SocraticGadfly: 10/18/09 - 10/25/09

October 24, 2009

Karzai says ixnay to power-sharing

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai appears to be playing hardball with opponent Abdullah Abdullah, and ultimately with the United States, before that country's runoff election. Since United Nations inspectors found vote fraud but didn't say who acted fraudulently, Abdullah is right to want some people removed.

That said, is Karzai in too weak a position to bargain, as the story claims? Interesting. And not unlikely.

Are you listening to the number 350, Mr. President?

Millions of people want you to.

Yes, the exact number, of limiting carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, may be unrealistic.
Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who analyzes environmental campaigns, expressed a mixed view of the 350 campaign. It represents “a new wave of civic environmentalism” that has proved vital to solving problems, he said, but that approach was abandoned long ago by many big environmental groups that now focus mainly on legislation and litigation.

But, if we don't set a hard number, draw a line somewhere,, people like U.S. President Barack Obama, or the Chinese or Indians, will feel even less compelled to act.

And, contra Brulle, litigation doesn't work on trans-national problems. Legislation is glacial here in the U.S., without the president prodding.

Talking Points Memo become more Old Media

The news side of Talking Points Memo, writing yesterday about whether President Barack Obama supports or opposes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s latest effort on a public option on national healthcare uses an anonymous source.

And, today, reporting on the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's effort to push Obama on the public option, it does the same thing, while also making itself part of the story, and seeming to be in a rush to "break news."

Is TPM getting to be like "old media" as it decides that's the only way it can play inside-the-Beltway reporting? Anonymous sources, becoming part of the story, and getting in a rush to "break" stories?

Americans grow in religious diversity

Among the new findings of the National Opinion Research Center, Americans are in an illogical jumble:
Nonetheless, belief in God has slipped a little, and more Americans, though still believing, acknowledge some uncertainty about God’s existence. A growing number of Americans no longer identify themselves with any particular religious group. Those who do belong are less likely to say they are strong members. Regular attendance at religious services has declined, and the numbers never worshiping have increased.

Yet more Americans believe in a life after death and pray daily than in the 1970s. And to complicate things, most of these trends have had their ups and downs, leaving open the possibility of future spurts or reversals.

The NORC also claims there's only a weak correlation between science knowledge/study and irreligion:
“In sum,” the report says, “the proposition that science leads people in general and scientists in particular away from religion is only weakly supported by the available evidence.”

Problem here, though. It appears the study did NOT differentiate between Ph.D. scientists and those at a lower level. Many, many other studies have indicated Ph.D. achievement DOES correlate pretty strongly with lessened religious belief.

In other interesting findings, in post-Communist Eastern Europe, belief levels are dramatically different from country to country.

Obama ditching Copenhagen climate summit

The excuse for him chickening out on discussing climate change, and the lack of U.S. action, in person?

The Nobel Prizes ceremony is on the second day of Copenhagen.

Puhleeze. He just doesn't want to get bashed for lack of U.S. effort, including his own.

And, given that a couple of Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded in the past for environmental issues, the irony climbs higher.

Also, in light of recent polling showing more Americans doubting the reality of global warming, and, within that, doubting its anthropogenic cause, it gives denialists more incentive and boldness to continue their pushback.

Speaking of that, since NASA says 2005, not 1998, was the warmest year on record, let's push back against denialist pushback that claims the climate hasn't warmed in more than a decade.

‘New media’ committing ‘old media’ errors?

The news side of Talking Points Memo, writing about whether President Barack Obama supports or opposes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s latest effort on a public option on national healthcare uses an anonymous source from the White House. There’s no national security involved, or even close to it, so I don’t want to see Josh Marshall complain so much about anonymous sourcing in the future.

Martyr Fox News can't even get martyrdom facts rigt

Miscommunication, not martyrdom.

October 23, 2009

Blame Harvard for financial meltdown?

Specifically, maybe we should blame Harvard Business School. Hmm, were these not the same folks who pushed Russia into hypercapitalism, then the ditch, in the early 1990s? That's you, Jeffrey Sachs.

Speaking of Sachs, how many top brass at Goldman Sachs went to Harvard Biz?

Is UK’s likely next prime minister a bit of a nutbar?

Well, it somewhat looks that way, and it looks like bits of personal and professional paranoia are the fuel for this.

Wanted: more expensive Chinese money

Of course, the fervent wish of Paul Krugman, as well as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and many others, for Beijing to re-value the yuan vs. the dollar, ain’t likely right now. Unless China can be persuaded this is a way to mitigate its concern about the American deficit and its dollar holdings.

Global warming? It’s what’s for dinner

Well, at least if you go and eat at most Swedish restaurants, it is. Whether this will change diners’ food choices that much, I don’t know. I don’t doubt this would be a massive flop in the U.S., and would probably inspire the equivalent of tea parties among global warming doubters.

Also interesting is that in the future, organic food in Sweden, to receive certification from the official organics council, will also have to be low-carbon.

October 22, 2009

Black women killed, MSM has crickets attack

How many times is this going to happen? I guess America's first black president doesn't have a trickle-down effect on media coverage.

Federal Reserve wants to 'review' banker pay

Yeah, right. I'll believe this when I see it.

Also, per the story, "review" does not mean "regulate." I'm not the only skeptic:
"I'm impressed, but I am skeptical . . . What is new is the Fed seems to be interested in doing anything about it," said Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal group. "I'm glad to see it, but it's a story of which you have to be skeptical."

Maybe it's part of a larger power struggle/big by the Fed.

Romer undercuts Team Obama on stimulus claims

Hot off the AP wire and surely not good news to Congressional Dems for next year:
Christina Romer, the chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the initial jolt of the $787 billion stimulus expanded the economy in the second and third quarters of this year. But she said the remaining spending will simply keep the economy from slipping.
“By mid-2010,” she said, “fiscal stimulus will likely be contributing little to further growth.”

Congress should be "fun" this winter.

Junk food equals heroin in addiction

At least it does for lab rats. The more they consumed, the more they needed to consume to get the same pleasure feeling.
After just five days on the junk food diet, rats showed “profound reductions” in the sensitivity of their brains’ pleasure centers, suggesting that the animals quickly became habituated to the food. As a result, the rats ate more food to get the same amount of pleasure. Just as heroin addicts require more and more of the drug to feel good, rats needed more and more of the junk food. “They lose control,” Kenny says. “This is the hallmark of addiction.”

The effects lasted for days afterward.

The problems are exacerbated if saturated fat is in the mix.

Afghanistan troop surge argument continues

Nicholas Kristof is the latest pundit to weigh in on the “no” side. In his nut graf, he directly refutes Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency-based call for a troop “surge”:
Standard counterinsurgency ratios of troops to civilians suggest we would need 650,000 troops (including Afghans) to pacify the country. So will adding 40,000 more to the 68,000 already there make a difference to justify the additional annual cost of $10 billion to $40 billion, especially since they may aggravate the perception of Americans as occupiers?

Sounds pretty straightforward, no?

Meanwhile, some “boots on the ground” work in Afghanistan looks promising, but, could it hold, even if we put more troops in now, and then pulled back three-five years later?

But, Kristof counters, as far as al-Qaida fears:
Steven Simon, a National Security Council official in the Clinton years who is now a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that there may be more Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan, Yemen and perhaps Somalia than in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban will know we can hit them with cruise missiles, and, eventually, Predators, from offshore, if they support an al-Qaida renaissance, anyway.

Militants up killings with Pakistani general

Either this will get the Pakistani government (and, maybe even the ISI?) to take the war against militants in its midst more seriously, or it’s the beginning of the end. Only time will tell.

And, speaking of time, some “boots on the ground” work in Afghanistan

The looks promising, but, could it hold, even if we put more troops in now, and then pulled back three-five years later?

More on how the New Age can kill

Both the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times have new stories about Sedona, Ariz. self-help guru James Arthur Ray. The LAT story notes that with possible manslaughter charges in his future, Ray is nonetheless on the road right now, still peddling New Age snake oil.

But, as long as Ray can find suckers to pay him $5,000-$10,000 for his “retreats,” he will stay out there, to garner money to pay lawyers if nothing else.

Of course, one other “guru” has, in the story, already used the magic phrase “learning experience” about all of this.

The NYT story takes us back to the killer sweat lodge. And, per that story, will people like Oprah apologize for their part in facilitating its growth?

Probably not, not as long as people even nuttier than Ray are out there, per the NYT:
On a conference call Ray held last week for sweat lodge participants, Beverly Bunn (an orthodontist who participated) was shocked to hear one recount the comments of a self-described “channeler” who visited Angel Valley after the retreat. Claiming to have communicated with the dead, the channeler said they had left their bodies in the sweat lodge and chosen not to come back because “they were having so much fun.”

As for Ms. Bunn, will she abandon the New Age in general, or just Ray?

Palin: ‘Going Rogue’ or ‘Going Rouge’

Thanks to The Nation, we find out, you can actually read about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin “Going Rouge” next month. I can’t wait!

Guess who’s NOT on the Obama CEO pay cut list

Lemme see, let’s take a look here. We have, let’s see now, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, even GM.

Goldman Sachs kind of glaringly stands out by its absence, even though everybody who knows everything about the threatened financial collapse last fall knows the AIG bailout was really the Goldman Sachs bailout.

This, in turn, should be one more cautionary sign that whatever fiscal regulation reform bill gets past Congress, and gets Obama’s support to pass Congress, will probably be nearly toothless.

That, in turn is why I blogged yesterday that Paul Volcker should resign now, and resign righteously, as Obama’s top extra-Cabinet financial adviser. It’s clear the administration is sticking him in a corner.

October 21, 2009

Chronic fatigue syndrome wrongly named

It’s not a syndrome, but an infection caused by a class of viruses that until recently, weren’t known to infect humans.

And, appallingly, the name “CFS” may have been devised in part to allow insurers to avoid making payouts for an illness, not a “syndrome.”

Another reminder of the problems with private, for-profit health insurance.

Team Obama marginalizes Volcker

But really, is this a surprise? Former Fed head Paul Volcker wants to break up “too big to fail” banks, block commercial banks from derivatives and similar nuttery, and otherwise not fawn over Wall Street, unlike the Tim Geithner-Larry Summers et al A Team of Obama financiers.

That said, rather than continue on paper as an outside advisor to Obama, while actually doing it less, I wish Volcker would quit, go to the public, and beat the drums loudly for his proposals.

GMO crops reduce environmental impact? Further impoverish Africa?

Boy, a Royal Society report on the future of agriculture, and the chair, Cambridge University’s David Baulcombe, come close to doublespeak, in claiming GMO crops will reduce farming’s environmental impact.

Actually, in a number of ways, GMO crops could increase environmental problems:
1. Accelerated bug resistance to pesticides;
2. Accelerated mutation of plant infections;
3. Intensification of effect of bugs or infections.
That’s not all, either. By continuing to lessen the diversity of crops, and increasing the possibility of 1, 2 or 3 happening, too much GMO crop usage could increase the vulnerability of modern farms and farmers. Also, who in places like sub-Saharan African can afford GMO seed?

The Royal Society’s ideas would likely drive a lot of peasant farmers off the land and thereby increase urban poverty, possibly destabilizing more governments in the process.

Beyond that, the program the Royal Society calls for doesn’t sound totally realistic:
The world must develop over the next 16 years through genetic modification and conventional breeding varieties of crops resistant to disease, drought, salinity, heat and toxic heavy metals, the report said.

Right now, crops are genetically modified for just a couple of characteristics. Doing all of the above on a 20-year time frame sounds highly ambitious.

Plus, getting back to a point above, if Monsanto or whomever could design GMO crops to meet all of those issues within 20 years, you know what the asking price would be, compared to today’s GMO prices, let alone those for non-GMO seed.

In short, the Royal Society appears to have tackled this issue solely from a Western technology and capitalism point of view.

October 20, 2009

Obama puts pressure on Dems to "unify" on healthcare

That said, the "unity" is for whatever passes Congress, period:
"Sometimes Democrats can be their own worst enemies, Democrats are an opinionated bunch ... y'all are thinking for yourselves," he said. "I like that in you, but it's time for us to make sure that we finish the job here. We are this close and we've got to be unified."

Are you surprised?

Hopes for Copenhagen climate deal fade

All that’s likely to happen this December? A political declaration.

The Obama Administration is already saying it won’t get out in front of Congress on this issue, which means any deal with China will be tissue paper or bupkis.

The EU may well push to do more, if it thinks it can make carbon tariffs stick. That’s the one hopeful point.

Because, as the story points out, not much is likely to happen next year either.

Karzai agrees to new election; will it matter?

A number of follow-up points and comments need to be made about Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreeing to a run-off election.

First, in the best “mistakes were made” tradition, he didn’t apologize for the election fraud. Second, while he welcomed international monitors, he didn’t call for more of them. Third, he didn’t say what he would do to address the mistakes that were made.

Meanwhile, Ed Cohen is naïve indeed if he thinks any U.S. President will support 30 years of partnership with Afghanistan, if it involves heavy lifting. That said, as the election shows, we do, per Cohen, need to partner with the Afghan people, not a government riddled with some degree of corruption. To the degree we can, the same is true in Pakistan.

October 19, 2009

Public option gains support

First, in addition to the good news of this story, it’s also clear how fickle the public is, at least as reflected in polls.

That said, beyond the overall numbers going up, the increased support of independent voters is good.

Meanwhile both President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats are holding their breath over the eyeshades and blue pencil of Phil Ellis.

Who’s he? The guy from the Congressional Budget Office
number-crunching all the competing plans.

The future of newspapers - a good read

The future of newspapers gets discussed by pundits both inside and outside the biz every day. That said, here’s a very good, long article on where print/digital news media are headed. First, unlike some breathless pundits, it does NOT say "the web is where it's at in the future." Second, it's honest about the present, and quite possibly ...future, money struggles of news start-ups. Third, it acknowledges that fragmentation is a problem that needs to be addressed. Fourt, it expects newspapers to continue to play an important new role, especially if they figure out how to monetize the Net and integrate it with print better.
if it’s already producing a civilian backlash.

At the same time, the piece isn’t perfect on analysis and it’s short of even that on prescriptions for the future, in some ways, as several responses make clear, including this one that thinks its too optimistic.

My suggestions, beyond those listed?

I’ve already mentioned paywalls for online content, more than once.

In addition, charging $1, if not now, as soon as the recession starts really lessening, for papers at 75 cents, is a no-brainer.

Integrating web and print subscriptions, with usernames and other social interactivity, to appeal to at least some younger readers.

Figure out how to do this without chasing away core older readers.

Accept lower profit margins and lower executive pay as part of the answer.

Baptist mag tells Xns to stop rumor-monging

Specifically, to stop rumor-monging about President Obama and related things. Will Fox call American Baptists (the more Northern, liberal denomination) unchristian?

Israel spying on US again

When will the Religious Right and neoconservatives admit that Israel is an independent nation with independent interest? Probably not even the latest case of Israeli spying on the US will be enough.

However, Stewart David Nozette’s case shows to just what depths Israel will go in their spying on the US.

Pakistani deal-making weaken Waziristan offense

First, did the Pakistani army or the ISI make this deal with Taliban renegades Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur? Second, despite the official “now worries” stance from the U.S., did it know about the deal in advance? Third, why is Pakistan, with one of the world’s largest armies, only sending 30,000 troops into this fight? Does it want to do nothing more than administer a slap on the wrist?

The 30,000 is even more too low if it’s already producing a civilian backlash.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, many of the people we are battling aren't even Taliban.

Karzai did NOT win re-election

No duh, really, but, the U.N. officially says the alleged Afghan president, after you throw out fraudulent votes got no more than 48 percent. Did you hear support for a “surge” just fall more?

Move those Pacific Islanders now

Some people say that, with the sea rising faster than UN estimates, we can’t wait to move people from some of the lowest-lying Pacific islands.

Once again, the New Age is a killer

This time, it’s not unvaccinated children dying, or people treating cancer with Reiki. Instead, three people have now died after participating an overheated sweat lodge ceremony at vortex ground zero for New Ageism, Sedona, Ariz.

Just as with conventional religion, when somebody asks, “What’s the harm,” sometimes, it’s very evident.

And, I’m glad the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office is investigating these deaths as homicides.

October 18, 2009

Turn to Hawaii for national healthcare ideas

That includes you, Mr. Native Hawaiian, President Barack Obama. Given that Hawaii has, for 35 years, mandated employer-provided health insurance for anybody working more than 20 hours a week, Preznit Kumbaya’s silence on this part of the issue is beyond strange — it’s vexing and irritating.

My father, the father

The child sexual abuse rate of both Catholic priests and Protestant ministers is not different from national averages to a statistically significant degree, sensationalized stories aside. But, Catholic priests, with celibacy, have another issue: sexual relations with adults, and, when heterosexual, complications like fatherhood. This, too, gets shuffled under the table by the Catholic Church.

In Protestantism, if the pastor or minister is married, you have the injured spouse to act, or not act, as she chooses, while church denominations may be less liable, in some ways.

How bad is it? A study cited by the story claimed that, in the 1990s, at least, 20 percent of priests were in ongoing sexual relationships. And, many appear to be sexual predators targeting vulnerable women.

Why academics shouldn’t predict the demise of “old media”

With a company offering flat rate, unlimited course offerings online at just $99 a month, academics, intellectuals and pundits who want to proclaim the pending demise of “old media” in general and print media in particular should look in their rearview mirrors before offering any more prognostications.

Even without online classrooms entering version 2.0, colleges and universities have indicated in the last couple of years their intent to use adjunct faculty for more and more of their teaching positions in the future. So, without too much schadenfreude, some of the pundits may want to join the misery of media-world layoffs, etc.

And, there are other similarities. Yes, while it’s a stereotype, the “old,” “mainstream” media did at times come off as a cult, priesthood, or keepers of the flame, choose your metaphor.

But, don’t universities, “old,” “traditional” universities, vs. more explicitly for-profit models that mix bricks and mortar with modems and mouses, like the University of Phoenix, let alone vs. online-only collegiate learning centers, come off in exactly the same way?

Short answer? Hell, yes.

Longer answer is that there are differences.

The media, even at its peak, never had anything comparable to North Central or other collegiate accreditation agencies. Agencies that, at the beck and call of bricks and mortar, have no compunction about bullying the new, online-only learning centers.

Read the full, in-depth analysis piece for examples of this bullying and various ways in which some of the online-only collegiate learning centers (I’m not ready to use the word “universities”) are either doing creative partnerships or else are fighting back.

Given that North Central, et al, are already putting these folks to a degree of scrutiny they never turn on State U., if one of these online centers gets bought by a financier with deep enough pockets, you WILL see an antitrust lawsuit.

Steel cage death match: Sharpton vs. Limbaugh

Don’t you think Court TV would beg or even try to bribe the presiding judge for exclusive and full broadcast rights of a suit by Al Sharpton vs. Rush Limbaugh?