My New Year's resolution is to use only "Middle East," no matter how common "Mideast" may become in the media. What's yours?
"He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat."
A very happy New Year to our readers from cold and foggy New Delhi. Hopefully, 2010 will be the start of a decade that the last one was not - peaceful.
Along with whatever else you are doing to celebrate the end of the decade blow-out, please also check out the 100th edition of the Carnival of the Liberals over at And Dr. Biobrain's Response Is...
Napolitano, interview on CNN, Dec 28:
"What we’re focused on was making sure that the air environment remains safe, people are confident when they travel, and one think I’d to point out is … is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here … the passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight." (italics mine)
Obama, on Dec 29:
“A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,” Mr. Obama said. He said he had ordered government agencies to give him a preliminary report on Thursday about what happened and added that he would “insist on accountability at every level,” although he did not elaborate." (italics mine)
There were any number of points during the whole lead-up to the bombing attempt where red flags should have gone up and stayed up, but that didn't happen. How in the world does the CIA get tip-offs from the fathers of would-be extremists and not pass on the information to other branches? How do people whose visas were revoked by Britain continue to waltz around with unrevoked US visas, considering the so-called intelligence sharing that exists between those two nations? Does all this information reside in disparate databases, with no 'Database to rule them all' to make the connection at Langley VA?
Whatever the case, the best way to describe it is to indeed say that it was a systemic failure. Reviews will be made, hopefully heads will roll and a careful reassessment and calibration of threats to safety and how to deal with those threats is getting along post-haste.
The once great hopes that 'puffer machines' could easily detect explosives have been misplaced. They are now in the process of retiring those devices which kept breaking down more often than not, unsuitable for the rigors of a modern airport environment. One supposes that it would be of paramount interest to Al-Qaeda trainers and handlers, who might think the time was ripe for setting off an influx of undie-bombed acolytes on the aircraft bound for the US.
We need replacements for those machines, whether it be hand-held replacements like these (no doubt all sold out and shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan). The intrusive backscattering types of body scanners have generated much controversy, but combinations of simpler and less intrusive methods could also work reliably.
"The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the imaging machines, arguing that the body images they produce are too revealing. And some members of Congress have supported legislation that would limit their use, allowing passengers to opt out and submit to a pat-down search instead.
In an effort to increase privacy, the TSA screeners who read the images are placed in a separate room so they are not able to see the passenger who is being shown on the imaging screen.
Travelers at DFW Airport were divided.
"It's not like you're taking a picture and posting it on the Internet or selling it in a magazine," said Paul LeBon. "It's just a scan that lasts for 10 seconds.
"I am going to take issue with people being able to look at my children's bodies and my body," said Tamara Haddox, another traveler.
The TSA currently has 150 additional body imaging devices machines on order. But that's not nearly enough to cover all of the nation's airports."
Either that, or we are all forced to fly naked, shoeless and luggageless, just to thwart the shoe-bombers, undie-bombers, toupee-bombers, belt-bombers, tampon-bombers .....
Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake.com is on a mission, even to the extent of venturing into the enemy's lair at Fox and Friends: to try and kill the Health Care bill that had already been declared dead by the media a million times since last June. And yet, it keeps rising again, like a cat with nine lives. Or maybe a zombie. Here are her 10 reasons to Kill the Bill.
Here is Ezra Klein of the Washington Post's analysis of Hamsher's 10 reasons. He concedes less than two are valid.
And what of the much vaunted Public Option that Obama insisted needed to be in the bill? It made it into the House bill, albeit in a limited form that wouldn't be of much use to any but a small minority.
After most of the left jumped on the bandwagon of the Public Option, he airily dismissed it as not being a centerpiece of his plan, anyway.
"Startlingly, the clearest signal that the administration is preparing to jettison the public option came from Obama himself. Speaking at a town hall event in Colorado referred to the public plan as merely a "sliver" of his reform agenda and said: "The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform."
On this, Obama is right.
The public option has already been so dumbed-down and neutered that it is little more than a sliver.
The problem is that it may be the only sliver of real reform in his program. "
Classic feint, along the lines of the 'Don't throw me in the Br'er Patch' variety. There was no fighting tooth-and-nail to keep it in the Senate bill. It, as well as a proposed 'early Medicare buy-in option' which was supposed to be the next greatest thing to replace it, was jettisoned without any major pangs, in order to get Lieberman to give his vote to the bill.
The right hates the bill because they see it as a socializing of America. (Remember all the screaming about 'death panels' and the fear of rationing!). The left hates the bill because they think the mandate to buy insurance is a give-away to the insurance corporations. Those caught in the middle assuage themselves by talking up the 31 million currently uninsured who will now be able to purchase some form of insurance. It's not a perfect bill that promises a single-payer system like the NHS in Britain, but starts to address some of the structural problems that have plagued the US healthcare system for years.
Part of the problem is a faulty understanding of how insurance in general works. To provide affordable premiums for a large population, it requires that the risk be spread over a large group of payers, largely healthy and few who are sicker. It is in effect a communal pot into which every one drops their mite, so that those with the greatest need can be helped. Mandates accomplish this and are in effect the first step towards a true single-payer system, despite the howls of protest over them.
How does this benefit the insurance companies, seen as the villains of the piece? This is an example of how the health insurance giant Wellpoint reports its revenues. The hidden factor is not in the profits, which are show a relatively modest 5-6% increase annually. It's in the Selling and General administrative expenses (S&GA), which comprises the payroll, 'other' expenses and includes the humongous salaries paid to the top-level executives. This holds true for even 'non-profit' insurance giants like Highmark.
Another sticky point for the left is the erosion of abortion rights, first through the Stupak-Pitts amendment that was passed in the House bill, which bans permanently payments to health plans that cover elective abortions. The Senate bill is only marginally better, stating that federal subsidies will still be available for plans covering other health care but that the coverage for elective abortions would have to be paid from a separately collected set of premiums (which could render it more pricy, since the risk would be spread over a smaller pool of payers), also that states could opt out of this arrangement if they chose. The right is understandably largely silent on this: they would rather have preferred abortion to remain a wedge issue in the healthcare debate for them to exploit. As it is, it is primarily the pro-choice movement, organizations like NOW, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU that have been vocal against these provisions.
Finally, a word from Paul Krugman, who seems to think that there may be more to the bill than meets the eye.
We will just have to wait with bated breath and see if the chimera coming out of conference as the House and Senate bills are reconciled is any better than the individual versions.
Update: Apparently Wendell Potter thinks the same.
Another useful link comparing both House and Senate versions of the bill.
Although procrastination is often a sign of immaturity, in the context of climate change it may not be. In the typical debate over geo-engineering, proponents argue that it is "the" solution to global warming, while the critics worry about all the things that could go wrong. Yet this "geo-engineering: yes or no?" debate overlooks the important possibility that the most economically efficient outcome involves the postponement of carbon-abatement strategies, along with the simultaneous research and development of varied geo-engineering techniques to be deployed if they should become necessary. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this strategy could leave our descendants many trillions of dollars richer than the alternative of implementing immediate and large cuts in emissions.
As an aside, there's a bit of a discussion of SuperFreakonomics, so I wonder: has Steven Levitt become the new Malcolm Gladwell? Gladwell doesn't have one of these, but there's the same desire to be a ''rogue thinker'', the suggestion that the reader is being presented with new and startling insights, the middlebrow sales pitch that wins large audiences before pissing off the reviewers. Maybe Levitt-2009 is Gladwell-2004? I do think Gladwell might deserve a modest recovery though - too many people have bashed him, too much. He isn't that terrible.
Here's the best thing I've read about the Copenhagen Conference:
In this environment, it is in the interests of participants to stop trying to discern what is symbolic from what is real. Copenhagen's signifiers -- its words and images -- have a conveniently shifting relationship to the external world.Well worth reading through. I didn't know this:
The final result is a conference that is desperately fake from beginning to end. It opened with a fictional girl who loses her polar bear to an angry earth. It will end on December 18, when President Obama and President Hu Jintao will, to the sound of thunderous applause, call for bold action while they, in reality, implement business-as-usual energy policies.
There is no better symbol of the phoniness, the manic self-referentiality, and the desperation of global warming politics today than the one created and projected by United Nations diplomats upon the screen: a scared little girl with a video camera.
Europe gamed the Kyoto protocol in 1997 by rigging the framework to start from a high 1990 baseline, instead of the much lower 1997 baseline. Europe was thus able to count big emissions declines dating back to the early 1990's and create a perception of European leadership.
Europe's claims are nothing short of fraudulent. Its emissions declined for reasons having nothing to do with Kyoto: rapid deindustrialization and a switch from coal to natural gas in the early '90's in Britain, and German reunification with a collapsing East German economy, are responsible for most of Europe's claimed reductions.
James Randi has become a climate change skeptic, though he also tries to walk it back. It's pretty unspired stuff - science doesn't work by consensus, the climate is too complex to model, normal range of variation, yada yada. I've been a fan for a very long time, so there is psychic cost to seeing him go this route. In some ways this isn't a completely unexpected occupation for Randi - as a magician non-scientist who's had great success catching para-frauds who fool researchers, Randi has always projected a certain (very mild) contempt for egg-head PhDs who possess arcane knowledge but lack basic street-sense.
I will say in his defense that, in the course of a very rich and extremely productive life, he hasn't had quite as much time to acquire science and math as the average scientist. Nor has he lived in any scientific communities. Then again, were I a layman of the Randiian persuasion (a high compliment) I might possibly be a bit of a global warming skeptic myself - the communities in question aren't unusually confidence-inspiring. Even as a member of a 2000+ person collaboration where people behave very badly indeed, this seems uncommonly dysfunctional. Of course, here too some signs have always been visible - in healthy scientific communities it is not customary to act as if it's no big deal when it's shown that one of your money plots acquires a certain shape even when fed brown noise, or that its author doesn't know PCA, just because as it happens the conclusions can be independently arrived at by other means.
Saw this on the evening news recently. I wonder if the cat attacks only when riding the robo-sweeper.
Some less widely known info on Christmas animals. Could it be that Vixen and possibly Dancer and Blitzen are the aptly named reindeer of Santa? Rudolph appears to be plain wrong!
I am leaving for a vacation in a couple of days. So there will be no posting by me probably until the middle of January. Other bloggers too are going to be busy during the holiday season. Postings will therefore be light in the coming weeks. I am looking forward to spending the New Year in New Delhi with family and old friends for the first time in nearly three decades. Season's Greetings to my co-bloggers and A.B. readers. Hope 2010 will bring good tidings for all.
From the New York Times Well Blog, first, a story about tamoxifen. Tamoxifen is an antagonist of the estrogen receptor in breast tissue, and some breast cancer cells require estrogen to grow. It cuts the risk of developing breast cancer in half. The story mentions other chemopreventions drugs, too. Apparently, these aren't popular. This quote stuck out to me:
The pill is tamoxifen, and Ms. Birkhold, now 52, was considered an ideal candidate for it: she tested positive for a breast cancer gene, her mother had ovarian cancer, and her aunt had breast cancer. Yet rather than take tamoxifen, she opted for surgery to remove her breasts and ovaries.
“I even went so far as to get the prescription” for tamoxifen, she said. “But then I started reading more and decided this isn’t the way I’m going to go. I don’t like to take drugs.”
I'm not sure anyone likes to take drugs, at least if they're not fun drugs, but who likes to have surgery? Or do nothing, if already at a high risk for breast cancer?
Second, a story about avoiding injury while skiing. New ski equipment increases the injury risk. This quote stuck out to me:
Similarly, while helmets have reduced the total number of skiing-related head injuries by 30 to 50 percent, Mr. Shealy says, “when you look at the really serious head injuries, helmets aren’t much help.” If you hit a tree at “speeds common in skiing” — 30 miles per hour or more on steep slopes — “you will exceed the capacity of the helmet to save you.” Helmets also “may promote reckless behavior,” Mr. Shealy says. “It’s just human nature.” Skiers still should wear helmets, he adds, but should also practice restraint and common sense on the slopes, the primary means of reducing your risk of injury anyway. “The message,” he concludes “is not: Don’t wear a helmet. It is: Don’t hit a tree.”
The fact that wearing helmets encourages riskier skiing shouldn't be surprising, but what surprised me is that helmets aren't equipped to prevent injury at speeds common in skiing. Sounds kind of useless. So why is this guy recommending wearing one? Yes, it doesn't cause injury, except to the extent it negatively alters behavior, but if it's not going to do any good anyhow, what's the point in wearing one?
As suggested by the title, I find irrationality in both of these stories, the first with regard to patient behavior, the second with regard to safety advice. I don't have anything profound to add beyond that -- maybe a behavioral economist would -- but it is interesting to me.
This is the time of the year that most people in the US, including me, make their annual charitable contributions. My formula for "giving" is roughly a 70/30 one. Seventy percent of my contributions go to US organizations working either within the US or engaged in international relief efforts. The other thirty percent goes to worthy humanitarian and philanthropic causes in India.
The Indian or Indian American charities that I support are usually small, and their sponsors are often people that friends, family members or I myself know and admire. Recently I became involved with Save A Mother, a foundation that does most of its fundraising in the US to benefit rural outreach programs in India that promote, facilitate and raise awareness of maternal health care. The organization was founded and is spearheaded by Dr. Shiban Ganju, a gastroenterologist in Chicago. Dr. Ganju and I first became acquainted through my frequent comments on 3 Quarks Daily where he is a guest columnist. A few months ago he invited me to join Save A Mother as a volunteer. After a couple of meetings with Dr. Ganju and his sister Veena Kaul who heads the Houston chapter of the charity, during which they educated me about the structure and the operational methods of the foundation, I agreed. I am impressed by the ambitious objectives of the program and the simple solutions it offers for a problem which affects a vast number of poor women in India. Here they are in a nutshell:
India Development Service (IDS) Save-A-Mother project aims to minimize suffering and death associated with pregnancy and child birth. We have been working in partnership with local NGOs in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Many other regions in India and rest of the world are in a similar situation where this program can be replicated.
Every day, over 160 women die in India from pregnancy and complications of child birth.
Save-A-Mother programs educate women about pregnancy, nutrition, immunization, delivery and care of the child. Save-A-Mother has a complementary benefit in saving the child also.
1. Decrease maternal mortality by 50% in Sultanpur in 5 years. (Pilot Project)
2. Replicate this model to two more districts in 2 more years and institutionalise the program.
3. Replicate the program to vulnerable districts where mortality exceeds the national average.
4. Partner with NGOs in other high MMR countries
Most Common Causes of Maternal Mortality
1. Malnutrition and Anemia
2. Lack of immunization
3. Infection and Sepsis
4. Excessive bleeding
5. Difficult labor and other emergencies
1. Iron, vitamin and nutritional supplements
4. Check up during pregnancy
5. Institutional delivery
Mobilization: We motivate villages to form a village council and combine adjoining villages into a cluster.
Training: We train two health activists in each village, who educate the villagers.
Meeting: Weekly meeting at the village level and monthly meeting at the cluster level.
Awareness: Education of mothers-to-be and their families, to help them to seek care
Access to Health Care: Ensure check up three times at the local medical facility
Nutrition & Medicines: Provide information about personal and public health.
Institutional delivery: Ensure access and transportation to a local medical facility
We believe that one preventable death is one too many. We urge you to Save-A-Mother and together we can save a million mothers.
Please take a few minutes to check out the Save a Mother website and decide if you would like to help out. I urge readers to also spread the word around about this worthy effort.
Since Ruchira has already proclaimed her (Ir)Religious Manifesto, I thought that I might talk briefly about mine.Some of the time, I fit somewhere on the continuum between Atheism and Agnosticism. It's like the flavor of the month. If I feel in a mood to be 'mysterian', I claim Agnostic leanings. If I feel mystery gives me migraines, I lean towards the Atheist viewpoint. After all, there can be no omnipotent God if migraine pains exist -only omnipotent migraines.
I would have coopted the term 'Practical Atheist' to describe the above approach, but found it had already been given negative connotations by theists, as referring to someone who professes religiosity, without true belief in the deity of choice.
"This is a category used by some religious theists to describe all those theists who technically believe in a god, but who behave immorally. The assumption is that moral behavior follows automatically from genuine theism, thus immoral behavior is a consequence of not genuinely believing. Theists who behave immorally must really be atheists, regardless of what they believe. The term 'practical atheist' is thus a smear against atheists generally."
Maybe it's time to reclaim the term proudly:
"I am a Practical Atheist. I adhere to the external form of my birth-religion, primarily to please my elders- After all what is a small fib to let them live with peace of mind. Internally, I don't particularly worry about my 'eternal soul' or salvation of any kind. All that matters is this life, and how I live it."Maybe there is something to being a female that has to do with this practical approach to practicing atheism. It's a secret version and let's itself be known to the children around the age that they start to question the existence of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. There is no Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus (only a long-dead historical personage of that name)----just someone who is very alive and real and loves you very much. The nitty-gritty of diaper changing and mopping up messes day after day lead you to the conclusion that there is no magic, only hard work that has to be done to get the kids and house clean and the dishes done. From no magic, it is but a short step to 'no supernatural solutions' to 'no miracles' to 'no benevolent and omnipotent deity'.
Surprisingly many of the women among my acquaintances seem to adhere to this practical atheism. The true believers among them are probably numbered in the handful, while the majority glide by gracefully following the form of whatever religion they profess, untouched or untrammeled by any deep beliefs.
Only coincidences exist. Take joy in the good ones, and don't let the bad ones get you down. After all, tomorrow is another day, as another practical atheist said in 'Gone With the Wind'.
Here's an interesting musing on the 'Gentler Face of Atheism', free of the accusations of misogyny levelled at atheism by Kathryn Lofton.
"We all know the names (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) of those angry white men who tend to antagonize the world’s believers. But the most persuasive voices for the ‘new New Atheism’ tend to be women."
Also, from the same article, comedienne Julia Sweeney's take on how she became an atheist.
Last night Houston elected an openly gay mayor in a closely fought election run-off. And she is a woman. Annise Parker, a long time Houston city official and a lesbian, became the mayor of the country's fourth largest city, winning 53.6% of the votes. I am now hoping that the excellent outgoing mayor of Houston, Bill White, a Democrat, will unseat Rick Good Hair Perry in the 2010 guberatorial election.
"This election has changed the world for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Just as it is about transforming the lives of all Houstonians for the better, and that's what my administration will be about," City Controller Annise Parker told supporters after former city attorney Gene Locke conceded defeat.
Parker got 53 percent of the vote. More than 152,000 residents turned out to cast ballots in the fourth largest U.S. city.
I have a short piece up in the January 2010 issue of Popular Science about a promising form of music therapy used in the arduous process of healing traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in veterans. Because of the pervasiveness of IEDs, and because body armor allows soldiers to survive many explosions that might have killed them in earlier wars, TBIs have been called the "signature wound" of the Iraq War.
People, this is a big problem. Symptoms and recovery can take years -- assuming that the veteran doesn't feel stigmatized about asking for help for memory problems and depression, and can get the treatment. The article takes a low estimate of "hundreds" of young veterans coming back with serious brain injuries -- although the Rand Corporation has a high estimate that over 300,000 young veterans have at least mild traumatic brain injury (like any wound, TBIs are on a spectrum of severity). Let's hope the American people are willing to step up and make sure that veterans get the costly rehab they deserve.
In my recent post on Kathryn Lofton's take on the New Atheists (NAs) and their "misogyny," I dismissed Lofton's arguments on that point as more projection than proof. The post has now been linked at a couple of other blogs where some lengthy discussions have ensued. In one of my comments in response to another reader on the 3 Quarks Daily thread, I described at some length my overall attitude toward the religion vs atheism debate and my view of the NAs. Prasad suggested that the comment could serve as an independent post here to clarify where I stand on both issues. I thought that is a good idea. I will do so and let the post serve as reference point in the future if and when I again feel the need to discuss any other provocative subject in this particular field.
Before I go to the summation, I want to also clarify a couple of other points in the form of questions that may be asked of me:
The "Ditchens"* don't necessarily speak for me but Cyrus Hall** does. Thanks, Cyrus!
Has Dawkins stopped secretly beating his wife? Has Hitchens? I don't know and frankly I don't care until the police starts to investigate or one of them declares that wife beating is a salutory way of maintaining domestic harmony. Neither Lofton's projections and innuendo about uber-rationality and misogyny nor the paucity of contributions of female writers in Dawkins' tract are enough evidence for me to conclude that he or the other atheists are woman haters. And if it turns out that they are, it will probably have little to do with their rejection of god and belief in scientific enquiry.
Some of the rationalist hand wringing over the strident style of the Ditchens reminds of a somewhat crude joke about liberals I had heard many years ago. The humorist said that liberals are people who when someone else farts in a crowded room, feel compelled to declare loudly that they didn't do it.
Do the Ditchens speak for me? Not all the time. I should speak for myself and I do, whenever I have the opportunity with the little voice I have. I have neither the gusto nor the forum to be heard as widely as the New Atheists do (how about neo-atheists instead of new? that sounds more official and is a nice foil for neo-cons). The core message of what many of the New Atheists wish to convey about the role of religion in society is more or less what I might say myself, but perhaps at a lower decibel. Do I want them to keep speaking and shaking things up? Definitely. My agreement with the New Atheists is limited to the idea of religion and its place in public policy. Their politics or any personal traits they may possess are different matters altogether. I have made myself clear several times on what I think of Hitchens' support of the Iraq war. But now we are getting into the territory of babies and bathwater.
For years and decades, the only voices in the public sphere regarding religion / god etc. have belonged to those with whom I disagree vehemently. The likes of Reverends Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have had the attention of sizable segments of the American public and the ears of several presidents in my time. They have influenced the national conversation and probably public policies as well. Politicians of all stripes have kow towed to them until I have felt like throwing up. No, please don't tell me that they are ignorant louts. All of them were educated with advanced degrees and commanded huge followings. I don't consider myself an intellectual who resides in the rarified towers of ivory where I can only have conversations with like minded people. I have brought up two children in red states, volunteered in schools, the Little League and the Boy Scouts and served in the community as a tutor and political campaigner amidst those who listen to Fox News and believe in the messages of the likes of Falwell and Robertson. Occasionally it has been lonely and frustrating. I also have many religious (some very) friends whose faith defines every aspect of their lives including the outcome of a football game. We get along rather nicely. I grew up with an atheist father and an observant mother in a family whose members were divided roughly equally on both sides of the religious debate and I loved them all. Things were harmonious and never did we as children, feel the pressure to believe in either ideology. So, as Cyrus points out, I am fully cognizant of the simple fact that some people indeed need god and religion in their lives to carry on and others muddle through fine without them. I am not interested in conversion. But I want to be recognized as a part of an often vilified constituency which does not wish to see the law, war, peace, health care and science education defined in religious terms. I want my opinions in these matters to count.
Now at last, my side of the story is being told, albeit by some who come across as agent provocateurs. I wish to have a pony in this race and I would love for a gorgeous, elegant horse to enter the track on my behalf. But that horse is not here yet and hasn't been throughout my lifetime. There however, has appeared a stubborn and bad tempered mule in the form of the Ditchens who crashed the theological party. My two bits worth of betting money is on them for now if only to mix things up at the race course.
*Ditchens = Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett & Christopher Hitchens.
**Cyrus Hall = Another commenter with whom I was in agreement.
Stanley Fish is a national treasure. He has managed seemingly effortlessly to review favorably—quite favorably!—Sarah Palin's book, and with only the slightest hint of irony.
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. “Going Rogue,” however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves—the kind of persons they are—and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth. As I remarked in a previous column, autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.
In one paragraph we are treated to a supremely skilled critical sensibility informed by a life of deep and wide reading. How often has a book reviewer bothered to distinguish biography from autobiography for purposes of adjusting the reader's expectations? This sort of nuanced hair-splitting usually occurs in dreary literary critical elaborations of "texts" and "intentions," "rifts," "abysses," and "interruptions." Fish made his scholarly career participating in and engaging those elaborations, not to mention famously impressing and pissing off his audience at once.
That there are readers of this latest column among the comments who just don't get it is not surprising. (One example: the fellow from Des Moines who fails to recognize that by announcing he doesn't mean to imply Palin is lying, Fish may be promoting that very thesis.) Sure, it's hard to swallow the possibility that the book could be at all artful, but Fish does a fair job of explaining how so. He's a master, a brilliant reader, the craftiest of writers.
Coming from a seemingly intelligent woman, the assertion that logic, rationality and empiricism may be at the root of misogyny, is a bit unsettling. Kathryn Lofton, in her post So you want to be a new atheist, over at The Immanent Frame blog seems to be implying exactly that.
Lofton finds the New Atheists annoying - a bunch of know-it-all loudmouths whose style may be even more obnoxious than the substance they promulgate. She finds them arrogant, cynical, evangelical in their fervor and also curiously enough, perfectionists who want to help people. She however does not consider their social conscience an entirely wholesome trait. Lofton suspects that there is a conquest like quality to their outreach and beneath their desire to help may lurk an intention to persuade. (What a surprise!)
If you want to be a New Atheist, first and foremost, you need to possess an unrelenting desire to help. The desire may seem at times cruel, but you have to start focusing on a higher good: the goal here is to get the cannibals to put down their wafer and wine glass. It’s not for your wellness, but for the good of mankind. As Georgetown University professor John Haught wrote in his diagnosis of the New Atheists, “To know with such certitude that religion is evil, one must first have already surrendered one’s heart and mind to what is unconditionally good.” The New Atheists may wrap themselves in torn one-liners and haggard scientism, but beneath their cynical swaddle there lies a charming Perfectionism.
The main target of Lofton's derision and despair seems to be the comedian Bill Maher and his anti-religion movie, Religulous. It is not that hard to rip apart a stand up comic who opposes organized religion as well as vaccination. But in pointing to Maher's loose lips and fuzzy logic, Lofton also takes a swipe at Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens whose arguments against faith based social and political systems are a little better thought out and substantive. It is perfectly alright for Lofton or anyone else for that matter, to take issue with the tone that many among the so called New Atheists adopt while making their case. But it would better help the cause of the religionists to also point out the flaws in their arguments and not just in their character.
The nature of the conversation between the religious camp and the New Atheists has by now become quite familiar and predictable to those who have been paying some attention. It reminds me of the different agenda that a restaurant critic and a nutritionist bring to the table when talking about food. One focuses on the mouth watering quality of a 16 oz steak, the butter dripping crab legs, the fatty lamb biriyani and the decadent dessert immaculately prepared and presented by expert chefs and polished waiters. The other comes across as an earnest killjoy who urges you to eat your whole grains and veggies and then alarms you by warning that overindulgance in the delicious fare recommended by the gourmet foodie, poses the risk of developing clogged arteries, a sluggish liver, a ravaged kidney and extra pounds around your midriff. And the pleasurable torpor you feel after that rich meal is actually a sign of reduced energy. I have so far not heard a fine food aficionado clash with a nutritionist on the grounds that the latter has a shrill, strident style and wants to deprive others of the joys of feasting. But defenders of religion like Lofton and Karen Armstrong and the not-quite-pro-religion-but-getting-there types like Terry Eagleton invariably attack atheists for their lack of charm, style, empathy and another nebulous quality (I think of it as *mysterianism*) which keeps them from fully appreciating the true nature of religion. In the first part of her article Lofton sticks to that formula. Toward the end however, she introduces a new accusation that I have not until now seen hurled at the new (or old) atheists.
What is religion? The New Atheists reply, with clarion diagnostic consistency: Religion is something that sells you something invisible so you may feel that which you cannot find elsewhere. It is something for which there is insufficient evidence. It is something people do because they have always done it, not because they know how to think about it. Religion is irrational, it is emotional, and it is instinctual. Religion enslaves you with its wiles, then forgets to remove the handcuffs. It is the fortune teller reading entrails, not the captain consulting his compass. It massages and preys and toys and plays and screws you over, time and again, with a promise it won’t keep because of its irrationality and its whimsy. Religion is a know-at-all with no knowledge. It makes “a virtue out of not thinking.” Religion is cutting the hedge repeatedly around an erection. Religion is, it turns out, a lot like a girl.
Religion as effeminacy is nothing new. Nor indeed is the accusation that religion is socially sanctioned lunacy. Treating it as a neurological disorder, however, sets the New Atheists within a long tradition of critical misogyny. Under the guise of protecting your children, in the effort to best serve your sweet flock of idiots, if you want to be a New Atheist you have reclaimed a New Virility to counter your post-industrial emasculation. This virility plays out in demonstrations of protective strength, plowing away at the big two nemeses (Christianity and Islam) in the interest of protecting the little guy. It is also exhibited in grand tours of scientific proof, or plodding expulsions of religious duplicity.
Wait a minute! Have atheists and skeptics ever said that religion is like a girl? (Not that there is anything wrong with being a girl) Or that believing in unverifiable myths for comfort is exclusively a womanly quality? Have atheists refused to admit women into their fold? Do they claim that women are genetically incapable of possessing rational minds? On the other hand, organized religion has diligently kept women out of leadership roles through much of history. So, the charge of misogyny from a defender of "faith" sounds strange.
Unless the New Atheists have categorically called religion a girlish pursuit or religious males girly men, (Lofton does not say that they have) it is plausible that it is Lofton herself who conflates irrationality and emotionalism with feminine traits and critical thinking and reason with manly characteristics. She may have again confused style with substance. After all, the majority of the high profile and vocal atheists in the public square are all males. Most of them also assume a combative stance while arguing their points of view. Even if Lofton considers the New Atheists arrogant, self absorbed and boorish, based on her opinion of their discursive temperaments, where did she get misogyny? Perhaps in her eagerness to condemn, Lofton uses the red herring of misogyny without any supporting evidence because it fits the rest of her perception of the atheists. Are some atheists women haters? Of course. Could there be a few among the ones she names? Possible. But it has nothing to do with critical thinking which does not bar women from becoming practitioners. And what is the score in the department of misogyny on the religious side? Start your count with the priestly class and the orthodox.
Whom does Lofton think she is kidding with her innuendo about misogyny and atheism? It is particularly galling coming from someone who is presumably a spokesperson for religion. The sacred bastion of virility, organized religion, is thickly populated by misogynistic power hungry males and at least in the Abrahamic tradition, god too is a masculine deity whose behavior is akin to that of an old fashioned patriarch - one who protects, smites and slays at whim. Whereas misogyny can often be a product of politics, commerce and other secular cultural traditions, I doubt that women have been more systematically and ritually degraded within the realm of any other human enterprise than that of organized religion. Only religion explicitly sanctions misogyny. Think Adam's Rib, eater of the forbidden fruit, the temptress, the virgin who is to be alternately worshiped and sacrificed, the ideal of the Sati, stoning to death of an adulteress, the unclean half of the population which menstruates and undergoes messy child birth... on and on ad nauseum. Now Lofton tells us that the source of misogyny actually lies in empiricism and scientific enquiry. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather!
[thanks to Prasad for the pointer]
A palpable sense of dismay crept over me as I watched President Obama's speech on Tuesday in front of Westpoint cadets so tired many almost seemed to fall asleep before it got over ( See reason for tiredness here)
The facts were plain: A surge of 30,000 troops to be added post-haste, logistics/lives be damned, all in place by summer 2010. The recital of the 9/11 litany and history lesson on why we went into Afghanistan in the first place, under-resourced war because of the diversion into Iraq, etc. etc. I was ready to nod off, like many in the immediate audience.
Wait, there's a glimmer of hope. Everyone (or is it only the Surgers) will start coming home most definitely by July 2011. That's a given.
Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda...Why isn't he referring to the Taliban, the proximal enemy? What is this laser-eyed focus on a handful of fighters hiding in the mountains of Waziristan? Is it overkill to send in so many troops for so few, or is there something that they know which they aren't going to broadcast to the world?
A direct address to the people of Afghanistan "We have no interest in occupying your country....America is your partner, not patron."Then the focus turned to Pakistan, which as I have earlier speculated in this blog post in October, might very well be the next frontier in this war.
"The "war on terror' (pardon the usage of a now-obsolete term) is now expanding in fronts, moving like a not-so-stealthy cancer from the hills of Waziristan into the once-safer cities and urban areas of Pakistan. Who knows where it is headed next?" (My words, not the President's.)
Requisite call to the patriotic sense of duty of the military, much extravagant praise of their efforts to keep the country safe and free, etc. etc. God bless you and God bless America.
The next day, as I discussed the speech with a coworker, a 'Nam veteran, one thing he said struck me. "I'm not happy with this decision, but I trust him. At least, if things goes wrong, I'll know who to blame." That appears to echo the majority of the opinions heard from the common public while the media and the pundits endlessly analyze the pros and cons of the speech till the next shiny golf club swings their way.
As I mulled over the speech and its implications, trying to locate evidence for a 5-dimensional chess game, I tried on a 'war strategy' hat and squinted at the map of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and thought "What if the troops were trying to take the battle into the border region?"
Assuming that the Pakistani forces on the other side of the border were cooperative ( having reason enough, given the 'Carrots and Sticks' approach made clear by the Obama administration in this March 27 policy speech), it might just be possible to visualize a final 'flushing out' of the majority of the Al-Qaeda from the mountains.
Incidentally the March 27 speech is vastly interesting in its own right as a much clearer precursor to the Dec 2 speech. Many quotes from this speech seem to have made it into last Tuesday's address, notably:
"So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you."
It's been rephrased minus the outright Pakistan reference.
As for the Taliban, there was a final reference to them in the Dec 2 speech, along the lines of "Welcome to the fold, prodigals who choose to return. The others shall perish." We can hope that it will not be endless war, just a preamble to peace that this surge delivers.
Should we trust him? If we do,at least we'll know who to blame if things go wrong.
Via Brian Leiter's blog I found this hilarious assessment of Cornel West, the man and the memoir, by Scott McLemee. Whatever your opinion of West - good, bad or none, the review is recommended reading. Rarely have I come across a lacerating piece such as this one, which on balance comes across as neither harsh nor self serving. Take this gem for example:
As mentioned, his romantic life sounds complicated. Brother West is a reminder of Samuel Johnson’s description of remarriage as the triumph of hope over experience. One paragraph of musings following his third divorce obliged me to put the book down and think about things for a long while. Here it is:
“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”
No doubt this is meant to be inspirational. It is at any rate exemplary. Rendered more or less speechless, I pointed the passage out to my wife.
She looked it over and said, “Any woman who reads this needs to run in the opposite direction when she sees him coming.”
Returning to the book, I found, just a few pages later, that West was getting divorced for a fourth time. Seldom does reader response yield results that prove so empirically verifiable.
As is the custom around this time of the year, Houston is gearing up for the festive season. Christmas decorations are going up in private homes, city streets, public buildings and of course, retail stores. The city is even expecting a smattering of snow later this week - a rare weather phenomenon around these parts. Amidst the seasonal cheer, the grim effects of the recession plague many individuals, businesses and even charities. Demand for charitable services is up this year. Philanthropic organizations are feeling the pressure of the increasing demands and some have set out to monitor the eligibility of potential recipients. Tough times require a cold eye even in the season of warm hearts. Some of the charities that are doing background checks to determine who gets a gift this year, also happen to be sponosors of popular children's toy drives. A few of those plan to check the immigration status of the parents to ensure that Christmas toys go only to kids who are legal residents of Houston. I guess in hard economic times the spirit of the season must be limited by political borders.
In a year when more families than ever have asked for help, several programs providing Christmas gifts for needy children require at least one member of the household to be a U.S. citizen. Others ask for proof of income or rely on churches and schools to suggest recipients.
The Salvation Army and a charity affiliated with the Houston Fire Department are among those that consider immigration status, asking for birth certificates or Social Security cards for the children.
The point isn't to punish the children but to ensure that their parents are either citizens, legal immigrants or working to become legal residents, said Lorugene Young, whose Outreach Program Inc. is one of three groups that distribute toys collected by firefighters.
“It's not our desire to turn anyone down,” she said. “Those kids are not responsible if they are here illegally. It is the parents' responsibility.”
The idea of a charity turning away children because of decisions made by their parents unsettled some immigration activists.
“It is very disturbing to think a holiday like Christmas would be tainted with things like this,” said Cesar Espinoza, executive director of America for All, a Houston-based advocacy group. “Usually, people target the adults because the adults made the decision to migrate, where the children are just brought through no fault of their own.”
Other groups don't require specific documentation, relying instead on outside groups to recommend families.
“When you distribute toys to 10,000 to 12,000 kids, it's impossible to background (check) every child,” said Fred Joe Pyland, a Houston police officer who oversees the Blue Santa program. Blue Santa doesn't consider immigration status but collects names from police officers, schools and churches.
Those who do check immigration status or other qualifications say they are trying to ensure they make the best decisions about whom to help.
“We want to be good stewards, so the people that are donating to us trust we're going to do the right thing,” said Sonya Scott, manager of care ministries at West Houston Assistance Ministries. The group does not check immigration but requires identification, including birth certificates for children, and proof of income.
It has registered 686 children to provide with gifts this year, up from 613 last year.
At the Salvation Army, 30,000 children have registered for the Angel Tree program, which allows children to request the gifts they want most. That's up 20 percent from last year, spokesman Juan Alan said.
The rest of the story here.
The Daily Princetonian has a story about percentages of female faculty, which are neither particularly high nor rising rapidly. The article doesn't do either sexism or the Larry Summers stuff, and instead focuses on the lifestyle difficulties inherent in obtaining tenure, at least as currently structured:
Director of the Women’s Center Amada Sandoval said she was “surprised that we are not on par with our peers,” adding that she thinks the gender gap is a significant problem at the University. One of the biggest obstacles for women is the way the timeline for the tenure system is structured, she explained.
“The way the tenure system works, if you were hired in the tenure track, you would first be an assistant professor,” she said. “After six years, your position would be associate professor if you received tenure, and after a certain amount of time after that, you might be promoted to a full professor. This tenure structure is really hostile to people who anticipate having a family or people who are trying to have a family.”
The tenure system is not keeping up with social changes that have occurred in the past several years, Sandoval noted.
“I think the tenure system really hasn’t changed since most of the tenured faculty were men and most of the women stayed at home with the children,” she said. “That’s not the kind of world that we live in any more … I would say the system needs to get more flexible. It’s not just women that want to spend time with their children. It’s men, too, and they’re getting more and more able to admit that as our gender norms are softening up a bit.” (emphases added)
To zeroth order, one wins tenure at a top university (in addition to being smart and working on the right topics and making the right networking moves and all that jazz) by working all the time and not having a life. This isn't too conducive to success in family related pursuits, especially if the pursuits in question involve babies.
To the extent that, as Ms. Sandoval seems to think, female Assistant Professors are less willing to forego rich family lives, it's not clear to me that this is a problem a university either could or should fix, at least if the commodity it is most interested in maximizing is research output. A six-month or year long stop in the tenure clock for infant-tending seems decent, but it's not my understanding that baby-work falls off rapidly after the first year. Delayed / flexible tenure tracks are especially problematic in the sciences or in engineering, where the expectation is that a researcher's best work will have been done by age 45.
If the problem instead is that male junior faculty find it rather easier to find stay-at-home wives, no university has the ability to provide ambitious female professors desirous of home comforts with men who enjoy pushing baby-strollers and are willing to maintain the household. That change presumably comes about via societal changes in mores about about work in and out of home, supported by Scandinavian-style governmental legislation about paternity leave etc. I'm not claiming a university do nothing - CERN has a nice daycare center, for example; but to the extent that parity is the goal and the problem isn't of the sexist-hiring-committee variety, I doubt an individual university can make dramatic improvements or even lead industry.
(*) A form of address I came across once
More than a year ago I had highlighted my husband, Sudhir Paul's research in developing a vaccine against HIV. The HIV / AIDS epidemic which in the west was confined almost exclusively within the male gay community and IV drug users in the early days, has now extended its lethal reach well into the heterosexual population. In fact in less developed nations, AIDS is now mostly a disease of straight men and women. Currently there is no viable vaccine against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
Today marks the 21st anniversary of World AIDS Day, a reminder that the scourge of AIDS is still with us. On this occasion, Mary Carmichael, the editor of the Health / Life section of Newsweek has an interesting and provocative report about the promise and the challenges of Professor Paul's efforts in developing an effective vaccine against HIV. In the article, Carmichael also describes the role of CIF, a foundation launched by a group of young enthusiasts who wish to see the putative vaccine traverse the successful path from the test tube to a medicine vial.
Please read the full article, enjoy the video and let me know what you think. (Another more technical article about the research in last summer's Washington Post)
Last summer, while watching a news program about a possible AIDS vaccine, Zach Barnett had a "Eureka!" moment. The show was describing a Texas scientist's unorthodox approach to vaccine-making, a strategy that involved superantigens and covalent bonds and a lot of other words that weren't in Barnett's vocabulary. That didn't matter; the science turned him on anyway. "It was just so cool," he says. "I was like, 'lightbulb!' "
For years, Barnett, a fashion publicist, had been trying to get involved in AIDS activism, but mainstream organizations had told him there wasn't much for him to do, save passing out brochures. "That was a waste of my talent," he says. Here he saw a use for his skills. He wrote to the scientist, Dr. Sudhir Paul of the University of Texas, to tell him that "if what he was saying was true, he was doing a bad job of publicizing it." To show he was serious, he offered Paul $50 out of his own pocket to support the research.
In the past decade, private groups have started funding not just causes but specific researchers. The phenomenon may have started with autism—private organizations raise $78 million each year, or 35 percent of the country's funding, some of it for research that isn't completely in line with mainstream thinking—but it's seeping into other fields too, including AIDS research. It's tempting to write off Paul's supporters: what makes them think they know something the NIH doesn't? On the other hand, if they're right and Paul really does have a way to vaccinate against HIV, they're funding one of the most important projects in contemporary medicine. The question they have to ask themselves is whether they're wasting their money or shifting a paradigm.
The AIDS vaccine field could use a shift. For more than two decades, scientists have mounted campaigns to vaccinate against the virus, only to lose each one, watching as their vaccine candidates have failed (and, in one case, may have made people more susceptible to the disease). In September, researchers announced some of the most encouraging results in years, but even that success was quickly undercut by an argument over how the data were analyzed. "It's been so tough to solve this problem," says David Montefiori, director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development at Duke University. "That may be because a lot of the approaches have just been the same old, same old. People keep repeating the same tactics over and over again with minor variations."
At first glance, Paul's HIV vaccine looks familiar; it uses the "neutralizing antibody" strategy, which calls on the body's B cells to make proteins that fight the virus. This approach is how all existing vaccines for other diseases work, but it hasn't succeeded against HIV. The virus is too smart to fall victim to the human immune system. It hides many of the identifying proteins on its outer coat, cloaking them from the prying eyes of B cells, and thus no antibodies are made.
A few proteins on the outside of the HIV virus remain naked and exposed. They have to, in order to bind to human cells and kill them. Paul has his eye on one of these proteins, called gp120. According to his theory, it is a superantigen, a protein related to a fragment of a retrovirus that wormed its way into the human genome hundreds of thousands of years ago and stayed there.