Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hostile Takeover

You might still avoid belonging to the state.

Posted by olvlzl

Isn’t it clear that you own your body? That is if we are foolish enough to allow something so personally intimate to be regarded as having the degraded status of mere property. If someone insists on raising the question of ownership isn’t it clear that your body belongs entirely to you? And if it doesn’t belong to you at least it doesn’t belong to anyone else. The difference between you owning your body and someone else owning it is the difference between freedom and slavery. You can’t be free if some other entity can exercise a claim on your body.*

If your own body doesn’t belong only to you and if you don’t have an absolute right to it, what concept of property makes sense? What thing can be as inseparably and essentially a part of you as your physical body? Your business, stocks, money, real property, home, clothes, food, water? Maybe food and water. Our bodies are made of food and water, it needs clothes to survive, we mostly being primates outside our natural flora. And we also need housing. Maybe those things can be considered necessary extensions of our bodies. But fungible assets start getting a bit afield

For women staring down the barrel of the Bush era court, this question of ownership of their bodies is about to become a lot less of an abstract consideration. Unless the Republicans lose the Senate in November it is certain that Roe will be hollowed out just as Alito plotted during the Reagan years if not overturned entirely. Barring a miracle, Bush will get another Supreme Court Appointment, the Republicans will confirm them after a pageant of perjury called a confirmation hearing. Arlen Specter and the rest of the Senate Republicans now relieved of having to answer to the voters will do what they have done, confirm whatever other right wing zealot Bush sends them. The state will own a piece of you, and since no part of your body is unattached to the whole of it, the government will have ownership rights over you for at least as long as you are able to conceive. I’d guess that none of that is news to you.

At the same time Republicans are preparing to nationalize your bodies they are loosening restrictions on the ownership and use of just about every kind of property. The absentee owners of land, businesses, etc. could have just about an absolute right to exercise control over them as you lose your control of your body. The “property rights” movement, financed by development interests, is a major part of Republican strategy in the Western states and elsewhere. There will be no governmental regulation of the most destructive and irresponsible use of property, no matter how many people or how much wildlife is harmed. Allowing the destruction of the environment effectively makes the entire biosphere the property of corporations and their owners. You not only don’t own what you need to live, your body, the entire range of vital necessities are owned by the corporate state.

And it isn’t just within physical world that the Republicans are making corporate and private ownership rights absolute. Vaguely similar trade marks, “intellectual property”, market share, DNA sequences, etc. Nothing is beyond the reach of Republicans on the frontiers of corporate consolidation and profits. The legal profession, ever eager to prove what an ass it can be, will leave no word untwisted to aid them.

This wacky situation needs to be addressed in the most basic terms. Republicans think you can own just about everything except your own body. So far it is your body, a woman's body. That belongs to the state. After the sodomy ruling of a few years back similar laws concerning men’s bodies are less intrusive.

For one growing up in the worst of the cold war it is curious that the heirs of those who condemned Stalinism’s view of state property are the same those who are going past the Stalinist's theoretical limits of state ownership, but only in so far as women’s bodies are concerned.

* Children ‘own’ their bodies but are not yet competent to exercise their rights. That’s one of the fundamental assumptions of the difference between adulthood and childhood. It is the responsibility of parents or guardians to exercise necessary rights on behalf of a child in their care. That responsibility isn’t the same thing as the child’s right to the integrity of their own body and there are times when it is the responsibility of the state to step in and enforce rights and responsibilities when there is a problem.

Adults who can’t exercise their rights need people to take responsibility to make decisions in their interest. Anyone who has had a severely mentally ill family member knows that the state has given up any responsibility for their protection and treatment. Such families are now on their own with all the horrors of responsibility and no rights, no ability to do much except pay and suffer. It’s a really bad idea to mix up responsibilities and rights through sloppy language. The muddled thinking that results from it can have a devastating effect in real life.

Now At Echidne's 900% More Value For Your Time

A thousand world post condensed

Winning Leftist Politics the easy way

Do you want “them” with you or against you? “Them” are people you can get on your side.

Some people won’t ever be on your side and [them] you don’t have to worry about.

How do you get “them” with you? Find out and you win.

You don’t have to be best friends, just don’t make “them” your enemy.
You think mocking “them” is fun? You like to lose? You lose, [them] win.

You need allies to win, a coalition, listening, give and take.
It’s not always fun. But winning is always fun.

Making fun of [them]? Ask Miss Manners.

You don’t care if you win? If you aren’t trying to win you’re wasting your time reading this.

Update: In view of the comment thread I've done some research which I link to without comment.
Daddy took credit,

For the barrier’s fall

But Georgie boy’s buildin’

The Bushlin wall


No Not the Defense of New England

The Defense of the United States

Posted by olvlzl

Regionalism is a septic sore that spreads over this country at the most opportune times. Opportune for conservatives. At such times it’s been my practice to issue a challenge.

This time it is David Broder who threatens infection with a bit of columnage about Gore and Kerry being snobs who rubbed his fellow heart-landers the wrong way. “ Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself.” First note that this is a question of Kerry and Gore being too pompous for David Broder. For that unlikely feat both should be memorialized in some form of too, too precious metal. In ascending order, more royalist than the King, more Catholic than the Pope, too pompous for Broder. When Broder uses a cliche like that it’s time for it to be sent to a sealed landfill or a botox facility for processing.

Passing over Broder’s actual home for most of the last fifty years, Virginia, the electoral vote in his home state of Illinois and several of its bordering states went for both Gore and Kerry. Maybe this is just Broders way of saying that in his heart he knows he’s a Hoosier. With his demonstrated research skills, if Broder wants to get into a fight with Illinois, Michigan Minnesota and Wisconsin about their “heartland” status it might be a more productive use of the nation’s time than his thoughts on national politics.

I’m tempted to defend Gore here but it is the other target who serves my purpose. Based on a liftime experience of this kind of thing I suppose the Kerry bit was because he’s from New England. We certainly heard enough about his typical New England arrogance during the last campaign. It’s always so interesting how New Englanders morph from being the salt of the earth in February of election years to being effete New England Blue Stockings the rest of the time. Talking about chestnuts of the punditocracy gone bad in the jar. Those stuck-up, smarty pants New Englanders always looking down on every one else. Well, as to my fellow New Englanders being parochial, regional snobs here comes the challenge.

Maine’s last governor was Angus King from Alexandria Virginia. While he was governor the Majority Leader in our legislature was a great Democrat, Libby Mitchell who came from South Carolina and who sounds wonderfully like it. I won’t go into the not unfounded rumor that while holding one of our senate seats William Cohen actually lived in Florida most of the time.

Our neighboring state, New Hampshire, for most of the seventies and into the eighties had a governor, the far less than wonderful Meldrim Thomson, who though born in Pennsylvania was very clearly reared in the South and sounded like he could have given lessons in speaking Southern to the late Howell Heflin.

And Massachusetts, that epicenter of alleged hatred of all things Southern and scorner of all things non-New England and not only Massachusetts but the Democratic Party of Massachusetts, the party of Kennedy, Dukakis* and Barney Frank**, ran John Silber, very much from Texas, as its candidate for governor. And he might have won if he hadn’t gone completely nuts and savaged Natalie the local anchorwoman so ballistically right before the election. He’s not you’re A-list candidate for Mr. Wonderful either.

Add to this the fact that New England gave Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton their big jump starts from relative obscurity in their presidential campaigns. And New England has quite consistently voted for Southerners for President.*** I’ll bet that New England has a much better record of support for Southern presidential candidates than many Southern states do these days. We have a good record of support for candidates from Broder’s fabled heartland too.

The challenge is to find states in the South and “Red” Mid-West which have a better record of electing and supporting obvious New Englanders for such important offices. New Englanders who don’t actively pretend to be anything else.

You know what? If you can meet or exceed the challenge I will be thrilled. I hate regionalism. I hate the cheap Republican political game of division on the basis of manufactured regional resentment. I hate it so much that I’d love to find evidence in the South or any other region of the country that can prove it’s another destructive political lie of Republican media.

My experience with New Englanders, and the record would tend to prove it, is that we generally aren’t regionalist snobs, certainly no more than others. There is a problem with New Englanders being favored by the first in the nation primary but that’s true of any place in the country and is in the process of being fixed. There are bigoted idiots everywhere and there are great public servants everywhere too. This isn’t an exercise in regional self-congratulation but to kill the myth. Maybe that can be sent to the toxic waste dump with the rest of Broder’s foetid crock of exercised at a distance, more common in the punditocracy than in the People, pseudo- heartland, self-satisfaction.

* The one Loretta Lynn wouldn’t consider voting for because she thought his Greek name was too weird.

** There is no more solid example of a Massachusetts politician, from New Jersey if I remember correctly.

*** Wilson, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Gore, and arguably Truman are Southerners who the Democratic Party has nominated as President within the past century.

Other than Lincoln I’m hard pressed to remember a real Southerner who has gotten the Republican nomination for President. George I and II are the Republican Party’s idea of Southerners to give their Presidential nomination. These products of New England Yankeedom always seemed to me rather more in the tradition of carpetbaggers than genuine Southerners. I’ll tell you, they tend to lose their Southern accents when they’re here in Maine. If Southerners want to overlook their provenance that’s their business, but why the exception for the Bush clan?

Since Southerners are the primary target audience of this Republican regionalist garbage they might also wonder why the Southern contenders for the Republican nomination in 2008 are so completely ignored by the media in favor of McCain and Romney. That’s Governor Romney from Massachusetts. Now that he’s decided to not be from Utah where he was also considering running. Maybe the media is quite atypically just going on history to decide who has a chance in which party. Mark Warner of Virginia and Edwards of North Carolina are certainly getting a lot of attention for the Democratic nomination as is Al Gore.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Some More Jesus Camp

For the trailer and other information, go here.

Friday Cat blogging

This is another of Barry's cats guarding him. I feel like a traitor to dogs to post so many cat pictures. Send me some dog pictures, please. Henrietta the Hound has been unwilling to pose for me recently, even if she is the most beautiful dog in the whole wide world.

On Matters Medical 2

It's a very poor choice to write long blog posts and then to post them against poison-green background. Few people will read them and then they will sue me for the headache. That's the nice thing about a blog of my own: I can agree to all this and just tractor on.

This is the second post on matters medical. The first one discussed the confusion between correlation and causality. This one will talk about screening for disease. Its hook is this piece of news:

Federal health officials Thursday recommended regular, routine testing for the AIDS virus for all Americans ages 13 to 64, saying an HIV test should be as common as a cholesterol check.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are aimed at preventing the further spread of the disease and getting needed care for an estimated 250,000 Americans who don't yet know they have it.

"We simply must improve early diagnosis," said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding.

Nearly half of new HIV infections are discovered when doctors are trying to diagnose a patient who has already grown sick with an HIV-related illness, CDC officials said.

"By identifying people earlier through a screening program, we'll allow them to access life-extending therapy, and also through prevention services, learn how to avoid transmitting HIV infection to others," said Dr. Timothy Mastro, acting director of the CDC's division of HIV/AIDS prevention.

Although some groups raised concerns, the announcement was mostly embraced by health policy experts, doctors and patient advocates.

Screening is the odd guy out in medical care, because it's not really prevention and it's not really treatment. It is usually justified as allowing diseases to be spotted earlier. The hope is that earlier diagnosis makes for better cure or at least longer survival rates. In many cases we know this to be true, in some cases we just hope this to be true.

The benefits of screening can be found in what I stated in the prior paragraph, with one addition: When the disease we screen for is an infectious one, such as is the case with AIDS, the benefits of screening may also include the ability to reduce the spread of the disease by making an infected person aware of the infection, assuming that this awareness changes behaviors (such as engaging in unprotected sex or donating blood) which are dangerous for others.

Any other benefits to screening? It can help in producing useful information for medical research and the relief people get when they are told that they don't have a particular disease also might count as a benefit. All this is very good, and most likely the reason why Americans are fervent supporters of various types of mass screening programs.

Now let's dive into criticisms of screening. You knew I would go there, I always do.

Medical programs don't have just benefits, they also have costs. In the widest sense these costs include not only the financial costs of the program but also the nonfinancial negative or harmful consequences of the program. As an example of the latter, think about someone who gets told that she might be HIV-positive, based on one these tests, even though she doesn't actually have the infection (a false positive finding). She will then undergo further tests, both costing money and a lot of mental suffering. It is this suffering which also counts as costs of the program.

Or think about someone who is told that she doesn't have the infection even though she does (a false negative finding). She'd be relieved and perhaps less likely to notice subtle symptoms or to take proper precautions in stopping the spread of the disease. The consequences of this are also costs of the program.

And so are the costs accruing to all those tested. We often look at the costs of a medical program in a narrow sense, by counting the expenditures of the institutions running it, but we ignore the costs to the patients participating in the program.

In an ideal world we would be able to count all the benefits and all the costs of a program in the same units, say, money, and we would then be able to look at the impact of the program on various groups of people from the fairness and human rights angle. This would allow us to make pretty good recommendations about which program to finance or to require someone else to finance.

But we don't live in that ideal world. In reality many choices take place almost totally on political grounds and emotional arguments tend to trump most other arguments. The reason why this is not such a great idea is simple: money and other resources spent in one type of medical program (for instance, mass screening) will not be available for some other type of medical program (for instance, more intensive screening of people at high risk and more help for them to cover the costs of treatment when needed).

Suppose, for the sake of an experiment, that you are told the existence of one person in the United States who has a fatal illness, but one which can be cured if we only could find this one person. Suppose that the only way to find the individual is to screen every single one of us at the cost of ten dollars per person (plus the costs of time and travel and so on for each subject tested). Should we pay for this program? What if there are two people with this horrible illness out there? A thousand? Ten thousand? What if it costs a hundred dollars per person to do the screening?

To continue the experiment, suppose that researchers have narrowed down the type of person most likely to have this fatal illness. They believe that there is a 0.9 probability that the person is under five feet tall. This means that the probability of finding the person in the group of people over that height is only 0.1. Should we still screen all people to find the one case?

This thought experiment can be enhanced in many ways. We could introduce a second disease to the story and we could ask which of the two diseases we should screen for. Or we could expand the setup in a slightly different way: Consider a disease such as breast cancer. That you don't have it today doesn't mean you won't have it tomorrow. If getting a mammograph once a year is good, why not suggest one every six months? Every three months? Every day?

I may have overhammered my nail home, but one more time may not hurt: Screening has both benefits and costs, and the costs matter, because money and effort spent one way is not available to be spent in other perhaps equally good ways.

On Matters Medical 1

Two health related articles gave me that internal ping of a "teachable moment" (hate the term), one on the supposed connection between breast implants and suicide rates and the other one on the new proposal to routinely test most Americans for the HIV infection. The pings in the two cases are different but they both have to do with my feeling that most people really have an excessive timidity to interrogate and to analyze medical studies. Remember this quote from an earlier post of mine:

In my opinion, the most important insight in this area right now is Deena Skolnick's demonstration of the power of neuroscience to cloud people's minds. She took explanations of psychological phenomena that had been crafted to be "awful", and which (in their plain form) were recognized as bad both by novices and by experts, and added some (totally irrelevant) sentences about brain anatomy and physiology. With the added neuroscientific distraction, the bad explanations were perceived as satisfactory ones. [The paper with the details of this research has not yet been published -- I promise to discuss it in more detail once the details are generally available. The mass media certainly offer plenty of anecdotal evidence these days for Skolnick's idea.]

It's not just neuroscience jargon that we respect. It's all science-sounding jargon, and my guess is that it's because we don't know what the hell the stuff means so it must be something totally undebatable and true. In some ways this attitude is no better than the attitude of those who deny evolution any scientific standing. They both make science into a question of faith, and that is a very bad outcome for both science and for faith.

Hence my decision to start writing short posts on some of the questions that we as educated consumers of science should understand better. This post will address correlation and causality. The next one will talk about how we decide which people should be screened for diseases. I hope that you will enjoy the ride.

The study on breast implants begins like this:

Boosting breast size with plastic surgery has been linked to a significantly higher suicide rate among women in a new 15-year study.

To the credit of the writer of the article, the rest of the story explains why this sentence is unlikely to mean that breast implants cause suicide. The more likely reason for the link between the two is this:

The researchers discovered the suicide rate is 73 percent higher in participants with breast implants relative to the control group. The connection between breast implants and suicide was not tested and no direct link was found between the two.

However, Bisson said previous studies have characterized women who receive breast implants by a low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and more frequent mental illnesses such as depression.

Not too bad, on the whole. The snag is that so many people read only that first sentence and then start telling people that breast implants cause suicide.

In general terms, two phenomena are correlated when they seem to have a nonrandom relationship to each other. For example, they might both grow larger over time or smaller over time or one might always grow larger when the other one grows smaller. The last sentence is a very fuzzy way of defining positive correlation (when the two things move in the same direction) and negative correlation (when they move in opposite directions). It is exceedingly common in political punditry to take a correlation between two concepts, to ignore everything else that might be going on and to decide that one of these concepts is the cause and the other is the effect. Feminism is often used in these morality tales by the right-wingers and always labeled as the cause. Usually the other variable is something that is bad for the society, say, increasing crime, and it is then labeled as the effect. End of discussion.

Now this is not science, but even there many readers look at correlation over time and see causality. This is very risky for several good reasons:

First, many things correlate over time for purely random reasons or for reasons which are too obscure to understand. Statisticians often use the example of dress lengths and their correlation with all sorts of other phenomena: who wins the Super Bowl, which party gets elected to the U.S. Congress and so on.

Second, even if two things are causally related, we cannot just simply label one the cause and the other one the effect. Take a study I remember reading a few years ago which argued that parents who spent more time talking to their teenaged children had better adjusted and happier children. The writeup of the study concluded that parents must talk more to their children who will then be happier. But I can see at least an equally good case for reversing the cause-and-effect story here: It's pretty obvious that teenagers who are not doing well and are unhappy and grumpy may not want to talk to their parents at all. Or the two could be related in a more complicated fashion so that each variable is both a cause and an effect of the other! The point of this story is that the original results do NOT prove causality at all but that the representations of the findings do.

Another example of this problem is common in medical studies. One study found out that patients with serious chronical diseases died earlier if they had fewer outside social contacts (going to church or bowling or movies with someone else). The conclusion was that social support allowed patients to live longer. Perhaps. But it would also be true that someone who feels very bad (like right before dying) will not want to go out bowling and such.

You may have been following the recent debate about weight and life expectancy. Well, the studies on that might also suffer from this reversed causality problem as people tend to lose a lot of weight right before death. Better studies can reduce the confusion of deciding when correlation indeed is causality, but the problem doesn't go away completely. One way to get more clarity is by employing a very simple observation: Usually causes take place before effects. Thus, if a study can start with people only manifesting the likely cause (say, a certain body weight) and then later get data on the likely effect (say, changes in health) we are on somewhat firmer ground in talking about causality.

Third, only in laboratory circumstances can we really be certain that whatever we are studying might not be caused by some other variable that we are not measuring at all.
It's a little bit like saying that Jim has been killed, Jane has been taken to court for the crime, but perhaps in reality it was Jeremiah who did the killing. Or perhaps persons Jill and Jack hired Jane. Or perhaps Jim tried to kill Jesse who is Jane's son and Jane defended Jesse. And so on.

Often the underlying pattern of causes might be something of the kind the breast implant study suggested: The same third variable (here low self-esteem and emotional problems) might cause both of the variables we are studying (here getting body enhancements and committing suicide). But even here we might speculate much further by asking what it is that caused the low self-esteem in the first place.

An older example of this "missing third variable" case is a study which the religious right still seems to be disseminating on its websites. The study found that couples who lived together before getting married had higher rates of divorce than those who didn't cohabit first, and the conclusion was that living in sin causes divorces. It is much more probable that some couples who are opposed to cohabitation are also opposed to divorce, even when their marriages are not working out.

Fourth, note that we shouldn't bow in front of the altar of laboratory experiments, either. There is a fairly well-established literature pointing out that putting something human or animal into a laboratory doesn't just remove other external causes from consideration; it also puts the living being into what is pretty much an austere and unnatural prison, and this new possible cause must be taken into account in judging the results. For example, the sexual or maternal behavior of animals in a metal cage doesn't necessarily tell us how they would act out in their natural habitat, and having students play stock market games on computers doesn't tell us how they'd invest in the actual messy real life.

All this comes across very sceptical. So I hasten to add that I am a great fan of science, and that is the reason why I want to treat it with its own standards of logic and transparency and experiments which can be repeated. But you could use my four points (and any others I forgot) as a checklist when you read the next study that seems to have found another causal link.

I Voted For Torture

So said Lynn Westmoreland yesterday. It was a joke, naturally:

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said Thursday he was making a joking reference and did not mean to be taken literally when he said at two recent events that he "voted for torture."

"What I should have said was that I voted against an anti-torture bill that did not define what torture was," Westmoreland said.

The lawmaker made the comment in appearances at a Georgia Christian Coalition dinner Saturday and at a Douglas County Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.

There is a more hideous joke in this, the one about the Christian Coalition dinner being the place at which such jokes might be found funny. Whom would Jesus torture?

The text of the "compromise" agreement on the treatment of detainees in the war on fear is now available (pdf). This part states who really won the debate:

3) INTERPRETATION BY THE PRESIDENT.— As provided by the Constitution
and by this section, the President has the authority for the United States to interpret the
meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and to promulgate higher standards
and administrative regulations for violations of treaty obligations which are not grave
breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
(B) The President shall issue such interpretations by Executive Order published in
the Federal Register, and such orders shall be authoritative (as to non-grave breach
provisions) as a matter of United States law, in the same manner as other administrative

George Bush can still interpret to his heart's content, but some time later human rights activists can read in the Federal Register if anybody got waterboarded in the past.

But What About Waterboarding?

This seems to summarize the deal John McCain so heroically managed to create yesterday:

THE GOOD NEWS about the agreement reached yesterday between the Bush administration and Republican senators on the detention, interrogation and trial of accused terrorists is that Congress will not -- as President Bush had demanded -- pass legislation that formally reinterprets U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Nor will the Senate explicitly endorse the administration's use of interrogation techniques that most of the world regards as cruel and inhumane, if not as outright torture. Trials of accused terrorists will be fairer than the commission system outlawed in June by the Supreme Court.

The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation. Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.

A Carnival of Feminists

It's the 23rd. Here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Maverick

That would be McCain. He's supposed to be the odd man out in the Republican party, the one who dares to disagree, nay, even challenge the rigid power structure of the party. But somehow nothing ever comes from these challenges. The wingnut power structure always gets its way and McCain ends up looking like a rebel, like an independent thinker, like a moderate. Like someone a Democrat could love.

It's a bad-cop-good-cop routine, and McCain is the good cop. Too bad that the Democrats never learn this. Take today's "compromise" on the interrogation of terrorism detainees. Here's Digby:

The "compromise" will, as I predicted, allow the "tough interrogations" by amending the war crimes act. And they will reportedly create a new JAG office to review classified information and determine if terrorist suspects can see it if it's being used against them in a trial. We already know they have devised some habeas corpus loophole to keep innocent people imprisoned without any due process.

Republicans are happy.

CIA Director Michael Hayden said..."If this language becomes law, the Congress will have given us the clarity and the support that we need to move forward with a detention and interrogation program that allows us to continue to defend the homeland, attack al-Qaida and protect American and allied lives," he said in a written message to agency personnel.

The Republicans are now standing shoulder to shoulder having worked this whole thing out --- they are strong, they are tough, they are moral, and they are willing to work together to form a compromise that they can all live with. Aren't they great? This is why we should vote Republican.

Now watch this drive.

Ed Rogers on Hardball said Bush got to look both tough on terror and effective in bringing the senate along. Kweisi Mfume says McCain looks good to Democrats and independents and Bush looks good to Americans in general.

Did you get it? Good-cop-bad-cop all the way through:

McCain brushed off any talk about who prevailed in this showdown with the White House, saying, "We're all winners because we've been able to come to an agreement through a process of negotiations and consensus."

He said "the agreement that we have entered into gives the president the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice."

Picture from here.

On Devils and the Axis of Evil

That's the type of thing presidents of countries call each other these days....

But there are worse things out there, you know. According to David Broder, lefty bloggers are among those worse things:

Now, however, you can see the independence party forming -- on both sides of the aisle. They are mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society -- the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right who would convert their faith into a whipping post for their opponents.

Have another cucumber sandwich, David. Or would you prefer a martini with that bile?

That last sentence in Broder's quote is an example of false balance. The doctrinaire religious extremists on the right are in power. Their desires shape the manner in which this administration operates. The vituperative and foul-mouthed bloggers on the left are nothing but voices in the wilderness, easy to ignore. And their numbers are vanishingly few compared to the millions of staunch Rapturists wingnuts. But some of them have said foul-mouthed things about Broder, so on the list they go. Or we go, I guess.

You may have spotted by now that I'm grumpy today. Too much arguing. That is one aspect of blogging I never anticipated, though I should have. I like a good debate but not 24/7.

From Saudi Arabia and Iran, on Women

Good news from Saudi Arabia. Remember the proposal to bar women from praying in certain areas around Kaaba? Well, the proposal has been rejected:

Saudis and expatriates have welcomed the decision taken by the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs to reject a proposal to shift the women's prayer area in the mataaf (circumambulation area around the Holy Kaaba). The presidency has also decided to allocate 53 percent of the Grand Mosque to female worshippers.

"There is no truth in press reports that the presidency was planning to shift the women's prayer place in the mataaf to other areas inside the mosque. This was merely based on a proposal (made by a special panel)," Muhammad Nasser Al-Khozaim, vice chairman of the presidency, told reporters.

"No change has taken place in the prayer area for women in the mataaf. In fact, we have allocated two more wider spaces overlooking the Kaaba for women to pray," the official said emphasizing that women were equally entitled to the prayer complex as men.

The Iranian president Ahmadinejad was asked this question during his visit to the U.N. in New York:

You are the president of Iran and you have the opportunity to enforce justice. Reports coming from Iran seem to indicate that student movements are being repressed, that justice is not being served, as far as the followers of the Baha'i faith, as well as for women, who object to the Islamic laws that discriminate against them.

And what did he answer? Read his answer for yourself and then tell me whether he answered any part of the question. I certainly didn't find him mentioning women's rights.

The United States of Republicans?

Remember how Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, supposedly told that he canceled a contract because the contractor had dissed Bush? Well, it seems that this indeed took place:

The incident prompted an investigation by the HUD Inspector General. The Dallas Morning News got a look at the 340-page report yesterday. The report concluded that an incident similar to the one Jackson described did occur.

Additionally, the Inspector General — through interviews with top HUD staffers — found that Jackson was involved in even more egregious behavior. The report reveals that Jackson instructed staff to award HUD contracts to President Bush's political allies and withhold them from his political opponents. From the Dallas Morning News:

In a follow-up interview on June 8, investigators confronted her with testimony from Cathy MacFarlane, who resigned that month as HUD's assistant secretary for public affairs. Ms. MacFarlane told investigators that at a senior staff meeting, Mr. Jackson "made a statement to the effect that it was important to consider presidential supporters when you are considering the selected candidates for discretionary contracts."

And Ms. MacFarlane told investigators, "I think it was a political [appointee] talking to a political, saying if all things are equal, you're giving out a contract, give it out to the family, you know."

The tribal code of honor working here? I hope this is an isolated incident. The government is still supposed to be the government of all Americans:

...the Federal Aquisition Reguations (48 CFR 3.101-1) which requires that "Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach and…with complete impartiality and with preferential treatment for none."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Guest Post From Mexico

(A reader from Mexico has kindly written up the story of what is going in Mexico right now and has given me permission to post his article here. It's not quite up-to-date which is completely my fault. I've been procrastinating. But the information is still relevant for full understanding of the situation.)

Interesting Times in Mexico
By Ronald Nigh

"May you live in interesting times!"
Ancient Chinese Curse

The Electoral Conflict
As everyone is now aware, the Electoral Tribunal, Mexico's final court of appeal in its electoral process, has validated the narrow victory of the rightwing official candidate for the Presidency (2006-2012), Felipe Calderón. Officially, Calderón won the July 2 election, over his centrist-progressive opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, by a thin margin of a quarter of a million votes out of more than 41 million total votes. The Tribunal's decision is celebrated as closure of the controversy by Calderón's supporters, including his own party (PAN – Partido de Acción Nacional) the corporate media, the sector of Mexican business most closely allied with multinational corporations, the hierarchy of the Catholic church and an assortment of odd bedfellows such as the remnants of the disintegrating PRI party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) that formerly ruled Mexico for 75 years.

However, nearly everyone else, including the majority of Mexico's voting citizens are far from convinced by the formal outcome of the judicial process, even it they don't particularly support the other candidate. The controversy has spawned a social movement of protest that still has thousands of people camped in the streets in Mexico City with many more thousands of sympathizers throughout the country.

Since the July 2 elections we have witnessed a series of challenges to the fairness and honesty of the election. From exit polls that gave Lopez Obrador a strong lead, to the election night preliminary results that reversed that lead, to the partial recount ordered by the Tribunal in August, at each step, evidence of systematic fraud has been presented. In each case, the mainstream media has refused to publish these challenges, the government has denied them while presenting no evidence to contradict them and, finally, the Electoral Tribunal, believed to be under direct pressure from current President Vicente Fox, has systematically ignored or dismissed them without justification.

Several independent studies of the electoral process, both within Mexico and from Europe and the US, have detected serious irregularities. To cite just two examples, Weisbrot et al. analyzed the results of the Tribunal's partial recount (only a small part of which, inexplicably, was made available to the public) and found systematic bias in favor of the official candidate among the annulled votes. Mebane of Cornell subjected available vote counts to a mathematical analysis and concludes that "more intensive investigation of the election results is in order."

During the Tribunal's August recount of results from some 11,000 voting stations (out of over 130,000, or less than 10%), a large number of irregularities were revealed. Some results of the recount were turned over to the political parties and Lopez Obrador's supporters pointed to the irregularities in over 4,000 voting stations. In previous election controversies in recent years, the Tribunal has annulled the results of stations showing such irregularities. They did not do so in this case. If the 4,000 voting stations challenged had been annulled, the result of the election would be reversed. In fact, if the results of the partial recount are projected to the 72,000 voting stationsquestioned by Lopez Obrador, then he will have won the July 2 election by 2 million votes, a decisive victory for the progressive candidate.

In general, most of the analyses have concluded that sufficient uncertainty is present in the official result to warrant a further recount of the original vote. Lopez Obrador has demanded a full recount. Yet the government has steadfastly refused to authorize it. Access to the original ballots also has been denied to citizen groups and the government is now rushing to burn the ballots, thus removing the possibility of resolving the uncertainty.

Further violations of Mexican electoral law were denounced before the Tribunal, including illegal interference by the current President in the campaign, in favor of the official candidate, illegal campaign propaganda financed by big business groups, as well as smear and swift-boating tactics in the PAN campaign, violating established regulations. These violations alone, according to Mexican law, are sufficient to annul the election, even without considering the evidence of fraud at the voting station level.

The final decision of the Tribunal was given in two separate moments. First the direct evidence of election fraud at the precinct and district level was dismissed, based on technicalities, rather than a consideration of the merits of the evidence. Also the Tribunal refused to consider the evidence its own recount had produced. The Tribunal's constitutional charge is to seek evidence to clarify and assure the certainty of the election results, yet the judges refused to assume this duty. So on technicalities, all consideration of the evidence for fraud was simply ignored by the judges. Many people have the impression, perpetrated by the press that the Tribunal thus established that there was no evidence of fraud, but this is not at all the case. They simply stuck their heads in the sand.

The second moment was the September 5 validation of the overall process and the awarding of the presidency to Calderón. In doing this, the judges could not ignore the obvious illegal interventionism of the current President and big business during the campaign, in violation of electoral laws. They included a 'reprimand' to President Fox and the business groups but claimed that there was "no evidence" that these violations affected the election result—and of course unsaid: no evidence that they did not affect the result either. The point is, the law was violated, by the Tribunal's own admission, yet the required annulment was not granted.

More than just Lopez Obrador's supporters are disgruntled by this very weak, indeed shameful showing by the Electoral Tribunal. Constitutional experts have been highly critical of the decision and some have called for its annulment, though it is not clear how that could be done. The Supreme Court, part of the same corrupt judicial system, has already refused a citizen request to review the election process. Today (Sep 8) a well connected Mexico City politician and former UN ambassador, publicized a rumor that, previous to the Tribunal's decision, the judges met with President Fox in the house of the head of the Supreme Court, where Fox pressured and threatened the judges to ignore irregularities and declare for Calderon or the consequences for Mexico, he claimed, would be chaotic.

What will happen?
Nobody knows. But it seems that the current course is more likely to result in a chaotic situation than a Lopez Obrador presidency. The Tribunal's decision is not recognized by Lopez Obrador, nor by hundreds of thousands of his followers. Nor has his party PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) aquiesced. The Congressmen of the PRD, in spectacular move on Sept 1, occupied the atrium of the Chamber of Deputies and prevented President Fox from delivering his final State of the Union address. They threaten to use the same tactic on Dec. 1 when Calderón is scheduled to assume office. The 'President elect' travels around Mexico City in a helicopter to avoid meeting protests. He sneaked in the back door of the Electoral Tribunal last week to receive the official document accrediting his victory in the disputed election.

The resistance movement provoked by the discontent with the elections shows no sign of abating after the Tribunal's decision. Lopez Obrador has called a 'National Democratic Convention' (evoking an earlier event called by the Zapatistas) on Independence Day, Sept 16, in Mexico City's main plaza. He states that the purpose of the convention is to 'refound' Mexico's political institutions, including perhaps naming an alternative government and president of Mexico. Lopez Obrador cites Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution that gives the people the right to reestablish a new system of government at any time. So far, more than 200,000 delegates to the convention have been name by local PRD and Lopez Obrador supporters from all over the country. Over a million people are expected to attend the convention. The moment will be tense as it coincides in time and place with the traditional military parade and public ceremony in which the current President is supposed to give the grito, the shout of Mexican Independence, "¡Que viva México!" Lopez Obrador and his followers insist that the do not seek confrontation and that their movement is entirely pacifist.

Some clues about what may ensue might lie in events not directly related to the electoral controversy, The current political context in Mexico is complex and goes far beyond the movement lead by Lopez Obrador. Many parts of the country have hosted, for several years, local autonomy movements in which communities are structuring their own independent forms of local government, ignoring the established political system. Most of these efforts are virtually unknown outside of the local areas. In the state of Guerrero, for example, for more than a decade a locally elected police force known a 'Community Police' has gradually replaced the corrupt and violent official police forces. This system has evolved into the creation of a local court system as well, so that the people of Guerrero have essentially constructed an alternative system of justice. One can only imagine why they may have been motivated to do so.

Movements of political autonomy have emerged in other areas as well. The Zapatistas and their 'Rebel Townships' have received some attention in the press, but other communities of Chiapas, not affiliated with Zapatismo have also began their own autonomous movements. On the other hand, the Zapatistas have begun a national movement called 'The Other Campaign' through which, independently of the electoral forces and regular parties, including that of Lopez Obrador, they hope to build and new opposition political movement in the country

Oaxaca has also been constructing local autonomies for some years. Recently a political crisis has emerged in the state as a teacher's strike sparked a wide resistance movement against Oaxaca's current PRI governor (also believed to have been brought to power by electoral fraud). A wide alliance of community groups has formed a strong front—the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, APPO in Spanish--and has virtually paralyzed to state to demand the 'disappearance of powers' and the resignation of the governor. In a meeting on Sept 3 the APPO officially 'banned' the current governor and declared a new state government. Although the Oaxaca situation is not directly related to the electoral conflict it may be a kind of rehearsal for the national movement; their moves are being closely watched by all as a possible example for the decisions of the National Democratic Convention may adopt on Sept 16.

It is not coincidental, of course, that Guerrero, Chiapas and Oaxaca concentrate most of Mexico's indigenous population.

The Reaction
With the right wing party firmly ensconced in the formal powers of government, one might well wonder how it will react. If we take Oaxaca again as a possible preview, then we may be in for 'interesting times'.

The initial reaction of the Federal government to the demand for removing the local government can be characterized as intransigent. When the popular movement clearly revealed itself beyond the capacities of the governor's security forces, President Fox sent 300 'Federal Preventative Police' (actually military personnel disguised as police). This force again changed their disguise into street clothes and began random acts of repression against the popular movement, destroying radio stations that had been occupied and even carrying out random shootings of protesters. These methods were not effective however, and the Popular Assembly organized the neighborhoods of Oaxaca City to blockade streets to impede and eventually capture the Federal police.

The Federal government finally entered into negotiations with APPO
and has even accepted putting the issue of resignation on the table as well as other issues. The Minister of Government (a combination of Interior and Homeland Security) agreed to take their petition to the new Congress. The crisis of Oaxaca is far from settled, however.

We can perhaps get a glimpse of the future actions of the right wing PAN party by looking at their initial actions in the new Congress. The PAN now has a simple majority in both houses. It's first move was to ally with the now minority PRI and other small parties to form a block to outnumber the PRD and deny its rightful place as second political force, passing over PRD members for key positions in the legislature that would traditionally be theirs. This is a blatant violation of political custom and a clear indication that Mexico's system is in deep crisis, from top to bottom.
On September 9, when the Minister brought the Oaxaca petition to the Congress, the PAN leader refused to consider removing Oaxaca's governor, probably as part of the new alliance with the PRI. These events, as well as not so veiled threats against Lopez Obrador's followers concerning the intentions of the Convention, suggest that the initial reaction of the new government will be intransigence and repression.

The PRD Congressmen, who walked out of the Sept 8 session in protest of the PRI-PAN exclusion move, have vowed that Felipe Calderon will not be allowed to take possession on Dec 1, just as Fox was prevented from delivering his State of the Union on Sept 1. So, a number of potential flash points exist, apart from rumor's that the government may soon move to remove Lopez Obrador's supporters from their Mexico City camps, perhaps by requesting Congress to grant a suspension of constitutional rights to avoid the 'illegal' use of the army Thus the outgoing president would assume a political cost for what will be a highly unpopular move, that Calderón can ill afford. Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador has proposed to his followers (Sept 10) that they break camp to allow the military parade, to avoid any possible confrontation, and then reconvene in La Plaza de la Constitución for the Indepenence de ceremony and Convention. The next date to watch will be Sept. 16, the National Democratic Convention and Mexico's Independence Day.

More on the Brooks Column

While eating a banana I started thinking about the political implications of the Brooks world, you know, the one where men are full of sex and violence and all women ever want is to be friends and to talk. Suppose, just for the sake of some banana-munching idle thinking, that Brooks was actually correct. What would be the right conclusion to draw about which sex should run this world's affairs?

It seems to me that Brooks is arguing for matriarchy as the best way of ruling. And in his world no person named "David" could write an opinion column, because it's women who communicate and men who kill and dream about blowjobs. Indeed, all famous writers would be women. Except possibly in pornography and war writing.

It's really quite silly.

Sex, Science and Stereotypes

That would be a good name for a movie, starring David Brooks as the earnest and impartial neuroscientist who finds, after all, that girls are icky. Brooks has written yet another column about how the old sexual stereotypes are all validated by science:

Over the past several weeks, I've found I can change the conversation at any social gathering by mentioning Louann Brizendine's book, "The Female Brain." Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist and the founder of the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco. She's written a breezy — maybe too breezy — summary of hundreds of studies on the neurological differences between men and women.

All human beings, she writes, start out with a brain that looks female. But around the eighth week in the womb, testosterone surges through male brains, killing cells in some regions (communications) and growing cells in others (sex and aggression).

By the time they are three months old, girls are, on average, much better at making eye contact with other people and picking up information from faces. During play, girls look back at their mothers, on average, 10 to 20 times more than boys, to check for emotional signals. Girls can also, on average, hear a broader range of sounds in the human voice, and can better discern changes in tone.


This shift in how we see human behavior is bound to have huge effects. Freudianism encouraged people to think about destroying inhibitions. This new understanding both validates ancient stereotypes about the sexes, and fuzzes up moral judgments about human responsibility (biology inclines individuals toward certain virtues and vices).

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

What I got from those last two paragraphs is something very different from what Brooks probably intended. Remember how very respected the Freudian explanations of women's problems used to be (and still are in many circles)? Well, now we just have a new pseudoscience to explain away inequality. Nothing to see here, feminists. You have been beaten in your own game, probably because you hear too well.

Why, by the way, do I call this pseudoscience? Because Brooks's argument about "the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago" is an impossible one to subject to a proper scientific test, just as Freud's "penis envy" is. Proper scientific arguments must be testable.

Let's get back to some of stuff Brooks uses to bolster his own strong belief in stereotypes. First Brizendine's book. Here's Mark Liberman on some of the data Brizendine uses in her book:

It's recently fashionable for books and articles to enlist neuroscience in support of the view that men and women are essentially and unavoidably different, not just in size and shape, but also in just about every aspect of the way they see, hear, feel, talk, listen and think. These works tend to confirm our culture's current stereotypes and prejudices, and the science they cite is often overinterpreted, and sometimes seems simply to have been made up. I recently discussed an example from Leonard Sax's book Why Gender Matters ("Are men emotional children?", 6/24/2006), which David Brooks has used to support an argument for single-sex education. The latest example of this genre, released August 1, is Louann Brizendine's book "The Female Brain".

Here's what its jacket blurb says:

Every brain begins as a female brain. It only becomes male eight weeks after conception, when excess testosterone shrinks the communications center, reduces the hearing cortex, and makes the part of the brain that processes sex twice as large.
Louann Brizendine, M.D. is a pioneering neuropsychiatrist who brings together the latest findings to show how the unique structure of the female brain determines how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they'll love. Brizendine reveals the neurological explanations behind why
• A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000
• A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened
• A teen girl is so obsessed with her looks and talking on the phone
• Thoughts about sex enter a woman's brain once every couple of days but enter a man's brain about once every minute
• A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can't spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm
• A woman over 50 is more likely to initiate divorce than a man
Women will come away from this book knowing that they have a lean, mean communicating machine. Men will develop a serious case of brain envy.

I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day claim, and I looked on the web as well, but I haven't been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I'm pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I've just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn't just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air -- she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies -- but let's say, at least, that it ain't necessarily so. I'll post something more about Brizendine's striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

And what about the sensitive hearing of girls when compared to boys, the thing which makes boys unable to hear what their parents are telling them? Liberman again:

Let's zero in on the business about differences in hearing sensitivity. In her book, Brizendine puts it like this (p. 17): "Just as bats can hear sounds that even cats and dogs cannot, girls can hear a broader range of sound frequency and tones in the human voice than can boys." If we take this literally, it's nonsense. In the first place, it's simply false that girls' frequency range compares to boys' like bats to dogs, and as far as I can tell, none of the sources that she cites even suggest anything of the kind. In the second place, all the communicatively-relevant information in speech is well within the frequency range even of normal adults, who have started to lose high-frequency hearing compared to children of both sexes. But let's give Brizendine the benefit of the doubt, and interpret her as talking about a sex difference in auditory sensitivity across the shared frequency range of normal hearing.

This sex difference really exists. It's been known for half a century that girls and women have more sensitive hearing, on average, than boys and men. But those two little words "on average" are crucial. If you pick a man and a women (or a boy and a girl) at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the girl's hearing will be more sensitive -- but about 4 in 10 that the boy's hearing will be more sensitive. Not only that, but the expected value of the sensitivity difference is extremely small: at 1,000 Hz, our randomly-selected girl's threshold will be about 1.1 DB lower than our randomly-selected boy's threshold; at 1,500 Hz, the difference will be about 2 DB. By comparison the JND ("just noticeable difference") for soft sounds is about 1 DB.

It's a political game, my friends, the one that Brooks is playing. The idea is to take sex differences, either real or hypothesized, and then to argue that they are humongous:

Brizendine then describes waves of hormonal activity as women age. Female brains vary with the seasons of life much more than male brains. During menopause, for example, estrogen levels drop. Personalities can change as some women derive less pleasure from nurturing and more from independence. Women initiate 65 percent of divorces after age 50.

These sorts of stark sex differences were once highly controversial, and not fit for polite conversation. And some feminists still argue that talking about biological differences between the sexes is akin to talking about biological differences between the races. But Brizendine's feminist bona fides are unquestionable. And in my mostly liberal urban circle — and among this book's reviewers — almost everybody takes big biological differences as a matter of course.

Estrogen levels fall after menopause!! Who knew? All feminists are flabbergasted. And how is the possible fact (I haven't checked it) that women initiate more divorce after the age fifty a clear proof of something biological? How are these sex differences "stark"? How are these biological differences "big"? What about all the studies which demonstrate the much greater similarity between the sexes in most forms of cognition?

It really is high time to start discussing the way science is popularized these days, especially the hidden political motives underlying it. A very good starting point might be this:

In my opinion, the most important insight in this area right now is Deena Skolnick's demonstration of the power of neuroscience to cloud people's minds. She took explanations of psychological phenomena that had been crafted to be "awful", and which (in their plain form) were recognized as bad both by novices and by experts, and added some (totally irrelevant) sentences about brain anatomy and physiology. With the added neuroscientific distraction, the bad explanations were perceived as satisfactory ones. [The paper with the details of this research has not yet been published -- I promise to discuss it in more detail once the details are generally available. The mass media certainly offer plenty of anecdotal evidence these days for Skolnick's idea.]

Yes, there is this respect for science we all seem to have. It most likely has something to do with the adulation of Einstein's theory of relativity and the invention of antibiotics and other great scientific findings of the past. But we have to learn to understand that just because something is framed in science-babble it's not necessarily true. We have to learn that science writers may not be neutral. And we really have to learn the difference between a characteristic having slightly varying average values for men and women, with large overlaps in the distributions, and the idea that women are from Venus and men from Mars.

More Rights for Murderers

Via Eschaton, I read a Huffington Post piece by Michael Smerconish. It was about a concert he went to:

Last Wednesday night I sat in the front row for a Roger Waters' performance at Madison Square Garden which featured his solo material and many cuts from the Floyd, including Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. (He'll be at the Hollywood Bowl October 5th, 6th and 8th.) I was accompanied by my buddy, Paul Lauricella, a Philadelphia lawyer whose politics are closer to Waters than my own. The two of us fit right in. The crowd was diverse, but largely comprised of guys like me - white, middle aged, with receding hair and expanding waists.

It should have been a night to have a few beers and enjoy the soundtrack of my life. Instead, I sat there in my expensive seat, and heckled the guy whose music I know by heart.

Waters' politics are no longer just liberal, they're over the top.


Then the pig came out.

I refer to a giant, inflatable pig, a hallmark of many Floyd shows, and the symbol of my aforementioned favorite album. Only this time the pig was a billboard for Waters' twisted priorities. "Habeus Corpus Matters", it said, among other things. How appalling. I wondered how many in the New York City audience had lost relatives or friends in the attack of 5 years ago and now were witness to his call for more rights for their murderers?

"Go visit Ground Zero", I yelled again.

More rights for murderers? More than for the rest of us? Not really. A daily Kos diary explains why a group of federal judges opposes the suspension of habeas corpus:

Last Thursday nine former federal judges sent a letter to Congress [pdf text] detailing their opposition to the proposed McCain, Graham, Warner Military Commissions Act of 2006 which would strip US prisoners held outside the United States from their right to habeas corpus.

We applaud Congress for taking action establishing procedures to try individuals for war crimes and, in particular, Senator Warner, Senator Graham, and others for ensuring that those procedures prohibit the use of secret evidence and evidence gained by coercion. Revoking habeas corpus, however, creates the perverse incentive of allowing individuals to be detained indefinitely on that very basis by stripping the federal courts of their historic inquiry into the lawfulness of a prisoner's confinement.

Why is this important? What is habeas corpus? And, why should we care?

Simply, habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, is vital to a free society because it is the principle means by which government is restrained from indiscriminately and indefinitely imprisoning people. Habeas corpus "is a legal proceeding in which an individual held in custody can challenge the propriety of that custody under the law."

The nine judges write:

The habeas petitions ask whether there is sufficient factual and legal basis for a prisoner's detention. This inquiry is at once simple and momentous. Simple because it is an easy matter for judges to make this determination - federal judges have been doing this every day, in every courtroom in the country, since this Nation's founding. Momentous because it safeguards the most hallowed judicial role in our constitutional democracy - ensuring that no man is imprisoned unlawfully. Without habeas, federal courts will lose the power to conduct this inquiry.

Habeas corpus, which has it's roots in English common law going back to the 12th Century, has been the cornerstone of liberty in the United States for the entire history of the country. It is enshrined in the Constitution.

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it. (Article One, section nine).

Prior to the Bush Administration, habeas corpus had only been suspended four times. Famously, during the Civil War, by Lincoln and later by Grant in the early 1870's as part of federal civil rights action against the Ku Klux Klan. The United States was able to fight two world wars and numerous international conflicts without suspending the right to a fair trial.

In the deepest sense this whole debate is not about the rights of murderers. It is about us as a society, about the values that we believe in and about the kind of world we want to build. Do we want a world where people can be "disappeared", never to be seen again? Do we want a world where innocents might be tortured and kept indefinitely, just so that no murderer will ever go free because he or she was given a chance to go to court?

Michael Smerconish's reaction sounded to me like a demand for revenge: someone, somewhere, has to answer for the terrible pain of the massacres that took place five years ago. I can understand the desire for revenge. I can even understand the hatred and the fear. But we shouldn't take our revenge on those who are not guilty, and we shouldn't remove their ability to prove their innocence.

A comment About the Comments

May I suggest using italics or bold text when you are quoting someone else's comment? It makes reading the comments much easier. You can do italics with this trick:
(i)the text you want to quote(/i)

except that you replace the parentheses with the v-shaped brackets. What are those called in English? They are like two letter V's who went drinking and then fell asleep on their sides, the first one with the legs of the V pointing to the right and the second one with the legs pointing to the left.

If you prefer bolding just replace the letter "i" in the above with the letter "b".

Try it. You can preview the result until you get it right.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military Forces

The case of Suzanne Swift is an example of this:

EUGENE, Ore. -- Suzanne Swift remembers standing in her mother's living room, hours away from her second deployment to Iraq. Her military gear had already been shipped -- along with her Game Boy, her DVDs and books, her favorite pink pillow, her stash of sunflower seeds. She had the car keys in her hand, ready to drive to the base. Suddenly, she turned to her mother.

"I can't do this," she remembers saying. "I can't go."

The Army specialist, now 22, recalls her churning stomach. Her mother's surprise. All at once, she said, she could not bear the idea of another year like her first. She was sexually harassed by one superior, she said, and coerced into a sexual affair with another.

"I didn't want it to happen to me again," she said in an interview.

Now Swift is bracing for a possible court-martial. Arrested in June for going AWOL, she detailed three alleged sexual offenses to Army officials, who began an investigation. One incident had already been verified and the perpetrator disciplined. But last Friday, the Army ruled that the two other incidents could not be substantiated. It will soon decide whether to take disciplinary action against Swift for her five-month absence, spokesman Joe Hitt said.

If she is convicted of desertion, Swift faces prison time and a dishonorable discharge.

Sexual harassment in the military is not uncommon:

The Pentagon says that more than 500 sexual assaults involving U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported. But officials acknowledge that the problem is larger than that and is made more complex by a war deployment.

"Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in America, and that's going to be true in the military as well," Pentagon spokesman Roger Kaplan said.

The danger of sexual harassment and rape is one of the arguments those put forward who want to exclude women from the military. That this exclusion punishes the victims rather than perpetrators doesn't seem to matter, and neither does the possibility that the perpetrators might just move to sexually harass local civilians in war areas if no female military troops are available.

The opposite argument to this one has also been exploited by those who want an all-male military: the idea that men in the military can't stop themselves from acting chivalrously by defending the women rather than by doing the job they are assigned to. It's hard to see how they can both protect and sexually harass at the same time, of course.

In reality, I suspect, most men don't fall into either one of these categories. I also suspect that for most men "getting the back" of a comrade-in-arms means just that and not sexual harassment, even when the comrade is a woman. I even suspect that a man in the same position as Suzanne Swift might have felt at least somewhat let down by his superiors.

There is a deeper irony to the program of those who want women out of the military because they might become the victims of sexual harassment. It is that they are often the very same people who want gays out of the military because they are seen as potential perpetrators of sexual harassment. Boggles the mind.

Free Speech...

Media Matters for America reports that "since "Free Speech" began on the CBS Evening News on September 5, CBS has featured three Republicans or conservatives, but not one progressive pundit or Democrat." Methinks the so-called liberal media are scared. Arrrgh! ('Tis the day to speak like a pirate.)

Pope News

You have most likely all read about the most recent Popescandal. Our friend Ratzo does have a sharp tongue for a pope. Or perhaps that tall hat of his is not used to hide a thermos and some sandwiches but the holy foot which can conveniently be inserted in the mouth whenever needed.

You must have figured that I didn't think the Pope's speech on the opinions of a fourteenth century emperor was that well thought out. This is what he said:

From Pope Benedict XVI's address at the University of Regensburg:

"[Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus] turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.... The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."

The defense I have seen most often is that Pope Benedict is just a shy academic, in heart, and that he was totally unafraid of the furor that his comments would provoke. I doubt that explanation. He has been a member of the Catholic hierarchy for a very long time and surely knows better than that:

Some say this was a case of naivety, of a scholarly theologian stumbling into the glare of a global media storm, blinking with surprise at the outrage he had inadvertently triggered. The learned man's thoughtful reasoning, say some, has been misconstrued and distorted by troublemakers, and the context ignored.

But such explanations are unconvincing. This is a man who has been at the heart of one of the world's multinational institutions for a very long time. He has been privy to how pontifical messages get distorted and magnified by a global media. Shy he may be, but no one has ever before accused this pope of being a remote theologian sitting in an ivory tower. On the contrary, he is a determined, shrewd operator whose track record indicates a man who is not remotely afraid of controversy. He has long been famous for his bruising, ruthless condemnation of those he disagrees with. Senior Catholic theologians such as the German Hans Kung are well familiar with the sharpness of his judgments.

But in the 18 months since Benedict was elected, the wary critics who have always feared this man were lulled into believing that office might have softened his abrasive edges. His encyclical on love won widespread acclaim and the pronouncement on homosexuality being incompatible with the priesthood (and its inference that homosexuals were to blame for the child sex abuse problems in the church) were explained away as an inheritance from Pope John Paul II's reign.

But while the Pope has tried to build a more appealing public image, what has become increasingly clear is that this is a man with little sympathy or imagination for other religious faiths. Famously, the then Cardinal Ratzinger once referred to Buddhism as a form of masturbation for the mind - a remark still repeated among deeply offended Buddhists more than a decade after he said it. Even his apology at the weekend managed to bring Jews into the row.

And what are the likely consequences of this Popefuror? Who knows for sure. But it's worrying:

With extremists successfully exploiting popular anger over comments like the pope's or at cartoons critical of Islam, this fringe view has moved closer to the center, often undermining more-moderate views, analysts say.

"Arabs and Muslims feel oppressed by the West. Afghanistan and Iraq are features, but most important is Palestine ... and all of this built-up anger then sometimes explodes,'' says Abdel Wahab al-Messiri, an Islamist thinker and professor in Cairo. "The anger at the West can't be expressed through the popular channels because of their own regimes, so they wait for something like cartoons or the pope's comments and their totalitarian governments can't stop them because that would be something un-Islamic."


Al Qaeda formally refers to itself as the "Global Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews" and its propaganda seeks to convince Muslims that there is a new, US-led crusade against Islam.

While still only a small minority of Muslims buy into this worldview, their visibility has seemed to grow recently. On Monday, the Mujahidin Shura Council, the chief mouthpiece for Al Qaeda in Iraq, said Bush was leading a "new crusade" and, addressing the pope, said: "We will destroy the cross... then all that will be accepted will be conversion or [death]."

Good news, huh? I must admit that neither of the religions involved in this fracas has exactly risen in my esteem.

The Guardian article I linked to above gives another of the Pope's recent statements, this time one about women who want to be priests:

On the excommunication of seven women who called themselves priests: "... the penalty imposed is not only just, but also necessary, in order to protect true doctrine, to safeguard the communion and unity of the church, and to guide consciences of the faithful."

How very powerful female priests would be. The Catholic Church in Germany never excommunicated Hitler...

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Key

To the Diebold voting machines might just be found in your pocket or in that junk drawer in your kitchen if this post has it right:

Like other computer scientists who have studied Diebold voting machines, we were surprised at the apparent carelessness of Diebold's security design. It can be hard to convey this to nonexperts, because the examples are technical. To security practitioners, the use of a fixed, unchangeable encryption key and the blind acceptance of every software update offered on removable storage are rookie mistakes; but nonexperts have trouble appreciating this. Here is an example that anybody, exp
ert or not, can appreciate:

The access panel door on a Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine — the door that protects the memory card that stores the votes, and is the main barrier to the injection of a virus — can be opened with a standard key that is widely available on the Internet.

On Wednesday we did a live demo for our Princeton Computer Science colleagues of the vote-stealing software described in our paper and video. Afterward, Chris Tengi, a technical staff member, asked to look at the key that came with the voting machine. He noticed an alphanumeric code printed on the key, and remarked that he had a key at home with the same code on it. The next day he brought in his key and sure enough it opened the voting machine.

This seemed like a freakish coincidence — until we learned how common these keys are.

Chris's key was left over from a previous job, maybe fifteen years ago. He said the key had opened either a file cabinet or the access panel on an old VAX computer. A little research revealed that the exact same key is used widely in office furniture, electronic equipment, jukeboxes, and hotel minibars. It's a standard part, and like most standard parts it's easily purchased on the Internet. We bought several keys from an office furniture key shop — they open the voting machine too. We ordered another key on eBay from a jukebox supply shop. The keys can be purchased from many online merchants.

Remember that earlier post I wrote on the voting machines? The one which established one minute as the time needed to break into a machine? The one which showed us how to insert a virus which would affect many voting machines, change the results and do it so no trace can be found of anything being off.

Isn't it time to start taking all this seriously?
Via this daily Kos diary.

Today's Assigned Reading

Go and read this post. It gives you an example of the availability of the morning-after pill. Or rather its unavailability.

Meritocracy in a Faith-Based World

I read about the requirements for those Americans who wanted to work to rebuild Iraq earlier, but I was still too innocent to believe that things were quite so bad. I was wrong. They were exactly that bad:

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans -- restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.

To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.

O'Beirne's staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade .

Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting.


To recruit the people he wanted, O'Beirne sought résumés from the offices of Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and GOP activists. He discarded applications from those his staff deemed ideologically suspect, even if the applicants possessed Arabic language skills or postwar rebuilding experience.

Smith said O'Beirne once pointed to a young man's résumé and pronounced him "an ideal candidate." His chief qualification was that he had worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount in 2000.

O'Beirne, a former Army officer who is married to prominent conservative commentator Kate O'Beirne, did not respond to requests for comment.

He and his staff used an obscure provision in federal law to hire many CPA staffers as temporary political appointees, which exempted the interviewers from employment regulations that prohibit questions about personal political beliefs.


One former CPA employee who had an office near O'Beirne's wrote an e-mail to a friend describing the recruitment process: "I watched résumés of immensely talented individuals who had sought out CPA to help the country thrown in the trash because their adherence to 'the President's vision for Iraq' (a frequently heard phrase at CPA) was 'uncertain.' I saw senior civil servants from agencies like Treasury, Energy . . . and Commerce denied advisory positions in Baghdad that were instead handed to prominent RNC (Republican National Committee) contributors."

As more and more of O'Beirne's hires arrived in the Green Zone, the CPA's headquarters in Hussein's marble-walled former Republican Palace felt like a campaign war room. Bumper stickers and mouse pads praising President Bush were standard desk decorations. In addition to military uniforms and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" garb, "Bush-Cheney 2004" T-shirts were among the most common pieces of clothing.

"I'm not here for the Iraqis," one staffer noted to a reporter over lunch. "I'm here for George Bush."

Read the whole article. It's well worth your time. Then tear your hair and scatter ashes all over it. Or at least realize that this administration is not an administration for all Americans. It's a wing of the Republican party.

I'm still waiting for the piece which would tell us where all those Iraq funds went.