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Is it true that god is on the ropes?

The Christian right's obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but [...] Darwin also didn't have anything to say about how life got started in the first place -- which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who's proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. "[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life," he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that's since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he's saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

The explanation is intriguing:

The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life. [...]

If England's theory works out, it will obviously be an epochal scientific advance. But on a lighter note, it will also be a fitting rebuke to pseudo-scientific creationists, who have long mistakenly claimed that thermodynamics disproves evolution (here, for example), the exact opposite of what England's work is designed to show -- that thermodynamics drives evolution, starting even before life itself first appears, with a physics-based logic that applies equally to living and non-living matter. [...]

Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order. [...] If order from disorder is supposed to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, why is it ubiquitous in nature?

The Quanta article will be of little comfort to those invested in the status quo:

England's theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. "I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong," he explained. "On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon."

The paper "Statistical Physics of Self-Replication" (PDF) opens with this passage:

Every species of living thing can make a copy of itself by exchanging energy and matter with its surroundings. One feature common to all such examples of spontaneous "self-replication" is their statistical irreversibility [and] this observation contains an intriguing hint of how the properties of self-replicators must be constrained by thermodynamic laws, which dictate that irreversibility is always accompanied by an increase of entropy.

time to retire?

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This excerpt from Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It reminds us that "Just 30 years ago, most American workers were able to stop working in their early sixties and enjoy a long and comfortable retirement:"

This "golden age" of retirement security reflected the culmination of efforts that started more than a century ago when employers first set up pensions. Gradually, over decades, we built an effective system with Social Security and Medicare as the universal foundation and traditional pensions--where the employer was responsible for all the saving and investment decisions--providing a solid supplement for about half the workforce. The increasing provision of retirement support allowed people to retire earlier and earlier.

Sadly, "This brief golden age is now over [and] our retirement income systems are contracting just as our need for retirement income is growing:"

On the income side, Social Security is replacing less of our preretirement income; traditional defined benefit pension plans have been displaced by 401(k)s with modest balances; and employers are dropping retiree health benefits. On the needs side, longer lifespans, rising health care costs, and low interest rates all require a much bigger nest egg to maintain our standard of living. The result of all these changes is that millions of us will not have enough money for the comfortable retirement that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

While "traditional pensions are rapidly disappearing, replaced by 401(k) plans," many are left out. The author mentions that "those with a 401(k) are the lucky ones; half of today's private sector workers don't have any employer-sponsored retirement plan:"

So what can we do--as individuals and as a nation? There are only three options. The first is to simply accept that we are going to be poor in retirement. The second is to save more while working, which means spending less today. The third is to work longer, which means fewer years in retirement. Those are our only options.

The author glosses over the idea of increasing SS payouts by decreasing the eligibility age--which could be funded by removing the cap on contributions. Instead, the proposals offered are anti-retirement, suggesting that government should be "vigorously promoting age 70 as the new 65:"

It should also consider raising Social Security's Earliest Eligibility Age from 62 to, say, 64. (At the same time, we need to find a solution for those of us who simply cannot work longer due to health problems or outdated job skills.)

We need a solution, all right--but I don't see much here.

Mark Danner's piece on the new politics of torture is worth a read:

Hugh Eakin: What are some of the most revealing findings of the Senate report?

Mark Danner: There is a lot in the executive summary that we already knew but that is now told in appalling detail that we hadn't seen before. The relentlessness, day in day out, of these techniques; the totality of their effect when taken together--walling, close-confinement, water-dousing, waterboarding, the newly revealed "rectal rehydration," and various other disgusting and depraved things--is recounted in numbing, revolting detail. The effect can only be conveyed by a full reading, through page after awful page of this five-hundred-page document, which is after all less than 10 percent of the report itself. [...]

The White House, including the offices of the president and the vice-president, and the National Security Council--these three vital areas of decision-making still have not been examined. And there's a reason for that. The Republicans refused to sign on to the Senate investigation unless these areas were put beyond the committee's ken. The original vote by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to pursue the CIA investigation in 2009 was 14-1, and they got the Republicans on board by agreeing not to look at the executive. As it was, most of the Republicans jumped ship and abandoned the report anyway. Now, in their own 167-page summary of their "minority views," they attack the report for "faulty analysis, serious inaccuracies, and misrepresentations of fact" and argue that the program was essential to gaining vital intelligence that saved many lives. But they present no convincing evidence.

Danner notes, as have many other experts, that "These techniques, we should remember, were not only depraved, immoral, illegal; they were counterproductive." He also takes issue with Obama's statement that "we need to be looking forward and not backward:"

When any kind of accountability--investigation, prosecution, all such activities--are the heart of looking backward. And he says we need to be looking forward. [...]

We're in this surrealistic world, in which, twelve years after these decisions to use torture have secretly been made, we're seeing a public effort at disinformation spreading throughout the country, through all the media outlets, cheerleading for torture. It's quite an astonishing thing: torture, which used to be illegal, which used to be anathema, has now become a policy choice.

cop stop

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ThinkProgress writes that the NYPD work stoppage benefits low-income New Yorkers, who have seen "a 66 percent drop from the same period last year:"

While the protests have drawn scrutiny for "squandering the department's credibility" and leaving the city's streets virtually unattended, they have also had the unintended effect of benefitting New York's low income residents who are usually the target of the city's tough-on-crime practices. [...]

NYPD officers have long spoken about quotas which require them to issue a certain number of summons per month to maintain statistics showing a reduction of crime in the city's neighborhoods. Although Bratton promised an end to arrest quotas when he took office in January, the city's police are still operating under a quota system which is illegal under state law, according to a recent report by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

The Progressive takes a peek behind the charter-school facade, observing that in the wake of when Hurricane Katrina "New Orleans is now a 100 percent charter district." This is problematic because Louisiana charter schools "have intensified segregation by race and poverty." NOLA's schools initially "appeared to do well enough," but:

The truth became public only in 2014 when the state performed an audit that showed Vallas's schools had purged under-performing students to artificially inflate their performance scores and graduation rates.

Additionally, "the shiny new schools were built about as far away from the poorest communities as they could be:"

These schools are theoretically open to the entire state, but do not provide transportation. They also require many hours of "service" from parents. Service time increases per child enrolled. Charter schools offer enrollment to all children on paper, but in the real world they do whatever they can to keep out the riffraff. [...] Charter schools often find ways to comb out the poorest of the poor. [...]

By requiring service at schools and transportation, charter schools know they can filter out the poorest children with the least involved parents. This gives charters an advantage over traditional schools that is not captured by data, since public schools must educate everyone. This "creaming" strategy actually burdens traditional schools by leaving them with the students who need the most support and who are the farthest behind. Despite these advantages, charter schools still post poorer performance than their demographics would warrant. However, most traditional media outlets don't understand this. Many of them have been bought, or they've bought the propaganda that charter schools are always an improvement over public schools.

difficult books

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Noah Berlatsky declares that readability is a myth and asks, "What's the most difficult book you've ever read?"

For me, at least within recent memory, there's no question--the book that was hardest for me to slog through, the book that I would have put down if I didn't have to read it for work, was E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey. [...]

"Difficult," when applied to literature, generally refers to works that are hard to read, hard to get through, hard to finish. [...] There are certainly some highbrow books with sesquipedalian sentences that I've had trouble getting through--Melville's interminable, rambling collection of anecdotes-to-nowhere about the Galapagos Islands, for example. But is my desire to stomp upon "The Encantadas" until it can trouble me no more really categorically different than my desire to hurl John Grisham (or at least his books) from a height?

In the first case, I know, the fault is supposed to be in me, that I have failed to look deeply enough into the work of a master. In the second case, most people would say the fault is in John Grisham's shockingly vapid prose and brain-dead plots. But in both cases, the experience is one of repulsion, boredom, alienation. Melville and Grisham: They're both difficult for me to read.

rational rioting

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Jacobin explains why rioting is sometimes rational:

Long before broken windows, the partisans of law and order claimed that protests are bound to cause riots, and that riots are bound to cause violent crime and neighborhood decline. In the decades since the urban uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, the myth of the "riot effect" has been deployed to rationalize the massive expansion of urban police forces and with it, the escalation of policing to the level of low-intensity warfare.

Fifty years after the Watts Rebellion, and more than four months after the first shots were fired in Ferguson, we continue to hear the same refrain [that] property owners and officers of the peace are the hapless victims, while targets of state terror are the aggressors.

The "riot effect" narrative's "fatal flaw [is] the assumption that 'riots' are essentially random occurrences," destroying the supposition that "civil resistance has nothing to do with the underlying conditions that make it rational to rebel, or with the relations of power that make other avenues of action unavailable to the urban poor:"

What, then, are those alternatives? The first is an economic one...the collapse of their industrial base -- the result of which has been a decline in demand for less-skilled labor and the growth and ghettoization of a surplus population. [...]

A second explanation centers on the role of institutionalized racism. [...] Segregation went hand in hand with practices like redlining and blockbusting, driven by private developers, mortgage lenders, and the white elite. Such practices likely did more to depress property values than a riot possibly could. More importantly, they maintained a black ghetto wildly profitable for white capital.

A third alternative links the fate of the inner city to the dynamics of class struggle in the North. Rebellions have tended to occur in cities where black workers also engaged in other forms of disruptive power, such as strikes and demonstrations.

It is as rational for communities capitalism deems superfluous to rebel as it is profitable for white power players to keep them in their place. But when the apologists for this state of affairs turn to social science for backup, it is worth remembering that their claims to truth remain as questionable as their claims to legitimacy.

AlterNet lists 9 ways the Bible condones torture, noting that "the strongest approval [for torture] com[es] from Christians, both Catholic and Protestant:"

Faced with moral outrage, including from within their own ranks, Christian torture apologists took to the airwaves and the Internet, weaving righteous justifications for the practice of inflicting pain on incapacitated enemies.

As morally repugnant as this may be, anyone familiar with either past survey data or Christian history shouldn't find it surprising. [I noted this previously in 2009 and 2006.]

There's a reason devout Christians past and present can turn to torture when it suits their ends and then blithely maintain that they are on the side of God and goodness. The Bible itself--Old Testament and New--endorses torture regularly, through stories, laws, prophesies and sermons, including from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Torture is utilized in nearly every imaginable way: as punishment (Eve's Curse "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth"), a test of loyalty (Job), for self-gratification (the sexual slavery of the Midianite virgins from Numbers 31:18), a show of strength ("I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt" from Exodus 7:3, wherein Jehovah "methodically terrorizes the Egyptian populace"), correction (The Law and Proverbs), vengeance (Elisha's Curse from II Kings 2:23-24), and persuasion (extraordinary rendition in the "wicked servant" story from Matthew 18:34-35).

"In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Of course, there's also the redemptive torture of Jesus, and--worst of all--the eternal torture of the afterlife:

The torture most taught by modern Evangelicals is neither redemptive nor terminal; it is infinite. Perdition, Hades, Gehenna, the lake of fire, outer darkness, eternal torment--hell represents the most intense and most prolonged torture the Iron Age mind could conceive and the Medieval mind could elaborate.

Religious believers often claim that without a god everything is permissible. I tend to think that the opposite is true. Without gods we are guided, however imperfectly, by empathy, fairness and truth-seeking--impulses that are built into us by our evolution as social information specialists. [...]

By contrast, religious morality, dictated from on high, can be as contradictory or cruel as the god doing the dictation, or the culture that created that god. When god is the supernatural version of an Iron Age warlord, everything becomes possible--including torture.

As a supplement check out what the Bible says about torture from Skeptics Annotated Bible. It's all rather horrific.

Addicting Info's Jameson Parker writes that, on Christmas Day no less, the Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed by Eric Metaxas claiming that "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God" (paywalled). Not surprisingly, the piece was "a meandering journey into the mind of a creationist playing at scientific literacy - but only when it suited his predetermined conclusions." Parker remarks:

In a letter to the editor, Krauss systematically dismantles Metaxas' shallow science and demonstrates that, not only has science not proven God's existence (or disproven!), but most of the assumptions Metaxas makes are flat-out wrong.

Parker quotes from astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss' open letter to the WSJ:

Religious arguments for the existence of God thinly veiled as scientific arguments do a disservice to both science and religion, and by allowing a Christian apologist to masquerade as a scientist WSJ did a disservice to its readers.

The NYT mentions that the NYPD denies an organized slowdown:

Mr. Bratton said on Monday that a "weeklong period of mourning" and demonstrations that were straining resources were contributing to the drop-off in arrests and summonses. But he said the slowdown should not concern New Yorkers. "I would point out it has not had an impact on the city's safety at all," Mr. Bratton said.

A top union official flatly denied that there was a job action and pointed to the orders to double up and the need to police demonstrations as the main reasons.

"No one has sanctioned a slowdown or stoppage," said Edward Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. "That is not something that anybody came out and said to do."

The article goes on to observe that "one senior police official who reviewed precinct-level data across the city said the decline had the signs of an organized effort and was continuing this week" and that "the drop-off in activity in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in Downtown Brooklyn could not explain the sharp slowdown in routine enforcement in each of the city's 77 police precincts:"

In the week after Officers Ramos and Liu were killed on Dec. 20, the number of summonses for minor criminal offenses, as well as those for parking and traffic violations, decreased by more than 90 percent versus the same week a year earlier. And arrests over seven major categories of felony offenses were nearly 40 percent lower, the numbers show.

RJ Eskow argues rather forcefully that even atheists should capitalize god:

I understand why some atheists might want to write "god" instead of "God." If you believe that the word describes a human phenomenon rather than a genuine and existent deity, it might seem appropriate to use the lowercase form. But it's not. If you are referring to the singular and all-powerful deity of monotheistic tradition, you are using a proper name. That means the capital "G" is a must.

No, his name is Jehovah (or Yahweh)...'god' is a title. I recognize no god just like I obey no master (or must I write 'Master'?). Blue Letter Bible provides this list of names for the Judeo-Christian deity:

El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty) El Elyon (The Most High God) Adonai (Lord, Master) Yahweh (Lord, Jehovah) Jehovah Nissi (The Lord My Banner) Jehovah-Raah (The Lord My Shepherd) Jehovah Rapha (The Lord That Heals) Jehovah Shammah (The Lord Is There) Jehovah Tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness) Jehovah Mekoddishkem (The Lord Who Sanctifies You) El Olam (The Everlasting God) Elohim (God) Qanna (Jealous) Jehovah Jireh (The Lord Will Provide) Jehovah Shalom (The Lord Is Peace) Jehovah Sabaoth (The Lord of Hosts)

The god of the Jews, the god of the Christians, the god of the Moslems, the gods of the Hindus--they all matter naught to me, but Eskow still disagrees:

When you don't capitalize a proper name like God's, you're violating a fundamental principle of grammar.

You heard me right: grammar! You don't want to violate the laws of grammar, do you? I mean, seriously: Is nothing sacred?

I would say "No," but Gahan Wilson might respond differently:


In case you missed it in the two years since Obama's re-election, we're still waiting for conservatives' failed predictions of catastrophe. Just within the economic realm, they stoked fears of expensive gas (Newt Gingrich predicted "$10 a gallon" gas, but it's now hovering around $2.24), high unemployment ("Romney pledged that, if elected, he could bring the unemployment rate down to 6% by January 2017 [but] The unemployment rate currently stands at 5.8% and has been under 6% since September 2014."), a stock market crash (fears that "the stock market would drop at least 20%"were followed by the Dow rising over 35% since Obama's reelection) and a collapsing economy (Rush "I know mathematics, and I know economics. I know history" Limbaugh predicted that "the country's economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected," but our economy grew at 5% in the 3rd quarter, up from 4.6% growth in the previous quarter).

I wonder: When does Shariah Law get implemented? How about the ACA death panels? Gun confiscation? FEMA death camps? Martial law? Suspension of the Constitution? Railroad cars full of Christians? Aren't we overdue for pillars of fire or a plague of locusts?

Poor conservatives--their predictions are always wrong, but they're so consumed with the next faux outrage that they never notice.

Does anyone remember Ted Nugent's claim (way back in April 2012) that he'd "either be dead or in jail by this time next year"?

Get on the ball, Obama...your destroy-America plans are failing quite miserably.

Speaking of fear, hatred, and failure, AlterNet looks at why conservatives despise Neil Degrasse Tyson:

While most of the country was spending the Christmas holiday relaxing with friends and family, many conservatives were working themselves into an angry frenzy over a perceived offense over a silly culture war issue. The target was scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who took to Twitter on Christmas Day to write, "On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642."

Right-wing Christians, already primed to be hostile to anyone who values evidence and facts over myths about the supernatural, claimed that Tyson was deliberately provoking them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson... has become a punching bag for the right, where they can work out all their hostility to science and reason, while all pretending to be victims of some great Tyson-led anti-religion conspiracy.

Of course. Tyson "isn't wholly innocent in all this:"

He enjoys teasing conservatives about their reflexive hostility to science, correctly understanding that their anti-science sentiment does get in the way of scientific discovery and education. His little trolling moments are about exposing how anti-science conservatives are a pack of fools, unable to explain exactly why they believe they are entitled to hear flattering lies instead of objective truths that hurt their feelings. So yeah, he's trolling. But his targets deserve to be trolled, and we're all better off because he's forcing this discussion.


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I have long been of the opinion that Frank Zappa belonged in Apple's "Think Different" campaign, so I took a few minutes to make the ad that never existed:


(original image by Jerry Schatzberg, 1967)

weekend warriors

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The Atlantic discusses weekend warrior athletes, referring to "people who cram their exercise into weekend soccer games or tennis matches:"

With long periods of inactivity, interspersed with sometimes-excessive bursts of activity, the exercise habits of the weekend warrior don't fit the recommended model of regular daily exercise. More consistent exercise (an hour of moderate exercise or 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day) has been shown to reduce risk of heart failure by nearly 50 percent. But research appears to at least partially vindicate the exercise habits of weekend warriors, too.

To be classified as a weekend warrior, as the medical literature defines it, one must stuff the recommended weekly exercise requirement of 150 minutes or more into one or two days rather than spreading it out evenly over the week...only 1 to 3 percent of U.S. adults qualified as "weekend warriors."

Significantly, the piece notes that "The bottom line seems to be that even small amounts of vigorous activity--a quick run or a pick-up basketball game--can have significant health benefits:"

Taking it one step further, scientists have investigated how to make the most of a brief workout. One way is to work out in brief, high-intensity intervals of exercise, rather than a moderate but steady jog. [...] Despite the health benefits, there is a potential downside to sporadic exercise--increased risk of injury, especially acute injuries such as muscle strains or tendon injuries.

Attempting to cram a week's worth of exercise into a weekend may not be optimal, public health experts contend, but it seems like it's at least better than spending the weekend on the coach.

I believe you mean "couch"...otherwise, it's a very different kind of physical activity!

For NYT reporter James Risen, "fighting the post-9/11 national security state is a full-time job," as his new book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War explains:

"we had this whole period, 13 years now, where we essentially 'took the gloves off,' in Dick Cheney's famous words, in order to fight a global war on terror. And what Cheney meant by that was deregulating national security, and what that meant was eliminating or reducing or relaxing the rules that had been put in place for 30 years, from the post-Watergate era, which were governing the way in which we conducted national security. [...]

As I mention in the book, there are all these secret new companies that have developed around Washington in particular, in what I call "the homeland security-industrial complex," which is kind of like the military-industrial complex which came before, but is really more secretive and more earmarked toward intelligence and counterterrorism and not so much toward the big weapons systems that were the hallmark of the military-industrial complex.

So it's harder to see and it's harder to keep track of.

From the interview:

How much do we share responsibility for this state of affairs because we're so unwilling to not be afraid?

Yeah, that's a big part of it. Sometimes I wonder how much of it is the media doing that to the American people, and how much of it is really fear.

I tend to think that people are pretty smart, and if you as a politician or as a pundit presented the facts as they really are and not try to overhype them, that [people] would be willing to listen to that. Especially after so many years. I know a lot of people are tired of war so I think, now, the American people are more willing to hear that kind of message.

That's a prime example of market failure--"that kind of message" is not something that is delivered to us by corporate media outlets. Risen continues that "the Bush administration kind of created this national security/counterterrorism apparatus on an ad hoc basis, and did it very quickly and haphazardly:"

What Obama has done is made it more permanent and made it more normal. He's normalized it. And I would argue that's going to be part of his legacy, that he took what Bush set up in a haphazard and ad hoc way and made it more permanent. To me, that is more troubling, because it raise the question: If the war on terror is now a bipartisan enterprise, what political path is there out of this?

Comey's argument

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James Comey said in his Brookings speech that "We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications from information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so." Comey's worries, described as "Law enforcement officials could still intercept conversations but might not be able to access call data, contacts, photos and email stored on the phone" by TPM, are entirely appropriate--not every bit of potentially useful data has even been available to law enforcement, but that point is elided by our surveillance state mentality:

Comey also said the FBI was committed to a "front-door" approach, through court orders and under strict oversight, to intercepting communications. Privacy advocates have long been concerned that that development would create an opening for hackers to exploit. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that federal law protects the right of companies to add encryption with no backdoors and said the companies should be credited for being "unwilling to weaken security for everyone."

"Whether you call it a 'front door' or a 'back door,' weakening the security of a system to enable law enforcement access also opens that door to foreign governments and criminals," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

The Intercept called Comey's argument "pathetic," and wrote that "To make his case, he cited four real-life examples -- examples that would be laughable if they weren't so tragic:"

In the three cases The Intercept was able to examine, cell-phone evidence had nothing to do with the identification or capture of the culprits, and encryption would not remotely have been a factor. [...]

Facing the huge preponderance of evidence that encryption makes us safer, not less safe, Comey realizes he needs some solid evidence to support his side of the argument. But there's a reason he hasn't found it yet.

CDT goes on to argue that "The core tension of this debate is balancing the need for greater government access with our country's long tradition of individual autonomy and privacy:"

When the government calls for reduced security on smartphones, or worse yet, seeks technological backdoors into our devices, we are being asked to expose our personal data to criminals. Any backdoor the government can walk through to uncover evidence will eventually be used by malicious actors to exploit our personal information. [...]

In the end, we are far more secure, individually and as a country, if we are empowered to control the security and privacy of our own information. As we store more and more personal data in our smartphones, we must be given the ability to protect it from sophisticated hackers and criminals. The government vision of national security where only the good guys exploit weak security is not realistic, nor is it globally scalable. We should applaud the companies that take concrete steps to enhance the security of our personal information and encourage more companies to be equally bold.

Judith Miller writes in City Journal:

Without lawful government access to cell phones and Internet devices, Comey warned, "homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation victims might not be identified or recovered. [...] "Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive."

Comey repeated his warning that sales of such technology would create what he called a "black hole" for enforcement, depriving investigators of the forensic data needed to solve crimes.

But technology experts have argued that strong default encryption is needed to protect users from unwanted violation of their private data by governments and hackers alike.

EFF notes that "the FBI is trying to convince the world that some fantasy version of security is possible--where 'good guys' can have a back door or extra key to your home but bad guys could never use it:"

Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of security can tell you that's just not true. So the "debate" Comey calls for is phony, and we suspect he knows it. Instead, Comey wants everybody to have weak security, so that when the FBI decides somebody is a "bad guy," it has no problem collecting personal data.

But if the FBI gets its way and convinces Congress to change the law, or even if it convinces companies like Apple that make our tools and hold our data to weaken the security they offer to us, we'll all end up less secure and enjoying less privacy. Or as the Fourth Amendment puts it: we'll be be less "secure in our papers and effects."

more Wilde times

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TNR discusses the Walt Whitman/Oscar Wilde tryst (which I mentioned in this post from a year ago) and quotes from David Friedman's Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, which sets up the story this way:

On January 31, 1882, a partially paralyzed man living with his brother and sister-in-law in a row house in Camden, New Jersey, wrote to a friend to tell him of a recent visitor to that home. "He is a fine large handsome youngster," the man wrote of that guest. And "he had the good sense to take a great fancy to me."

Thus Walt Whitman described the day he spent with Oscar Wilde.

Despite all the overblown right-wing fears, same-sex and opposite-sex marriages far equally well:

In a September study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Rosenfeld uses time series data from the How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey (HCMST) to probe the longevity and breakup rates of America's marriages. The HCMST, which began in 2009, is a nationally representative survey of 3,009 couples, of which 471 are same-sex. Rosenfeld's paper reports the breakup rate of the couples surveyed annually through 2012.

The annual breakup rate among married different-sex couples was 1.5 percent. [...] Married same-sex couples broke up at a rate of 2.6 percent per year...

It is also noteworthy that unmarried same-sex couples broke up at about half the rate of unmarried different-sex couples. It is likely that part of the reason for this disparity is that unmarried same-sex couples had already been together almost twice as long their different-sex counterparts at beginning of the survey.


multiple languages

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The suggestion that for a better brain, learn another language continues to gain support as "the benefits of speaking multiple languages extend past just having access to different words, concepts, metaphors, and frames:"

Multilingualism has a whole slew of incredible side effects: Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it's no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots). And there's certainly something to be said for the cultural pleasure of reading The Odyssey in ancient Greek or Proust's In Search of Lost Time in French.

Of course, there's the dementia/decline issue:

More recently and perhaps most importantly, it's been found that people who learn a second language, even in adulthood, can better avoid cognitive decline in old age. In fact, when everything else is controlled for, bilinguals who come down with dementia and Alzheimer's do so about four-and-a-half years later than monolinguals.

Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer in the philosophy, psychology, and language sciences department at the University of Edinburgh, conducted the study and found that level of education and intelligence mattered less than learning a second language when it came to delaying cognitive decline. [...]

This is great news for anyone who is multi-lingual, but, really, it is positive news for everyone. The dementia-delaying effects of learning a second language are not contingent on becoming fluent; it just matters that a person tries to learn it.

what markets want

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Paul Krugman gets my Quote of the Day when he asks, "do those invoking the will of the market really know what markets want?"

We have been told repeatedly that governments must cease and desist from their efforts to mitigate economic pain, lest their excessive compassion be punished by the financial gods, but the markets themselves have never seemed to agree that these human sacrifices are actually necessary. Investors were supposed to be terrified by budget deficits, fearing that we were about to turn into Greece -- Greece I tell you -- but year after year, interest rates stayed low. The Fed's efforts to boost the economy were supposed to backfire as markets reacted to the prospect of runaway inflation, but market measures of expected inflation similarly stayed low.

How have policy crusaders responded to the failure of their dire predictions? Mainly with denial, occasionally with exasperation. For example, Alan Greenspan once declared the failure of interest rates and inflation to spike "regrettable, because it is fostering a false sense of complacency." But that was more than four years ago; maybe the sense of complacency wasn't all that false?

All in all, it's hard to escape the conclusion that people like Mr. Greenspan knew as much about what the market wanted as medieval crusaders knew about God's plan -- that is, nothing.

In fact, if you look closely, the real message from the market seems to be that we should be running bigger deficits and printing more money. And that message has gotten a lot stronger in the past few days.

He concludes by observing that "the truth is that when people talk about what markets demand, what they're really doing is trying to bully us into doing what they themselves want."

Bill Gates wrote a review of Piketty's Capital:

Piketty was nice enough to talk with me about his work on a Skype call last month. As I told him, I agree with his most important conclusions, and I hope his work will draw more smart people into the study of wealth and income inequality--because the more we understand about the causes and cures, the better.

Gates continues by observing that "Piketty's book has some important flaws that I hope he and other economists will address in the coming years. [...] For all of Piketty's data on historical trends, he does not give a full picture of how wealth is created and how it decays:"

More important, I believe Piketty's r > g analysis doesn't account for powerful forces that counteract the accumulation of wealth from one generation to the next. I fully agree that we don't want to live in an aristocratic society in which already-wealthy families get richer simply by sitting on their laurels and collecting what Piketty calls "rentier income"--that is, the returns people earn when they let others use their money, land, or other property. But I don't think America is anything close to that.

(Of course, the concept of rentier economics is neither new nor unique to Piketty.) Dean Baker replies that "Gates gives us a textbook example of the problems:"

While he is undoubtedly smart and hardworking, the key to his incredible wealth was the decision by the Justice Department largely to ignore antitrust law. Gates used classic anti-competitive practices to gain and protect a near monopoly in the market for personal computer operating systems. [...]

While Gates wants us to believe that his software innovations were a great service to the world, most users of his software would probably not agree. His efforts to corner the market may have made him rich, but they slowed down the process of software development.

more Ebola panic

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Once again, the press is doing to GOP's bidding by spreading Ebola panic; Media Matters notes that "At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion:"

The result is a frightening level of misinformation about Ebola and a deep lack of understanding of the virus by most Americans. Indeed, despite weeks of endless coverage, most news consumers still don't understand key facts about Ebola.

If the news media's job is to educate, and especially to clarify during times of steep public concerns, then the news media have utterly failed during the Ebola threat. And politically, that translates into a win for Republicans because it means there's fertile ground for their paranoia to grow.

Here's the kicker: "two weeks into the domestic Ebola scare and it's often not easy to distinguish who's pushing the doomsday themes more energetically, the media or the Republican Party."

Thanks, "liberal" media!

oligarchy party

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NYT talks about the burgeoning oligarchy party, using Tom Steyer (with a $1.5 billion fortune from hedge-fund management) as a rare left-wing example of money in politics:

Steyer's long-term goal was to build an organization called NextGen Climate Action, which could mirror and oppose the rival private interests who devoted their own fortunes to blocking any action on climate change. Chief among those rivals were Charles and David Koch, the brothers who run Koch Industries. [...]

Steyer, with his $50 million pledge, is one of the most deep-pocketed political arrivistes. But he has a long way to go to catch up with the Koch brothers, whose own group, Americans for Prosperity, already has political operations in every state that Steyer is contesting, along with 28 others. The group says it will spend at least $125 million this year.

I'm still not a huge fan of private money in politics, but at least this seems to be a useful counterweight to conservative fortunes.

AlterNet's observation that conservative states are the biggest porn hounds links "online search traffic from behind closed doors in Jesusland" to the fact that "people in conservative religious states search for adult materials online far more often than people in blue states..." but why? Perhaps "the conservative obsession with controlling everyone else's sexual behavior" is due to Freudian "defense mechanisms:"

• Denial means simply refusing to acknowledge that some event or pattern is real. • Repression involves pushing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the far recesses of the subconscious mind. • Reaction formation is saying or doing the opposite of what you really want but won't allow yourself to express. • Projection means assuming that others share the impulses, feelings, and vices that you find unacceptable in yourself.

The honest truth is that we all have our failings, Christian or not, liberal or conservative. None of us live up to our best intentions or deepest values. What's shameful is not the fact that people find sex arousing and seek it out, even when they feel compelled to do so on the sneak. The problem is hypocrisy and the way that it distorts public policies and parenting, causing real harm to real people. For over a decade, conservatives forced abstinence-only education on young people, insisting that hormone-ravaged teens could "just say no" when they themselves can't.

This epic public health fail contributed to the United States having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, with devastating economic consequences for young mothers and their offspring. Some thrive despite the odds; many do not. We can do better.

Not with ignorance-based sex education, we can't...


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Wired's piece on the Anonabox backlash is quite a reversal:

...as of Thursday morning, the backlash against that project had become so severe that its total funding was actually ticking down rather than up, as disillusioned backers pulled their pledges faster than others could make them. The comments section on the Kickstarter page had filled with users accusing the project's creators of fraud, many asking Kickstarter to cancel the fundraiser.

More worrisome than whether or not its circuit boards are truly "custom" are the security concerns:

But as the security community has taken notice of Anonabox over the last week, its analysts and penetration testers have found that the router's software also has serious problems, ones that could punch holes in its Tor protections or even allow a user to be more easily tracked than if they were connecting to the unprotected Internet. "I'm seeing these really strange smells and poor practices in their pilot beta code," says Justin Steven, a computer security analyst based in Brisbane, Australia. "It scares me if anyone is relying on this for their security." [...]

In its default state, the Anonabox doesn't password-protect its wireless network. That means that anyone who sets up an Anonabox without changing its settings can have their device completely compromised by a nearby hacker who has the easily identifiable root password. That wireless attacker could disable Tor or even infect the router with spyware that tracks the user's location wherever they take it.

The project's lead is spinning furiously:

Germar argues that all the criticisms of the Anonabox stem from miscommunication, not carelessness or any attempt to scam users. He admits that he should have made clear which parts of the Anonabox's hardware he sourced from China rather than give users the impression he was custom-building the parts from scratch. But he denies the software issues represent real vulnerabilities. Instead, he describes them as issues of user education. Germar says he intended to include warnings in the final documentation to change the router's root password, for instance.

Fred Kaplan pens a critical look at CitizenFour, opining that Poitras "has chosen to leave a lot out:"

If Snowden and company wanted to take down an intelligence agency, they should say so. But that has nothing to do with whistleblowing or constitutional rights.

At one very interesting point in the film, Snowden tells Poitras and Greenwald, "Some of these documents are legitimately classified," and their release "could do great harm" to intelligence sources and methods. He adds, "I trust you'll be responsible" in handling them.

This is what most baffles me about the whole Snowden case. What kind of whistleblower hands over a digital library of extremely classified documents on a vast range of topics, shrugs his shoulders, and says, I'll let you decide what to publish?

He concludes:

It's a gigantic evasion to leak however many beyond-top-secret documents he leaked--some say tens of thousands, some say millions--and then abrogate all responsibility for their circulation to the world.

Slate's Reihan Salam writes in praise of Amazon:

Even if Bezos is in his heart of hearts a villain devoted to driving every mom-and-pop store in the world out of business, the company he's built is very much a force for good. It is a force for good not just because it keeps the Salam household stocked with paper towels, dish soap, rolling ball pens, map tacks, and lots and lots of cheap books, but because it points American capitalism in a better, healthier direction. [...]

When we decide that Amazon is just a little too innovative and a little too tough, what is the message we're sending to the next entrepreneur who is debating whether to take on the thorniest challenges? No, I'm not saying that it's OK for Standard Oil to come along and gouge its customers because we don't want to discourage future robber barons. I'm saying that having the government step in and squash Amazon before it actually uses its (supposed) pricing power to screw consumers will likely yield less innovative entrepreneurship. The only people who will win in this scenario are the mostly wealthy people who own shares in lazily managed companies. Hurray.

Innovative entrepreneurship is exactly what the American economy desperately needs.

I would hardly call Amazon's abusive practices "a little too tough," but Salam seems determined to whitewash the situation. He concludes by saying that "Instead of damning Amazon, we need to be asking why we don't have more companies like it." Salon pegs this as a "silly defense of Amazon" and notes that it leaves out workers:

Tip of the hat to Salam's attempt to spin carrying water for Jeff Bezos as standing up against entrenched power. It's a nice rhetorical move, especially if your audience is socially aware enough to know there's something gauche about reflexively venerating the 1 percent. But as Salam reveals with the second element of his argument, this through-the-looking-glass version of populism is fundamentally hollow. Because Amazon and Bezos shouldn't be celebrated simply for the way they make our nicknacks cheaper, Salam argues, but also for the way they inspire the Peter Thiels and Jeff Bezoses of the future to make everything else better, too. The argument, basically, is that if we come down hard on Amazon now, well, we risk nothing less than a mass exodus into Galt's Gulch.

In contrast to the relative ease of replacing Windows with Ubuntu on his PC, Dan Gillmor wonders who owns his phone:

...when I recently bought a used Samsung mobile phone and tried to replace the bloated, privacy-invading system that comes standard with Samsung's Android devices, I ran into all kinds of trouble. Why? Because Samsung and Sprint, the carrier that handles voice and data for that phone, have decided they--not I--will retain ultimate control over the device I purchased. Oh, I can use it, but only in ways they consider permissible.

This is the lockdown method of modern technology, a growing phenomenon that deserves much wider notice--and, for the most part, condemnation. To put it simply, we are being told that we don't actually own what we buy.

From Kindle e-readers to Keurig coffeemakers, users are facing various lockdown schemes from vendors--that are, at their least objectionable, another way to strong-arm users:

I asked Samsung and Sprint for an explanation of why they are so ardently trying to stop people like me from making my phone a better device. Their responses never quite answered what I considered fairly simple questions. [...]

Imagine how outrageous it would be if Apple or Windows-based computer makers refused to honor warranties if you modified the system in a way they found improper. The fact that we let phone-makers do this speaks to our weird acceptance of captivity when it comes to devices that are, in reality, nothing more than portable computers.

If we had proper consumer-protection laws in this country, it would--with very, very few exceptions--be illegal for manufacturers to lock down devices in this way. But expecting our current political system to favor customers over corporations is almost foolhardy.

And there's a question you should ask yourself when you decide to buy something that contains software and can be connected to digital networks: Who ultimately controls it? You, or the company that "sold" it to you? If the latter, you aren't buying. You're just renting.

infectious paranoia

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The GOP's slick new trick is co-opting the media to infect audiences with Ebola paranoia. As the Ebola outbreak is "dominating the news coverage, it's ripe for fearmongering, and it seems to call out for immediate and effective action by the government...flight bans and closing the border are generally where Republicans fall when they're asked what that action should look like:"

These proposals may sound extreme (and they are) but they give the impression that, in the face of crisis, our elected officials and learned commentators want to get stuff done. [...] This "do something" style of politics is an extremely effective way to prey on irrational fears and get people behind you even if what you're proposing quite obviously won't fix the problem. And Republicans are proving themselves to be very, very good at it. [...]

They're nurturing along the perception that existing policies are failing horribly and the likelihood of outright catastrophe is increasing. The "do something" politicking is the natural outflow from all their efforts to keep people scared. It won't solve the problem - it could even make it worse - but it appeals to the frightened person who's been made to feel that the situation is slipping into chaos and is just looking for something, anything, to be done.


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The Atlantic's piece on defending iPhones points out that FBI head James Comey, is scheduled to give a speech Thursday as "part of a sustained effort to sway the debate over encryption, or what the FBI calls devices 'going dark,' thwarting efforts to solve robberies, kidnapping, and other crimes." Comey's arguments are ultimately misleading and wrongheaded, as Cato's Julian Sanchez explains in "a definitive essay" [wherein] Sanchez debunks the notion that Apple or anyone else is setting an alarming new precedent with its encryption:"

Acknowledging that encryption may nevertheless be growing easier and more prevalent, in a way that will sometimes thwart law enforcement from solving crimes, Sanchez shows that the case against backdoors for law enforcement is nevertheless strong. [...]

I'd only add that, even ignoring all these benefits of backdoor-free encryption, the practice is necessary as a response to a federal government that routinely intrudes into the private communications of Americans suspected of no crime, rather than respecting privacy except in cases where an individualized warrant is obtained. Perhaps if the Bush administration hadn't embarked on an illegal program of warrantless wiretapping, if the telecoms wouldn't have been given retroactive immunity for their unlawful behavior, and if Edward Snowden hadn't shown that U.S. officials lied under oath about a program of mass surveillance, Americans would feel less need to build safes that not even the state can unlock.

Sanchez' essay does indeed note that "criminals have had access to backdoor-free encryption for many, many years before Apple announced its new policy without ushering in a terrifying new age of unstoppable criminals and impotent police." He goes on to provide some much-needed context:

Law enforcement may moan that they are "going dark" when some particular innovation makes their jobs more difficult (while improving the security of law-abiding people's private data), but when we consider the bigger picture, it is far easier to agree with the experts who have dubbed our era the Golden Age of Surveillance. Year after year, technology opens a thousand new windows to our government monitors. If we aim to preserve an "equilibrium" between government power and citizen privacy, we should accept that it will occasionally close one as well.

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