood animal yet unknown to science, and those who believe it is a paranormal entity. Both camps were represented at the conference, although a certain amount of tension between the two was apparent.” — CSICOP

The Sinister Grip that Disney Exerts on Children’s Imaginations may Finally Loosen

George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “Walt Disney’s characters are sinister because they encourage us, like those marchers, to promote the hegemony of the corporations even when we have no intention of doing so. He captured a deep stream of human consciousness, branded it and, when we were too young to understand the implications, sold it back to us. Comcast’s hostile takeover bid suggests that the power of his company to seize our imaginations is declining. A giant media corporation may be about to become even bigger, but if the attack means that Disney is losing its ability to shape the minds of the world’s children, this is something we should celebrate.”

As a parent, I largely agree with Monbiot about Disney iconography’s insidious grip. American children and, increasingly, those of the rest of the world, are supposed to march in lockstep to the beat of the latest Disney formulaic blockbuster, devotion to whose characters is then cemented by the latest premiums with MacDonald’s Happy Meals, clothing and action figure product lines and, most beguiling to my way of thinking, insipid books that fill the children’s sections of the bookstores and choke out legitimate children’s picture books. (If you don’t have children and don’t believe me, take a stroll through the children’s section the next time you visit your local bookstore. You do remember bookstores, don’t you? They are still a large part of my village’s life…) I have been nauseated by the stultifying influence of this Disnifornication on the interior landscapes of the children I see, and attempt to steer my children to less mental chainstore junkfood in their entertainment choices. Just today a thoughtful co-worker asked me if our family had “done Disney” yet and had a difficult time with my indications that this was, to say the least, not a priority for us anytime in this life…

I am dubious about Monbiot’s anticipation of a loosening of the grip, however, over and above the fact that the Comcast bid appears to have failed for now. The Pixar features Disney distributed were the only creative stimulating breaths of fresh air in their panoply. Now that Pixar has dropped Disney, look for more stultification.

Prenatal lead exposure linked to schizophrenia

New Scientist: “Exposure to lead while in the womb may double a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later in life, new research suggests.

While larger studies are needed to confirm the link, the researchers say this is the first time an environmental toxin has been linked to the disorder.” —New Scientist The study analyzed frozen blood specimens fortuitously left by a cohort of pregnant mothers during the period before gasoline was unleaded. A robust correlation was found between lead levels and a schizophrenic outcome of the pregnancy. Many many studies establish some correlation between risk of schizophrenia and some perinatal insult. It is not that any of these specific noxious influences are the “cause” of schizophrenia; the effect is nonspecific. Some schizophrenia involves disturbed neuronal architecture in certain anatomical regions of the brain, notably the hippocampal formation. Any crucial ‘hit’ during essential developmental periods might disrupt cell migration and the development of normal connections. But schizophrenia is a heterogeneous disease (I should rather say, “the schizophrenias”) and, in some affected patients, what lies at the core is disruption of the neurochemical communication between these neurons rather than their physical connectivity. This too may result from an environmental insult, I suppose, but probably more often involves a genetically transmitted gene lesion or lesions affecting neurotransmitter or neuroreceptor function.

New form of mad cow disease found

I have long suspected that the human prion disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob) and the varieties found in at least some other mammals are related. It is strongly suspected that so-called variant CJD (vCJD) is what happens to a human who contracts the agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease). Now, “two cows have been discovered with a form of BSE that looks very different from the usual kind, Italian scientists have reported.

It resembles one form of the human prion disease, sporadic CJD, raising the possibility that this human disease is acquired from cattle.” —New Scientist

Bush’s War Against Nuance

“To satisfy the hallowed journalistic tradition that there must be two sources for almost anything, I offer you Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Candy Crowley of CNN. They both are on record as having George Bush say that he doesn’t do nuance. ‘Joe, I don’t do nuance,’ the president supposedly told the senator. As for Crowley, she heard it this way: ‘In Texas, we don’t do nuance.’ If these two sources don’t suffice, I offer you the 7,932 words that make up the text of the president’s interview with Tim Russert. There ain’t a nuance anywhere in the whole mess.” —Washington Post

"It was the most disgusting set of racial stereotypes aimed at American Indians that I have ever seen on TV…"

CBS apologizes for OutKast performance: “CBS television issued a new round of apologies, this time for any offense taken at the American Indian-motif Grammy Awards performance by the hip-hop group OutKast that some Native Americans have condemned as racist.

The San Francisco-based Native American Cultural Center posted a notice on its Web site last week calling for a boycott of CBS, OutKast’s label Arista Records, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys.” —CNN

Television Captioning Censorship

This list of approved and disapproved TV shows for US Dept. of Education closed captioning support is being broadly discussed, particularly the criterion that excludes shows with any reference to witchcraft, such as Scooby Doo and Bewitched. While this example is pretty egregious, it strikes me that the ruling is not so much simply frivolous or ignorantly bigoted as it is an insidious attempt to legislate cultural tastes and interests to a segment of the population within the unfortunate grasp of dependency on federal funding. Children’s shows are the real victims of Administration judgmentalism, it appears. At least they haven’t taken their battle for decency out on NPR by denying support for closed captioning of public television news and public affairs programming.

"…I’m a War President…"

A former military officer, now a journalist covering military affairs, writes on why Bush’s military record matters (pdf) —Chicago Tribune op-ed

And Jimmy Breslin writes in Newsday, Bush Goal Was Dodging War: “What matters to all our senses is that he is a president who struts around as a war hero, who dodged Vietnam and most of the National Guard drills and who with less shame than anybody we have had maybe ever, sends your kids to a war that he ducked as if he was allowed to do it by birth.

The picture of him playing soldier suit on an aircraft carrier, the helmet under his arm like he just got back from a run over Baghdad, marks him as exceedingly dangerous. He believes he is a warrior president. He is not. He is a war dodger. Therefore, it is preposterous for George Bush to be a commander of anything. He doesn’t have the right to send people to war and yet he orders them off, and almost cheerfully. “

The Mobile Consolidation Begins

Dan Gillmor comments on the Cingular acquisition of AT&T Wireless and tells us the consolidation might be good for consumers because of the marginal service both companies have provided to date. It is not clear to me why two companies that don’t know how to do good wireless will combine into one that does. Gillmor also argues that consolidation won’t go too far because “there’s only room for a couple of mergers before the market gets too cozy for real competition. While expecting serious antitrust scrutiny from the Bush administration is probably futile, there’s probably enough angst in Congress to keep consolidation from being rampant.” The other obvious reason consolidation won’t go too far is that there are only several companies that use each of the several incompatible cellular protocols. Wouldn’t it be a daunting proposition, for example, for one of the GSM carriers left (T-Mobile and Cingular) to acquire CDMA-based Verizon, if they meant to consolidate their systems and user base?

‘Burning Bush’ turns up heat on president

‘ “Bush is already out there campaigning for re-election virtually unchallenged because the Democrats haven’t decided yet who will oppose him,” Cohen said. “In polite society you don’t go up to a guy, stare into his face and say: ‘You are a liar.’ It’s more polite to tap him on the shoulder and suggest gently that maybe his pants are getting a little warm, and that’s what we are trying to achieve with this.” ‘ —Scotsman.com

Abortion, Motherhood and Mental Health

“Every now and again you read a book that shatters assumptions you have held for a long time. This is one of them. Academic Ellie Lee looks at discussions around post-abortion syndrome (PAS) and post-natal depression (PND). Her conclusions are like a stone dropped in the pool of complacency of most pro-choice feminist thinking. Abortion, Motherhood and Mental Health has the potential to make waves – if those outside the academic community can be persuaded to shrug off philistinism and grapple with a book that refuses to simplify complex ideas.” —Ann Furedi, sp!ked. The reviewer and perhaps the author, however, are reacting to a straw man. They interpret the controversial syndromes to represent an assumption that “once a pregnancy has begun a woman can’t end it without suffering a degree of mental illness – even if the mental illness is so suppressed that she doesn’t recognise it.” This rendition of big, bad medical science is easy to refute because it is simply not what researchers and clinicians into postpartum depression and psychosis, which is how these syndromes are known in the US, are saying.

c-word blues

The unspeakable is here to stay: “When the Sex Pistols let loose a few expletives on Bill Grundy’s show back in 1976, there was all sorts of huffing and puffing. The nation went into what is referred to as a ‘moral panic’. Almost 30 years on, old fashioned Anglo-Saxon expletives appear to have lost the capacity to shock. When, last week, former Pistol frontman John Lydon uttered the word ‘cunt’ on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, the reaction was decidedly pianissimo. Out of an audience of 12million for the show, Lydon’s c-word outburst solicited merely 88 complaints.” —Patrick West, sp!ked

The History of Valentine’s Day

“Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday?

Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

If St. Valentine’s heroism lay in standing against unreasonable state interference in marriage, gay couples may be in particular need of his succor today, as the ignorant backlash — state-sponsored terrorism — against non-heterosexual marriages proceeds. I know I have been celebrating the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision saying nothing short of extending the right to marry to gay couples will be consistent with equal rights under the current constitution. My elation was, of course, premature. If you are not following the news from my state, our (Mormon) governor Mitt Romney and other social reactionaries have just convened a constitutional convention (actually, it had been planned for months before the Supreme Court decision, but the issue moved to the top of the agenda) to try to amend the constitution to take the legs out from under gay marriage. Successive versions of the proposed amendment have been shot down and the convention adjourned without success. But the battle is not over yet, they will reconvene in March, two months before the scheduled May implementation of extending marriage licenses to gay couples.

Some of the maneuvering around this issue seems as illegal as it is outrageous to me. For example, the favored version of the amendment would retroactively make gay marriages (since the earliest the amendment could be adopted, if successful, would not be until mid-2006) revert to civil unions. Now, I’m no legal scholar, but isn’t this tantamount to making something retroactively illegal? And isn’t the principle that ex post facto laws are unacceptable one of the cornerstones of our legal system? Also, Romney is contemplating issuing an executive order forbidding state officials to grant marriage licenses to gay couples no matter that they are entitled to them. My guess is that he hopes that the litigation to force him to reverse this blatantly defiant and illegal order would take long enough that he could prevent all the marriages that would otherwise ensue until the longed-for amendment. What, is he bucking for a cabinet appointment in the second Bush administration or something? And isn’t the idea of the constitution, state or federal, ‘defining marriage’ an obscene perversion of its scope and purpose?

Listening to all the public debate on this issue, the argument that strikes me as the most sensible says that, instead of extending the right of marriage to gays, we should take it away from heterosexuals as well. The State should be in the business of extending certain rights and duties to spousal unions, so it should regulate civil unions for everyone, and forget about marriages. It has no place in the business of regulating what is essentially a religious sacrament, which homophobic couples should be welcome to seek in their homophobic churches if the idea of a loving union between same-sex partners somehow threatens the security of their marital vows. I cannot speak for gay couples but it strikes me that, instead of seeking to be able to proudly state they are ‘married’, they ought to join us heterosexual couples who are becoming ashamed to say we are ‘married’, ashamed at what a vehicle for bigotry and irrationality ‘marriage’ has become.

13 Reasons To Use Firefox Over IE

Firefox is the latest name under by which we refer to the Browser Formerly Known as Firebird Which Was The Browser Formerly Known as Phoenix. Try it once, if you haven’t already, and you won’t need persuading. These arguments apply to the Mozilla browser as well, BTW.

Claim: photograph shows Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally

It would have been fine if it had happened, actually. But, snopes.com concludes, the photo is a fake, a cut ‘n’ paste job. They display the original, without Fonda in the picture, and it cannot even be established that she was at the antiwar rally in question at all. But the Fonda controversy misses the point. The Right should certainly be threatened simply that Kerry was a Vietnam veteran against the war, Fonda or not.

Astronomers spy 10 billion trillion trillion-carat diamond

“If anyone’s ever promised you the sun, the moon and the stars, tell ’em you’ll settle for BPM 37093.

The heart of that burned-out star with the no-nonsense name is a sparkling diamond that weighs a staggering 10 billion trillion trillion carats. That’s one followed by 34 zeros.

The hunk of celestial bling is an estimated 2,500 miles across, said Travis Metcalfe, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

‘You would need a jeweler’s loupe the size of the sun to grade this diamond,’ said Metcalfe, who led the team that discovered the gem.

The diamond is a massive chunk of crystallized carbon that lies about 300 trillion miles from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus.” —Sacramento Bee

Now They Tell Us

Michael Massing, an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review who writes frequently on the press and foreign policy, on the prewar failures of the press to show any skepticism about the Administration’s WMD line:

In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq. “Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Pressure Rises for Probe of Prewar-Intelligence,” said The Wall Street Journal. “So, What Went Wrong?” asked Time. In The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described how the Pentagon set up its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, to sift for data to support the administration’s claims about Iraq. And on “Truth, War and Consequences,” a Frontline documentary that aired last October, a procession of intelligence analysts testified to the administration’s use of what one of them called “faith-based intelligence.”

Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change?when, in short, it might have made a difference? Some maintain that the many analysts who’ve spoken out since the end of the war were mute before it. But that’s not true. Beginning in the summer of 2002, the “intelligence community” was rent by bitter disputes over how Bush officials were using the data on Iraq. Many journalists knew about this, yet few chose to write about it.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller, about whose credulous parroting of Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi’s propaganda about the Saddam threat much has already been said here and elsewhere, comes in for particular scorn from Massing. Miller blames her credulity on poor intelligence, about as credible as Dubya’s use of that excuse is. She pleads with Massing, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” But think about it for a moment; that is an essential perversion of the meaning of that maxim. —New York Review of Books

Mobile Phones With Manners

David Pescovitz: “Say you walk to the bus stop each morning. A context-aware phone would notice that at around the same time every day you move slowly and steadily for a while, stop completely, and then dramatically speed up. After noticing this pattern, you phone might ask you if you’d like to tie specific preferences to this particular activity. At that point, you could then set the device to ring while you’re walking but switch to silent once you board the bus.

The phone could also be programmed to respond to calls in different ways, depending on what its owner is doing. For instance, Schmandt explains, if a call comes when he’s riding the bus, he’d like the caller to receive a message to the effect of: ‘It’s not a good time for Chris to talk. Would you like to text message him instead?’ The agent would then ask the caller to stay on the line while the message is delivered. That way, Schmandt adds, he can decide whether to break routine and actually take the call.” —The Feature

Report: Bush’s National Guard File Altered

“Retired National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett said Tuesday that in 1997, then-Gov. Bush’s chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, told the National Guard chief to get the Bush file and make certain ‘there’s not anything there that will embarrass the governor.’

Col. Burkett said that a few days later at Camp Mabry in Austin, he saw Mr. Bush’s file and documents from it discarded in a trash can. He said he recognized the documents as retirement point summaries and pay forms.” —Dallas Morning News

Kerried Away

The myth and math of Kerry’s electability. William Saletan writes in Slate: “By media consensus, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is over. Why? Because John Kerry has won 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses held so far. And why has Kerry won these contests? Not because voters agree with him on the issues. The reason, according to exit polls, is that voters think he’s the candidate most likely to beat President Bush. There’s just one problem: The same polls suggest this may not be true…

By and large, the closer you move to the center and center-right of the electorate, where the presidential race will probably be decided, the worse Kerry does. The opposite is true of Edwards.” And then there’s that Drudge infidelity gossip…

Old Crimson Interview Reveals A More Radical John Kerry

The Crimson reported Kerry called for U.N. control of troops in 1970″. — Harvard Crimson The content of Kerry’s 1970 views is not as important as the inevitability that both their radicalism and their contradictions with his recent positions will be grist for Karl Rove’s mill (“…a spokesperson for President Bush’s reelection campaign said Kerry’s 1970 remarks signaled the senator’s weakness on defense.”). Robert Reich defends Kerry’s comments as appropriate for the time, when he was a just-returned veteran and the Vietnam war still raged. It goes without saying, but did Dubya even have a coherent thought about a political position in his head in 1970? Here’s a cogent observation from Rafe Coburn:

I kind of feel like people are having trouble seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to President Bush’s service in the National Guard. The issue here is that Bush took the rich man’s way out and went into the National Guard on the wings of a political favor, and then said Sunday in his interview with Tim Russert that he supported the war in Vietnam. Everything after that is window dressing. Even if he showed up and was the most conscientious National Guardsman during his time of service, he still decided he was too good to fight in a war that had his support. Isn’t that the character issue here? The fact that the paperwork is jumbled and they can’t find any actual people who will admit that they saw him doing his duty is a side dish.

It is equally, but not more, important to contrast their positions back then as it is to compare their ‘war records’ and, thanks, Rafe, for thinking through this latest troubling hypocrisy on Bush’s part. But it is taking the easy way out to punt on the AWOL issue. It would be far more than a ‘side dish’ if the commander-in-chief shirked his duty and is trying to cover it up with clumsy half-truths. You cannot blithely dismiss the dearth of evidence supporting Bush’s claim to be up-and-up on his National Guard duty as a paperwork snafu when a far more dire possibility exists.

But if Bush was more of a hypocritical ‘draft dodger’ than a deserter, let us hope the press and the Democrats bulldog him on the issue as the Republicans did to Clinton.

Bush Web Site Pulls Clips After NBC Complains

“Criticism from Republicans and Democrats that President Bush gave a shaky performance on Sunday on ‘Meet the Press’ did not stop his re-election campaign from incorporating digitally enhanced excerpts from it into a promotional video that it posted on its Web site on Tuesday.

The campaign said it would remove the video from the site after NBC News complained that it was unfairly using the interview to support the re-election effort. The campaign said that it had violated no laws, but that it decided to take the video off after it realized how angry NBC News was over the use.” —New York Times

A Festival of Odd Finds to Cheer Film Buffs

“February can be a hard month for movie lovers. The studios continue their annual winter clearance sales, dumping dumbed-down damaged goods into the multiplexes to offset their Oscar contenders. A few interesting films usually straggle into view, but it is easy to become dispirited and to succumb to gloomy grumbling about the sad condition of cinema.

Fortunately the Film Society of Lincoln Center is doing its part to help New York audiences dispel their midwinter malaise. The society’s fourth annual Film Comment Selects program, which starts today and runs for two weeks at the Walter Reade Theater, is an eclectic and intriguing minifestival, a collection of overlooked, underappreciated and sometimes just plain odd movies that should satisfy a wide range of tastes.” — New York Times Synchronicity strikes; see the Ripley post below. One of the films in the series is

Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel with John Malkovich in the title role… Though the film plays well on television (where it has turned up recently on cable, never having received a theatrical release), its unnerving, cold-blooded calm would be better experienced on the Walter Reade’s big screen. Ms. Highsmith’s elegant viciousness is brilliantly captured in Mr. Malkovich’s slithering performance, and Ms. Caviani’s chilly sensibility provides a good antidote to Anthony Minghella’s overwrought and over-costumed version of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Serial Murder, Ripley-Style?

“A serial killer may have murdered 12 men, hidden their bodies then assumed their identities, police feared last night.

Detectives believe he struck in the style of The Talented Mr Ripley, the fictional character who murdered a friend and took on his wealth and life.

A major search has been launched for 11 missing men following the discovery of a bloodbath at the home of a 12th, a retired librarian.

The body of the 63-year-old man is believed to have been dismembered there and dumped at a secret location. Then, it is alleged, his killer assumed his identity to steal more than £30,000 from his investments.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the librarian’s name and 11 others were on a list found at the suspect’s home. All the others have disappeared and senior police sources said there were ‘grave fears’ for them.” — femail.co.uk

Certainly, this item fits in my ‘Annals of Depravity’ department, but I was grabbed by the emulation of Patricia Highsmith’s chillingly sociopathic and (dare I say it?) curiously charming character. I have been a longtime fan of the four Ripley novels, which have enjoyed renewed attention given recent film adaptations. While there are endless debates about whether media and cultural violence make for a violent society, we are not talking here about a statistical increase but the ability to galvanize one twisted soul. How much must a serial killer’s story be in the zeitgeist to become an inspiration for real life gruesome acts? and to be familiar enough to the police investigators that they will recognize it as the inspiration? With the society’s infatuation with monsters, are life-imitates-art repellent crimes becoming more common?

Who are the great grand strategists among American Presidents?

“Every President makes foreign policy. Only a select few, over the sweep of history, design what scholars term grand strategy.

Grand strategy is the blueprint from which policy follows. It envisions a country’s mission, defines its interests, and sets its priorities. Part of grand strategy’s grandeur lies in its durability: A single grand strategy can shape decades, even centuries, of policy.

Who, then, have been the great grand strategists among American statesmen? According to a slim forthcoming volume by John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian whom many describe as the dean of Cold War studies and one of the nation’s most eminent diplomatic historians, they are John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush.” — Boston Globe

Claiming Darwin for the Left

In this interview, Peter Singer argues that evolutionary theory has much to say that the Left ought to listen to. He claims that Leftist utopianism has failed to take account of human nature and blames that naiveté for the corruption and authoritarian failures of socialist regimes; the discipline of evolutionary psychology, Singer feels, is the key to understanding this ‘human nature.’ “I think it would be true generally that anyone who has views about how society should end up will have a better chance to achieve that if they understand the Darwinian framework of human nature.” In particular, because it offers an explanatory framework for understanding the development of human reciprocity, evolutionary theory helps us understand the basis for any ethical theory on which changing society must be based. — The Philosopher’s Magazine [via Butterflies and Wheels]

A Loss for Words

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it, or read it, even in this newspaper: ‘The proof is in the pudding.’ ‘No, it isn’t,’ I want to scream. ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ Cervantes wrote that four centuries ago. And don’t get me started about having your cake and eating it, too. You have to have your cake in order to eat it. The trick is to eat it and still have it.

At least it used to be, back when we knew our proverbs and weren’t misusing the word ‘proverbial.’ Not that America is going to fall apart because we butcher a few bromides. But I’m concerned about a country that’s not quite sure what it’s saying and doesn’t seem to care.” — Boston Globe Magazine

Cloning Creates Human Embryos

“Their goal, the scientists say, is not to clone humans but to advance understanding of the causes and treatment of disease.

But the work makes the birth of a cloned baby suddenly more feasible. For that reason, it is likely to reignite the fierce debate over the ethics of human cloning.

The work was led by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and Dr. Shin Yong Moon of Seoul National University and will be published tomorrow in the journal Science.” — New York Times

Student, 19, in Trial of New Antidepressant Commits Suicide

She was one of twenty-five volunteers in a study of larger than therapeutic doses of the investigational antidepressant duloxetine, which Eli Lilly is developing under the trade name Cymbalta. Four days earlier, the apparently non-depressed young woman had been switched from the active drug to the placebo arm of the study. Her death bolsters critics’ claims that antidepressants carry a risk of suicidal tendencies for some, especially younger, people. A federal advisory panel has just recommended that the FDA issue stronger warnings to doctors about the risks of these drugs in children and adolescents. Four other people given duloxetine during earlier trials have also committed suicide, the company revealed. A review panel has told Eli Lilly to stop entering new patients into this study and have all existing subjects receive an evaluation by an independent psychiatrist.

I thought, when I read the news, that the patient’s death was more likely to be an effect of the discontinuation of the drug than of its administration. (The New York Times reporter who wrote this story apparently thinks so too, as I was surprised to find when I scrolled down the article. The reporter is either very psychopharmacologically astute or he has an unattributed advisor in deep background. I was surprised, indeed, that the article includes no comments from psychopharmacologists outside of Eli Lilly spokespeople. Is it possible no one is willing to go on record with comments that will alienate the company?) Antidepressants that are eliminated rapidly from the body after cessation of use, most notably paroxetine, are known to cause a discontinuation syndrome including severe agitation; the investigational drug is another that has rapid elimination and the study design apparently involved high doses of the drug and a so-called ‘crossover design’ in which patients are switched abruptly and unknowingly between the medication and a placebo. You would think Eli Lilly would be aware of the risks of such a practice. My guess is that they were. The profits at stake if Lilly comes up with another blockbuster antidepressant to replace the market share it has lost with the expiration of the patent rights to its cash cow Prozac are worth a few wrongful-death settlements. (My friend Abby points out that human investigation subjects probably indemnify the company against wrongful death during the study anyway; I haven’t looked at a consent form recently and don’t know. This young woman had dropped out of college to participate in the study, for which she was paid $150/day.) Duloxetine is a good candidate for the next big thing; it has a similar mechanism of action to venlafaxine (Effexor) — dual serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibition — which is newer and better than the SSRIs and has supplanted them in terms of prescribing volume and profitability.

As I usually add in covering this ongoing controversy over antidepressant safety, it is not the drug that is dangerous, but the way in which it was administered.

Pazz & Jop 2003

Hip Hop gets rich and rock’n’roll refuses to die trying: the winners of the 30th (or 31st) annual Village Voice Critics’ Pazz and Jop Poll of the best music of 2003. Outkast kast their spell with the Voice critics just as they did with the Grammy judges. I heard Robert Christgau (who runs Pazz and Jop) interviewed this morning; he felt that Coldplay’s taking the Grammies best song award represents a backlash by rap-hating critics against a divided hip hop constituency. He sounds abit relieved, because he hasn’t been sparing in decrying his own poll’s unfairness to black music. Here are the album winners and the song winners.

As an aside — in an iPod and Kazaa universe, are albums more and more irrelevant? As a consumer of music criticism, I usually wanted to know if an artist’s attack could sustain itself before I would want to buy a disc. Not always; I was not infrequently known to buy a CD for a single song. A song-oriented consumer public who no longer buy “albums”, however, might mean artists have less incentive to record throwaway filler. Every song’s gotta be good to make it on its own merits? Still, there might be no more ‘concept’ albums, and no attention being paid to sequencing songs on an album. I can’t help wondering whether this will further erode our collective attention span for artistry down to the four- or five-minute level. When was the last time, perhaps apart from a classical performance if that’s your thing, you actually sat for forty or sixty minutes and listened to an entire album as the artist intended? I do, but that is because I have a fifty-minute commute some days.

For a stroll down memory lane, here are Chart Attack’s summaries of the 2002 and 2003 Pazz and Jop results (from a Canadian perspective, incidentally). Last year at this time Wilco were riding the wave of enthusiasm for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Christgau couldn’t claim they stole anybody’s hip hop thunder. I eagerly await some new music from them. And was it last year that Norah Jones’ first album captured Grammy hearts? Why is there no buzz about her second recording, arguably better, this year?

Addendum: Seth Mnookin writes in Slate about why we’re not hearing much about Norah Jones’ second album. He says the first time around the record company used a dicey strategy of heavily promoting her but then downplaying their promotional efforts so she could come off looking like a homegrown sensation whose popularity was made by word of mouth, “the Howard Dean of singer songwriters.” This time around, “Jones and her handlers don’t need to ask for coverage; instead, she’s being carefully parceled out…,” the pretense being that she’s not being marketed at all. Mnookin says Jones is trying to shape herself as an artiste who is not interested in commercial success, and predicts that the second album, which he feels is not in the same mold as the first in important respects, will in fact not be as successful. Although yesterday was its official release date, I’d given many of its songs many listens already before buying the disc today, since they’ve been on the P2P networks for several weeks at least. Different it is, but no less compelling. [thanks, Curt]

A How-To Guide for Hackers

“Already bored with all the presents you got for the holidays? Hack them into new-and-improved presents.

Got piles of now-outdated gifts from past festive occasions carefully stashed away because you might need the parts someday? Hack them, too.

Don’t know how to hack or need some inspiration? Get yourself a copy of Hardware Hacking: Have Fun While Voiding Your Warranty. It has 576 pages of detailed instructions that will show you how to re-engineer almost every inanimate object in your home or office.” —Wired News

This is Not a Dialogue, This is a Lecture

“How Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg responds to flame e-mails [via walker]

Dear Reader:

I received your e-mail message. Sadly, I no longer permit myself the pleasure of personally responding to snide remarks from dissatisfied individuals, as doing so inevitably leads to time-wasting arguments and annoying exchanges of insults. Since such encounters often end with the reader complaining to my boss, it seems that this is what rude writers really want to do all along — to provoke me so they can satisfy some inner schoolyard desire to squeal. You may do so now by e-mailing the editor in chief, Michael Cooke, at mcooke@suntimes.com, though I should point out this is a form letter, so his reaction probably won’t have the sense of fresh outrage you desire.

Otherwise, I would like to point out — since so many fail to grasp this point — that the piece of writing that upset you is a column of opinion, that the opinion being expressed is mine alone, and the fact that you disagree with or were insulted by my opinion really is not important, at least not to me. This is not a dialogue, this is a lecture, and you are supposed to sit in your seat and listen, or leave, not stand up and heckle.

I do not write the column for people who disagree with me, nor am I concerned with trying to convince them of the falsity of their worldview at a one-on-one level. I’ve done that for years, and it’s a waste of time, both mine and theirs, since such readers are not typically open to ideas other than their own, and cannot even entertain the notion that they may be wrong.

Not that I am pleased to have upset you. Believe me, I would have preferred your letter to have been one of praise — most are — but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

If you have cancelled your subscription, I am sorry for that too, though I am also confident, as you wade through the arid world of the competition and the barren void of television, that you will eventually soften and start reading the Sun-Times again, and would remind you that you can always skip my column; that’s why it always has my name and picture on the top, as a subtle clue.

While I cannot sincerely thank you for writing, I do hope that, as your life progresses, you eventually come to realize just how wrong you were in disagreeing with me in such a rude fashion. If there were a shred of politeness or sense in your e-mail you would not be receiving this letter, but as you are, I would urge you to re-examine your life, and suggest that you reach out to all the people you have no doubt hurt with your brusque and offensive manner and beg their forgiveness. Though utterly indifferent to your taunts, I will myself set a good example by forgiving you now. It can be a terrible world, and I’m sure you have reasons for being the way you are.

Best regards,

Neil Steinberg

Did Bush drop out of the National Guard to avoid drug testing?

“The young pilot walked away from his commitment in 1972 — the same year the U.S. military implemented random drug tests.”

One of the persistent riddles surrounding President Bush’s disappearance from the Texas Air National Guard during 1972 and 1973 is the question of why he walked away. Bush was a fully trained pilot who had undergone a rigorous two-year flight training program that cost the Pentagon nearly $1 million. And he has told reporters how important it was to follow in his father’s footsteps and to become a fighter pilot. Yet in April 1972, George W. Bush climbed out of a military cockpit for the last time. He still had two more years to serve, but Bush’s own discharge papers suggest he never served for the Guard again. —Salon

Mourning In America

Pity the poor Republicans. Up until now, the twentieth century’s most eulogized fallen Presidents were Democratic liberal heroes FDR and JFK. Especially now, they need a deity of their own and by God they’ll have one:

“The nation’s longest-lived president, Ronald Reagan, will celebrate his 93 birthday on February 6. Sadly, this birthday may be his last. He can no longer speak, feed himself, or recognize family and friends. Nine years after he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he is in the final stages of the debilitating disease.

When Reagan dies, Americans across the political spectrum will mourn him. But, if his most fervent supporters have their way, his passing will become a factional celebration, not a national commemoration, especially if he dies during the months ahead, while the president who has been hailed as his spiritual son, George W. Bush, is running for re-election. An assortment of former White House staffers, conservative commentators, think tank scholars and direct mail entrepreneurs have been conducting a campaign to make sure that Reagan is remembered in exactly the way that they want: as one of the greatest presidents and also as the prophet of hard-core conservatism.”

‘Faith-Based Intelligence’

The Threatening Record:

So we all know that White House assertions about the Iraqi ‘threat’ were so much smoke and mirrors. This piece is a good compendium of administration assertions of the threat from the public record, just in case they try to backpedal further from those assertions as they appear less and less plausible during the election campaign. Faced with being seen as either gullible dupes of intelligence misinformation or abject liars pursuing a covert agenda by any means, of course the Bush people will try and control the debate by framing its terms as only the former; the current dance about the independent investigation of intelligence failures will clearly have that restricted, defensive scope. We cannot let administration innocence be rammed down our throats. There are encouraging signs of a backlash by the media and, importantly, by the intelligence community. I particularly like the take the State Department’s top intelligence officer, Greg Theilmann, has:

“The main problem [before the war] was that the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show…They were really blind and deaf to any kind of countervailing information the intelligence community would produce. I would assign some blame to the intelligence community and most of the blame to the senior administration officials.”

The emphasis is added; ‘faith-based intelligence’ is so apt, even though oxymoronic. I have already waxed enthusiastic several times about Seymour Hersh’s detailed analysis several months ago of the pervasive ways in which the Bush people have willfully marginalized intelligence community analysis because it wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. It is easy to mistrust the CIA, almost axiomatic on the Left to do so. It is important to realize, in the current furor, that they are more believable than their dysadministration bosses.

And speaking of contradictions in terms, where is poor George Tenet in this mess? Some responses to his February 5th speech highlight his bold admission that the CIA never told the administration there was an imminent threat and see him as a courageous hero. Yet Bush does not seem embarrassed or threatened enough to find a way to oust him, although I predict we will see Tenet resigning “for personal reasons” “to spend more time with his family” and “go into the private sector” in the not too distant future (before the election, probably, once Karl Rove has thought up a spin on it that would stop Democratic jibes in their tracks). Others, like the former career CIA analyst commenting here (also at tompaine.com), find him (no surprise!) a master of disingenuousness. He points out another way in which the administration framing of the terms of the debate obscures the real issue. Regardless of what intelligence assessments of the Iraqi theret were or were not made, and how the White House did or did not use them, there is ample evidence that the Bush minions had long since decided to invade Iraq.

Population Bombshell

Steven Rosenfeld’s tompaine.com essay is a depiction of the bitter schism in the 750,000-member Sierra Club, where an insurgent group wants to focus the organization’s efforts on curbing immigration to the U.S. as a means of reducing the nation’s disproportionate use of the globe’s ‘carrying capacity’. The current board of directors election is provoking unprecedented outside attention and advocacy by non-environmental groups with political agendas including, on one hand, the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose Morris Dees is running for the board, he says, to prevent the “greening of hate;” and on the other, groups which the SPLC identifies as right-wing hate groups. A major figure among the insurgents is the former co-founder of Greenpeace, Paul Watson, whose animal rights activism is another source of opposition to the takeover bid from pro-hunting constituencies. Watson denies there is a conspiracy to take over the Club but critics offer documentation that he has bragged about engineering exactly such a coup.

It strikes me that the case is not being made so much for anti-immigration policy as the time-honored environmentalist position of limiting population growth. The stated platforms of the three Sierra Club Directors allied with the controversial candidates speak in terms of population policy instead of immigration policy — probably because there is no question that a racially divisive stand on immigration would attract the American would-be ethnic cleansers and their ilk and is not the only, or even the best, way to reduce the obscene impact of American profligacy on the rest of the world. The insurgents who do speak more directly of immigration curbs, according to past presidents of the Sierra Club, are outsiders who have no prior history of environmental activism but prominent positions with anti-immigration groups and have taken money from right-wing benefactors. Is slippage from concerns with environment and population to activism around immigration reforms — and race — inevitable?

When asked in an e-mail if it was possible to frame population issues so charges of racism did not arise, Gov. Lamm replied, “Every nation in the world that takes immigrants (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) has similar policies and doesn’t get charged with racism. Of course there is no guarantee, because some people can and will say anything. So the charge will be made, but it can be made non-credible. Our family marched in Selma (Alabama) and I believe good-hearted people must raise this issue.

So why do environmental groups have such a hard time with population issues? The former governor replied, “Political correctness reigns.”

Nine Months Left

Stephen K. Medvic, assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, writes at tompaine.com that it is time the Democratic contenders start to position themselves for the general election. He argues for a culturally inclusive, reformist populism attentive to the national security concerns that Bush will talk about ad nauseum. He suggests ways the nominee can take the best from each of his Democratic rivals’ campaigns (even Dean’s). To avoid becomeing irrelevant, the Democratic party must be rebuilt on a principled basis and not rely on a cult of personality as the successes under Clinton did in the ’90’s. [Little chance of a cult of personality behind Kerry! — FmH]

Whither Al?

‘Ladies and gentlemen — I know Jesse Jackson… and you’re no Jesse Jackson: “Sharpton opposed the war on Iraq, the death penalty and Bush’s tax cuts, and he demands universal health care. This appeals to many moderate white Democrats. But his message gets hacked up, lost, distorted or ignored when the messenger is perceived as irresponsible and an opportunist, or both. The majority of black Democratic elected officials, and Jesse Jackson, have endorsed Kerry, Edwards or Dean, or have publicly sung their praises. They have been mostly silent on Sharpton.

Meanwhile, the greatest unease about Sharpton has come from Jackson. Though he is careful not to criticize Sharpton by name, he obliquely chided him before the South Carolina primary when he noted that no Democrat could be effective without a real message, money and a campaign infrastructure. Sharpton has made little apparent effort to develop any of Jackson’s requisites for a successful campaign. He has built his campaign on appearances on TV talk shows, at campaign debates, at showpiece protest rallies, and by tossing out well-timed media barbs.” —AlterNet

ShowingThem Who’s Boss

An End to Evil: “Before Sept. 11, 2001, it would have been difficult to speak meaningfully about a ”neoconservative foreign policy.” While there was a group of intellectuals and policy experts who were identified — sometimes self-identified — by the neoconservative label, they did not agree on foreign policy. Today a cardinal feature of neoconservative foreign policy is the aggressive use of American power to dislodge dictators and promote democracy. But the founding father of the movement, Irving Kristol, shunned this approach, speaking in the more cautious tones of realpolitik. Throughout the 1990’s, Charles Krauthammer, a leading neoconservative commentator, was deeply suspicious of the use of American power against dictators in the Balkans, Africa and the Caribbean, while others, like Richard Perle and William Kristol, were far more sympathetic. Neoconservative foreign policy during that decade lacked a central theme.

Sept. 11 changed all that. It is now possible to describe a neoconservative foreign policy, and David Frum and Richard Perle’s new book, ”An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror,” is a useful guide to it. There have been many books written by neoconservatives on aspects of the war on terror, but because of the identity of the authors, the scope of the book and the vigor of argumentation, this one deserves special attention.” —New York Times book review

Loose cannon and gossip columnist’s dream:

“Let’s begin with what could have been an ending. In October, an editor asked me to prepare Courtney Love’s obituary. Nobody actually believed that Courtney Love had died, but many thought she was heading in that direction. If she had a fatal overdose or sudden heart failure, we needed to be ready. It was the first time, in 10 years of newspaper writing, that I had been asked to write an advance obituary for someone under 40.” —New York Times

”It’s a very sad day for society when a bare breast is more offensive than the glorification of sexual violence.”

The problem isn’t the breast, it’s violence against women: “The real shock was that a man would rip off a woman’s clothes — planned or not — and we would talk only about what was exposed in the process. It doesn’t matter whether her wardrobe malfunctioned. What matters is that he was messing with her wardrobe in the first place.” —Cindy Miller, Chicago Sun-Times

‘Joy shot me in the leg so I gunned her down’

“Was Joy Adamson an angel of mercy… or a tyrant? The man who killed her 24 years ago now speaks out. Her moving account of how she raised a captive lioness before returning her to the wild made Joy Adamson a legend way beyond the African bush. But the author of the bestseller Born Free, which was turned into a hugely successful film, was a tyrannical employer who fired live bullets at her black African staff, according to the man who was convicted of her murder.” —Guardian.UK

Terrorist bid to build bombs in mid-flight

“…The tactics, which aim to evade aviation security systems by placing only components of explosive devices on passenger jets, allowing militants to assemble them in the air, have been tried out on planes flying between the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe, security sources say.

Concerns that militants might assemble a bomb or another weapon on board were a key factor in the series of recent cancellations of transatlantic flights.” ` —Guardian.UK

Number Two, To Go

Vice-presidential machinations on the Republican side too? Arianna Huffington: “ GOP inner circles are buzzing with the rumor that President Bush is planning to drop Dick Cheney from his re-election ticket and replace him with 9/11 action hero Rudy Giuliani.

As one firmly committed to making sure Bush doesn’t get another four years in office, all I can say to this is: Please, Mr. President, say it ain’t so!

Cheney is the Democrats’ best—though sorely underutilized—weapon. A loose-lipped loose cannon who threatens to torpedo the Bushie ship of state every time he half-opens his mouth. If only we start paying attention.

Perhaps sensing that Broadway Rudy is warming up in the bullpen, Cheney has begun upping his public profile. After rarely venturing out of his secure, undisclosed location—aka Republican fund-raisers—he has given a rash of high-profile interviews over the past month.

And thank God for that: the Most Powerful Number Two In History just can’t help telling it like he sees it, and the way he sees it is very, very telling. And frightening.” —tompaine.com

Annals of the Invasion of Privacy

Great Taste, Less Privacy “Wonder what information is contained in that barcode on the back of your driver’s license? “Visitors to an art exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts got more than their martinis when they ordered drinks at a bar inside the gallery’s entrance. Instead of pretzels and peanuts, they were handed a receipt containing the personal data found on their license, plus all the information that could be gleaned from commercial data-mining services and voter registration databases like Aristotle. Some patrons also got receipts listing their phone number, income range, marital status, housing value and profession. For added effect, the receipt included a little map showing the location of their residence.” —Wired