SocraticGadfly: 9/30/07 - 10/7/07

October 06, 2007

Is “artificial life” here?

The Guardian is claiming renowned DNA sequencer Craig Venterhas created an artificial chromosome. Venter says the paper is jumping the gun, that an announcement, in an appropriate scientific journal, is months away.

Note that he’s not denying he’s on track, though.

A couple of questions.

1. What’s your take on ethics? As a secular naturalist, I have no problems with this. My only immediate concern is technological, that Venter’s lab has appropriate safeguards on place.

2. Will some PETA-type group, or some Religious Right group, attack Venter’s lab?

This year’s Ig Nobel prizes are out

Courtesy Corrente, here’s the list, via the Beeb, including the Pentagon’s infamous “gay bomb” to make (presumably all-male) enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. (Guess that wouldn’t work so well against Israeli troops, eh?)
2007 Ig Nobel Winners:

Medicine - Brain Witcombe, of Gloucestershire Royal NHS Foundation Trust, UK, and Dan Meyer for their probing work on the health consequences of swallowing a sword.

Physics - A US-Chile team who ironed out the problem of how sheets become wrinkled.
Biology - Dr Johanna van Bronswijk of the Netherlands for carrying out a creepy crawly census of all of the mites, insects, spiders, ferns and fungi that share our beds.

Cemistry - Mayu Yamamoto, from Japan, for developing a method to extract vanilla fragrance and flavouring from cow dung.

Linguistics - A University of Barcelona team for showing that rats are unable to tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and somebody speaking Dutch backwards.

Literature - Glenda Browne of Blue Mountains, Australia, for her study of the word “the”, and how it can flummox those trying to put things into alphabetical order.

Peace - The US Air Force Wright Laboratory for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among enemy troops.

Nutrition - Brian Wansink of Cornell University for investigating the limits of human appetite by feeding volunteers a self-refilling, “bottomless” bowl of soup.

Economics - Kuo Cheng Hsieh of Taiwan for patenting a device that can catch bank robbers by dropping a net over them.

Aviation - A National University of Quilmes, Argentina, team for discovering that impotency drugs can help hamsters to recover from jet lag.

I like the nutrition prize. But, why didn’t Wansink feed people, say, a bottomless bowl of ice cream? Bottomless slice of cheesecake or pecan pie? Bottomless sirloin steak?

Bush shows ignorance of history, international political coddling of Turkey on Armenia

In a deference to counterfactually based Turkish government sensitivities, President Bush says the House of Representatives is not the place to decide whether or not the murder of more than 1 million Armenians during World War I is a genocide:
Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said Friday that Bush believes the Armenian episode ranks among the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but the determination whether “the events constitute a genocide should be a matter for historical inquiry, not legislation.”

Mr. Johndroe and the president are either ignorant of, or willfully denying what reputable historians have already written: Armenia was a genocide. There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of history books on Turkey, Armenia, the Ottoman Empire, etc., that all cover it in detail.

Besides Bush/Johndroe are wrong in another way: The “why” of any mass murder moves beyond history into psychology, sociology and — political science.

As for Bush’s claims this will severely dent relations with Turkey (as if the botching of Iraq and consequent emboldening of Kurdish rebels inside Turkey hasn’t done anything), that may be hot air out of both Washington and Ankara, as much as anything:
“Turkey has been threatening every sort of doomsday scenario,” says Armenian National Committee of America Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “We have been saying that Turkey would harm itself more than the United States if it carries through with these threats.”

As for Turkey’s call to have a set of international experts examine the issue, fine, let’s do that — as soon as Ankara stops criminalizing and censoring discussion of this issue by Turkey’s own historians.

October 05, 2007

Democratic leadership scaring me on proposed FISA renewal

Here’s why: House progressives say they’ve been shut out of the bill-writing process and the ACLU says it hasn’t even been briefed. House progressives fear that at least some of the incredible spying on U.S. citizens incorporated into a six month renewal of FISA late this summer are going to be made permanent.

But, they’re fighting back. The entire Congressional Progressive Caucus, all 72 members, has released a pre-emptive list of items they want to see in a FISA renewal bill:
1. It should be the policy of the United States that the objective of any authorized program of foreign intelligence surveillance must be to ensure that American citizens and persons in America are secure in their persons, papers, and effects, but makes terrorists throughout the world feel insecure.

2. The best way to achieve these twin goals is to follow the rule of law. And the exclusive law to follow with respect to authorizing foreign surveillance gathering on U.S. soil is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As initially enacted by Congress, the exclusivity of FISA was unambiguous. Legislation must reiterate current law that FISA is the exclusive means to authorize foreign surveillance gathering on U.S. soil.

3. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) should be modernized to accommodate new technologies and to make clear that foreign to foreign communications are not subject to the FISA, even though modern technology enables that communication to be routed through the United States.

4. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is indispensable and must play a meaningful role in ensuring compliance with the law. This oversight should include, where possible, regular judicial approval and review of surveillance, of whose communications will be collected, of how it will be gathered, and of how content and other data in communications to and from the United States will be handled.

5. Congress must have regular access to information about how many U.S. communications are being collected and the authority to require court orders when it becomes clear that a certain program or surveillance of a target is scooping up communications of U.S. persons.

6. Once the government has reason to believe that a specific account, person or facility will have contact with someone in the United States, the government should be required to return to the FISC to obtain a court order for continued surveillance. Reliance on the FISC will help ensure the privacy of U.S. persons' communications.

7. Congress should not grant amnesty to any telecommunications company or to any other entity or individual for helping the NSA spy illegally on innocent Americans. The availability of amnesty will have the unintended consequence of encouraging telecommunications companies to comply with, rather than contest, illegal requests to spy on Americans.

8. Authorization to conduct foreign surveillance gathering on U.S. soil must never be made permanent. The threats to America's security and the liberties of its people will change over time and require constant vigilance by the people's representatives in Congress.

These are, or should be, no-brainers. Then why do House progressives still feel locked out of the loop by people like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer? Why did Hoyer postpone a FISA press conference after hearing of the caucus’ bottom line demands?

October 03, 2007

Nefarious Congressmen are in the dock — literally

Sens. Larry Craig and Ted Stevens are in the dock with their Washington residences. Their D.C. homes are boats with the Capital Yacht Club, where convicted Representatives Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham used to drop anchor.

Is that a “wide sail,” Sen. Craig?

Arctic ice going FAST

This year’s minimum, hit Sept. 19, of 1.59 million square miles, is 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average minimum.

That’s pretty damned serious. Let’s lower the estimate of a summertime ice-free Arctic to 2030?

House Dem leadership again shows true colors on Iraq

At least one someone in the Dem leadership is disgruntled with Appropriations chair David Obey because he wants to tie Iraq funding, which has to go through his committee, to a definite withdrawal timeline.

While this brouhaha may prove to be a flash in the pan, or just Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s personal venting, so far, Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t weighed in on the side of Obey.

Anesthesia without dysfunctional muscles

Imagine going to the dentist and not drooling afterward because he only numbs pain nerves and leaves motor control nerves alone.

Well, according to the research, that day could eventually be here.

Antiwar incrementalism doesn’t work, Dem-only voters

To Democratic supporters who tell antiwar activists to settle for incrementalism and vote Democratic, I offer the following thoughts:

Incrementally with a war? You’re either antiwar or prowar. Cutting troops without making it a clear part of ending a war (Clinton, Obama, Edwards) is like being a little bit pregnant. Either that, or it smacks of Tricky Dick’s “Vietnamization.”

Let me substitute Iraq for a domestic issue of violence: the death penalty.

Would you seriously ask anti-death penalty activists to campaign for incremental stages?
While they/we might accept (grudgingly) incremental stages, we will NEVER campaign for them.

If people like you, who run Democrats up the flagpole and salute, can’t get that analogy, you won't get anything.

Beyond that, my foreign policy opposition to most Democrats goes far beyond Iraq. If I want imperialism, I’ll vote Republican, rather than imperialism-lite Democrats.
As far as “voting 1996,” I was criticizing some of Bill Clinton's preachiness imperialism-lite that far back.

Preferably, we’d have a parliamentary government, but, there’s no way in hell the two mainstream parties are ever going to surrender their duopoly.

Frankly, that’s part of the reason I don’t want to vote Democratic, either; it's not just enabling the Democratic Party, it's enabling the current American political system, which is NOT the world's best, despite claims otherwise.

As for the Greens alleged “percentage of fault” in Florida 2000, if the butterfly ballots had been printed differently, Gore would have won Florida.

Hell, for that matter, if Gore had conducted his legal campaign post-vote better, he might have shamed one of the five black robes enough.
So, I don’t really think Greens are at fault.

Oh, and all you Democrats who claim I have “blood on my hands,” nope, it’s you — you voted for the prowar Kerry in 2004. And the more you try to pin that libel on people like me, the more you alienate us.

The latest notes on the likelihood of a coming recession

First, Jim Jubak says major banks are about to lower the boom on the illogical return of the bull market:
There's not a chance the worst is over, and Wall Street knows it. Wall Street knows the big investment banks that reported in mid-September aren't out of the woods. They all took relatively tiny write-offs — $700 million on the fixed-income portfolio at Bear Stearns, for example — on the damaged goods in their portfolios, and if they can't trade their way out of this mess, they've got more big losses to write off in the quarters ahead.

Jubak notes that most banks haven’t yet posted third-quarter statements; he expects many to join the already-posting Citigroup, which listed a 60 percent drop in third-quarter earnings from a year ago. That would certainly put the squeeze back on the credit market.

Next, Bill Fleckenstein bluntly says recession is an “if” and not a “when.” In addition to the housing bubble, he notes that corporate profit margins are at record levels, and clearly doesn’t think they’re going higher.

Fleckenstein dives more into the subprime collapse here; I agree that self-feeding fear is simply the flip side of self-feeding greed.

Yes, many subprime borrowers were first-time homebuyers who didn’t understand the first thing about fine print. But many others were buying 3,000 square foot homes when they could have gotten more traditional mortgages on 1,800-2,200 square foot homes; many others were buying second or third homes as investment properties.

Folks, it’s just like playing the stock market. You gambled and you lost. Why should the government bail you out.

Environmentalism on the pavement has to be about more than car mpg and gas taxes

Salon notes that we have parking space overkill because too many Americans are too lazy to walk more than half a block, if that far, to a store or other destination.

Instead, people may literally drive 15 minutes at one site, cruising for a close-up parking spot. Even if you’re in a Corolla or Civic, you’re wasting gas. In a Prius, you’re wasting stored charge.

Salon mentions two steps that can be an important part of the answer.

The first is for cities to cut back on their planning requirements for stores to offer so many parking spaces per store or mall square footage.

The second, for on-street parking, is a market-based one: price parking spaces per their desirability

I do see one concern here: People will be more tempted to cheat on handicapped parking. Higher fines and citizen citation-writing ordinances would address this.

October 02, 2007

Bush loses yet again in court

This time, his executive order giving former presidents review over their executive records before release was ruled out of bounds. In a narrow ruling, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly told the National Archives not to withhold releasing any more records on that basis.

Remember, that executive order was way back in 2001. Standing alone, it seemed bad enough at the time, but in hindsight, it was clearly just the tip of the iceberg in BushCo’s standing privacy issues on their head, namely, by expanding government power to intrude into your privacy while at the same time bloating government determination to make private executive records, discussions and meetings that needed, and were legally entitled to, the sunshine of public disclosure.

Next came Vice President Cheney’s secret energy task force meetings.

Then, after 9/11, came BushCo’s fight against revealing just how much and what sort of advance warning the president had.

Then, over the Iraq run-up, things went further downhill.

When will Steve Jobs and Apple learn you can’t beat hackers?

Apple said that upgrades to the iPhone would shut down phones previously hacked to use cell providers besides Apple partner AT&T.

That may not last too long.

Steve, Steve, Steve. Don’t even try to up the ante in this war. You lost, you blew it, and all because you stupidly challenged hackers, and pissed off some potential. Although hackers haven’t yet restored upgraded iPhones’ ability to actually be used as phones, I’m betting that’s just a matter of time.

September 30, 2007

If we attack Iran, remember, Hillary was in at the start

With his usual depth of analysis, Seymour Hersch tells what’s up with the White House’s Iranian war gaming. Excellent article.

Sen. Clinton was the one Democratic presidential candidate out of the four Senatorial ones to vote in favor of declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, a linchpin in BushCo’s drive against Iran on the PR front. Why any Democrat would vote for a political statement they know ultimately has deep roots with Dick Cheney is just beyond me.

You “run any Dem up the flagpole” Democrats who accuse me of having “blood on my hands” for voting Green, just who has blood on their hands now after all?

2004: Democratic candidate John Kerry.

2008: Likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

I rest my case.

The latest BushCo environmental lies

Legal actions by lawsuit against uncooperative, and caught, polluters are down 70 percent for 2002-2006, compared to a similar period in the late 1990s.

In the face of this massive scofflaw-enabling by BushCo, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency, what do we hear? This:
“We have been on an unprecedented run of success in the enforcement arena,” said Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "These are major cases we are pursuing.”

In retort and reply, we have this”
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, whose panel oversees environmental enforcement, disagrees. “Where once a polluter could expect criminal prosecution, there are now civil settlements. Where once there were criminal penalties, there are now taxpayer subsidies,” Dingell (D-Mich.) said.

And this, in which Justice Department and EPA staffers both admit the problem, but blame the other side:
“Environmental crimes are simply not in the U.S. attorney top 10 priorities,” said one senior EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the news media.

Prosecutors counter that the EPA has fewer agents and is bringing them fewer cases. “We’re not turning away environmental crimes in order to prosecute other crimes. They are just not being presented in the first case,” said Don DeGabrielle, the U.S. attorney in Houston.

It’s easy to tell from the rest of the story that Mr. DeGabrielle is far nearer the truth than the anonymous EPA official. That’s probably why that person is staying anonymous — he or she knows this claim doesn’t stand up.

Further proof? Criminal cases are also down, off 36 percent in 2006 compared to 2001. The number of new criminal investigations opened declined 37 percent over the same period.

Oh, and Dingell’s “subsidies” charge? Well, it can be true:
The Justice Department in August also touted a plea bargain with IMC Shipping Co. that required the Singapore ship operator to pay $10 million in connection with a massive oil spill in 2004 that killed thousands of birds in Alaska's Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. …

The decision to drop negligence charges could be valuable to the company, which as a result remains eligible to seek reimbursement from a special government fund for $77 million of the more than $100 million it has spent cleaning up the spill.

The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund — administered by the U.S. Coast Guard and funded by a special oil tax — can reimburse shippers for all cleanup costs not covered by insurance, but only if the incident does not involve gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Certainly, by the seventh year of BushCo, neither the administration failure to rigorously enforce environmental laws nor its lying claims about actually doing that should surprise anybody.

Add in that Nakayama claims not to be “personally familiar” with a new EPA policy that requires agents to get pre-approval from their division heads to directly refer cases to state and federal prosecutors, and you have the third part of the BushCo trinity: incompetence. (That’s assuming that Nakayama is being truthful about his lack of personal familiarity. However, the “personally” modifier is one that I’ve found to be a common bureaucratic weasel word, so he could well be lying again.)