Should Confederate veterans be honored as veterans? That's the question posed by Mike LaBossiere, prompted by an "interesting controversy" in Florida:

Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida's Veterans' Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor "those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida." [...]

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America.

The writer points out that "Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor," but also suggests a workaround:

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States' veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning.

Confederate soldiers should be derided as traitors--just like late-eighteenth-century Loyalists shouldn't be honored as Revolutionary War heroes.

Bringing the treason-in-defense-of-slavery issue up to the present day, Rmuse declares that Republicans are traitors:

It is likely that throughout America's short history, except for the traitorous Confederacy, no group of individuals has exhibited the characteristic betrayal of a traitor more than conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular. What makes their actions all the more despicable is that their traitorous actions are founded on racial animus for one man; and allegiance to foreigners [TransCanada, by way of the Keystone XL project] and one tiny segment of the population [the 1%, of course]. [...]

The constitutional betrayal [from 2011's threatened debt default] garnered America's first credit downgrade in history and a ploy they came precariously close to repeating in 2013 when they shut down the government by betraying their Constitutional mandate to legislate for the "people's general welfare;" all over their opposition to Americans having access to affordable healthcare. It was a betrayal of their fellow citizens, and their oath to uphold the Constitution that tasks them to pass legislation, not shut down the government or threaten a credit default. Over the past six years, Republicans have shown that their allegiance to the Constitution is as non-existent as their allegiance to this country or their fellow citizens.

When partisanship is elevated over country, what else could be expected?

killers for Christ

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In writing about killers for Christ, Raw Story's David Ferguson mentions how easily Obama "raised hackles on the Christian right this week" with a rather simple observation:

"Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," said the president. "Slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Ferguson also notes that "Conservatives greeted this assertion with their usual unflappable calm and equanimity, which is to say, of course, that they pretty much all started screaming and soiling themselves at once." From the Fourth Crusade to the KKK, from the Holocaust to anti-choice violence, the author reminds us that "those are just a few examples, kids:"

So, the next time someone tries to tell you that Islam produces the only violent religious extremists of the world, ask them how Dr. Tiller's widow probably feels about that, or the survivors of Eric Rudolph's murderous rampages. Praise Jesus and pass the ammunition!

Meanwhile, wingnuts ignore both historical and contemporary evidence and claim that the number of Christian victims would be zero. Here's Fox's Eric Bolling asserting that no non-Muslims have ever killed in the name of their religion:

"Reports say radical Muslim jihadists killed thousands of people in the past few months alone...and yet when you take Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, whatever, their combined killings in the name of religion -- well that number would be zero."

TPM writes that "It's not clear whether Bolling was referring to the total number of people killed in the name of religions other than Islam in the past few months or in general:"

But even if Bolling was referring to that narrower time frame, there was at least one planned attack in the United States with reported ties to Christianity that he overlooked.

Law enforcement officials believed that Texas resident Larry McQuilliams, who was gunned down by police in November while trying to burn down a Mexican consulate, was planning a broader attack against churches and government buildings. Investigators searching McQuilliams' van found a copy of the 1990 book "Vigilantes of Christendom," which is linked to a Christian sect called the Phineas Priesthood that holds racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.


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John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, asks why are so many Americans in prison?

Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be. If he's right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

Here are some passages form the interview:

OK. So if it's not the drug war, and it's not harsh sentencing laws, what is it? What do you think caused the prison boom?

You need to break the question into two periods. Because there's a time between 1975 and 1991 when you see this dramatic rise in crime, and the prison population went up as well. And then there's a more interesting period, between 1991 and 2010, when crime steadily declined, yet prison populations kept going up. [...]

Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time--the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that's available--is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the '90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. [...] the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

...the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison. [...] What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now--whose behavior we need to regulate--is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He's directly elected, and he's directly elected at the county level. So there's no big centralized fix.

In essence, our political system has also shackled those of us outside the prison walls, preventing us from easily solving the problem.

fear of science

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Abdul El-Sayed (professor of epidemiology at Columbia) is concerned about America's deadly fear of science:

Since 2000, measles cases in the US have been attributed largely to travelers bringing the disease into the country. In recent years, however, measles has become increasingly common, with the number of cases climbing above 150 in 2013, and then jumping to 644 last year - the most cases recorded in a single year since the late 1990s. This year already appears likely to top that record.

The upsurge in cases can be explained largely by the increase in the number of unvaccinated children. Americans are learning the hard way that scientifically baseless skepticism about the safety of vaccines is extremely dangerous.

Well, some of us are learning; others appear to be ineducable:

Even after panicked claims that vaccines cause visible conditions like autism were proved to be nonsense, they remain more compelling than the threat of a disease that people have never seen or do not remember. [...] Parents argue that vaccination, like all other decisions about how to raise and care for their children, should be their choice. But, when it comes to vaccination, one family's poor judgment can mean sickness or even death for another's.

This conclusion is my Quote of the Day:

The scientific method is perhaps the greatest arbiter of truth humanity has ever devised. We must trust in it to help make sense of an uncertain world, and to help us determine how best to nourish and protect our children and ourselves. When parents are allowed - or, worse, encouraged - to choose fear over science, we all pay the price.

blaming bias

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Blaming the liberal media is a perilous tactic, explains National Journal. Rand Paul's story of "normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines" is a prime example. He later tweeted a selfie and crowed: "Today I am getting my booster vaccine. Wonder how the liberal media will misreport this?" The NJ responded by beating this old warhorse:

One recent study found that, since 2004, far more employees at newspapers and in print media donated to liberal candidates than to conservative candidates.

How about the donations made by corporations? How about their lobbyists? Employees aren't represented on K Street, making the number of small donors much less important compared to the larger ones. Still, NJ complains that cries of bias "can be an effective strategy:"

But it's one that only works for so long. Blame the media once or twice and you're a righteous crusader. More than that, and you start looking like the Boy Who Cried Media Bias.

They've been doing it since the Nixon era, and it still appears to be working.

whine and ruses

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TNR calls Rand Paul very dangerous in 2016, particularly on the economic front. His 'Audit the Fed' in particular is "a terrible idea:"

First, the Fed already is extensively audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and even private sector auditors like Deloitte. Each week, the central bank also releases its balance sheet and even has an interactive guide of its balance sheet available for further explanation.

However, the GAO and OIG audits exclude a few parts of the Fed's policymaking, including transactions by the Federal Open Market Committee. Paul's bill removes those exclusions and requires "recommendations for legislative or administrative action" from the Comptroller General. Sounds innocuous, right? It's not. That would significantly damage the Fed's independence, which exists so that politicians cannot influence the central bank for their own political purposes. In other words, "Audit the Fed" would lead legislators to interfere with monetary policy matters and put the entire economy at risk.

Paul's gold-fueled inflation hysteria is even more "profoundly misguided""

In terms of current policy, goldbugs, as they are often called, think the Fed's recent decisions--its zero interest rate policy and bond-buying program--will cause skyrocketing inflation and reduce what you can buy with dollars. Those warnings look more foolish by the day. Inflation over the past year was just 0.7 percent, 1.3 percent if you remove volatile food and energy prices. Inflation expectations for the next 10 years are also very low. You would think that these low inflation rates would convince Paul and his followers to rethink their economic theory [but] Paul's economic ignorance doesn't end there. [...]

As long as he's in the Senate, that doesn't really matter. He can spout his nonsense without having any effect on the Federal Reserve. But if he became president, he would be responsible for choosing the next Fed Chair when Janet Yellen's term expires in 2018 and for nominating board members to the FOMC. That doesn't give Paul unlimited power, since the Senate would still have to confirm his nominees. But as president, Paul would be the leader of the GOP, with an even greater ability to dictate its position on monetary policy and convince Republican senators to support his nominees.

At least on the economy, that makes Rand Paul by far the most dangerous candidate in the 2016 field.

Bad economics is, of course, endemic on the Right. In an interview with George Stephanopolous, Ted Cruz explains that trickle-down economics doesn't work (only 35 years too late!) by pointing out that "the economy is doing great ...for the wealthy:"

The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogues, earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928. [...] But I'll tell you, hard working men and women across America are hurting.

Ben Carson thinks that the 47% are lazy or something (apparently, the phrase 'working poor' hasn't made its way to his ears):

For those who are not poor, there is a four letter work that works extremely well, it's called w-o-r-k, work. [...] The government is not there to give away everything and to take care of people.

Sounds like he could use a refresher course on the source of the phrases 'domestic tranquility,' 'common defense,' and 'general welfare,' but he'd rather stumble backward to 2012:

Romney talked about the 47 percent. He made one major mistake. He assumed that they all had the same mentality. They don't. A lot of people in that 47 percent are very anxious to experience the American dream. What they are looking for is the right mechanism, the pathway out. This is what we have to provide for them, and that's going to include fixing the economy, which is not going to be that difficult to do, quite frankly.

It would be even easier without Republican obstructionism--but he's campaigning to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. It's all part of the Right's inequality ruse:

There's no denying that the U.S. economy is in much better shape than it was six years ago. But contrary to the conventional wisdom, the primary reason the Obama era has been so difficult has always been political rather than economic. It wasn't because of a bad economy that Wall Street paid no price for throwing the world into recession; and it wasn't because of a bad economy that Washington spent years doing nothing as unemployment rose, household wealth plummeted, infrastructure deteriorated and wages flatlined. [...]

No, those mistakes and others were the fault of American politics. More specifically, they were a result of our politics' devolution back to Gilded Age-style plutocracy, and Washington's ever-increasing tendency to focus on the issues that matter to the 1 percent at the exclusion of anything else. [...]

[Jeb] Bush thinks any law that "subtracts from [economic] growth" should not even be discussed. But if that's your inclination, the chances that you're also someone who worried about inequality before Republicans began using the issue to bash Obama are vanishingly small. In fact, it's more likely that you've spent most of the Obama era the same way as other conservatives and libertarians: dismissing inequality's importance, or denying its existence.

Saudi secrecy

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Over at Smirking Chimp, Eric Margolis discusses the resurgence of the long-rumored Saudi-9/11 connection:

This week, allegations of Saudi involvement reignited as one of the men convicted in the 9/11 plot, Zacarias Moussaoui, reasserted the allegations. Moussaoui, who is in US maximum security prison, charges senior Saudi princes and officials bankrolled the 9/11 attacks and other al-Qaida operations. He may have been tortured and has mental problems.

Among the Saudis Moussaoui named are Prince Turki Faisal, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, two of the kingdom's most powerful and influential men. Turki was head of Saudi intelligence; Bandar ambassador to Washington during the Bush administration.

The story goes back to Afghanistan and Iran, but lingers on American "infidels" occupying the holy Saudi Arabian peninsula, which Margolis calls "no chimera:"

There are some 40,000 American "technicians" and "contractors" in Saudi serving the oil industry and military. US forces in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Diego Garcia overwatch Saudi Arabia. There are secret US bases in Saudi. Israel is a secret ally of the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi royal family is protected by the America's CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence.

Although "the reasons for the 9/11 attacks have been all but obscured by a torrent of disinformation and hysteria," he writes, "the attack was clearly an attempt by Saudi dissidents to strike back at US domination of their country:"

The attackers were quite clear in their reasons: to punish the US for supporting Israel and oppressing the Palestinians; and for its "occupation" of Saudi Arabia and keeping a tyrannical regime there in power.

The hushed-up Saudi information isn't official Saudi complicity--but a desire to sweep a well-funded insurgency under the carpet.

Yes, men and funds for the 9/11 attacks likely came from Saudi Arabia; yes, the royal family knew about this - after the fact - but remains mum to this day; yes, Washington knows the Saudi princes knew, but remains mute and keeps trying to censor Part 4 of the damning 9/11 report. Too many senior US officials and legislators have been on the Saudi payroll.

Plummeting oil prices haven't helped--yet--and neither has political change:

The change of ruler in Saudi has so far made little difference. The song remains the same. But behind the scenes, pressure is growing.

no books

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How is it that, for the first time in recent memory, I haven't finished a single book or written a single book review for an entire month? Have I stopped reading?

Of course not.

The mundane illnesses and work stresses of the holiday season certainly contributed to my lack of completion, but mostly it's just been due to an abundance of distractions.

I received quite a stack of books as holiday gifts, and--not surprisingly--began reading several of them at once, researching their authors, reading reviews...all activities that are not very conducive to actually finishing a book.

Dismayed at the growing size of my TBR pile, I've begun too many of them and completed too few. Whatever my limit is for simultaneous books being read, I've crossed it. In addition, I've been trying to get caught up with blog posts--another time-consuming affair.

Although I've made progress on the books I borrowed from my local university's library, I had to renew them for another month. Perhaps I can get caught up before the new due date arrives.

If not, I'll keep chipping away as best I can.

So many books...

Despite the accolades he has received (a Polk, a Pulitzer, bestseller status), writes Reason, "Glenn Greenwald might be the single most polarizing figure in American journalism."

Greenwald, 47, is the man most responsible for bringing the surveillance revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to light, in an ongoing series of articles buttressed by additional investigative corroboration. Snowden initiated the contact with Greenwald after reading his staunch, criticize-all-sides civil-liberties blogging at outlets such as Salon. To admirers, the two share an adherence to constitutional liberties so strong that they're willing to take on their own ideological bunkmates and live in exile from their homeland. (Greenwald resides in Brazil.) To detractors, they are part of a transnational movement to sabotage U.S. hegemony.

The interview that follows is provocative--especially his contention that, despite the lack of legislative victories, "there have been some very significant changes as a result of [our] reporting:"

I think the much more significant changes are the changes in consciousness that people have, not just about surveillance, but about privacy, the role of government, their relationship to it, the dangers of exercising power in the dark, and the role of journalism as well. [...] The most important of all is the awareness of individuals about the need to protect their own privacy by using things like encryption and other tools of anonymity. I think these things are a really important form of change and accountability that will come from the reporting.
Here is another part of the interview:
reason: [Is the] NSA's blanket surveillance now legally permissible under any possible interpretation of the law, in your opinion?

Greenwald: What's important to understand when we talk about what's legal is the extent to which our institutions that determine legality have been completely co-opted, either by the other branches of government or just by the kind of post-9/11 fearmongering hysteria that has subsumed federal judges as much as they have everybody else, if not more so.

Greenwald decries "the lack of vibrancy and independence in how journalists are allowed to report and opine and talk about the world:"

There's kind of become this very soul-draining, soulless voice that journalists are expected to adopt. It's one of contrived neutrality or objectivity that prevents them from really having any passion or spirit behind their journalism. [...]

I think it's much more honest to simply be candid about the subjective assumptions that you're embracing, rather than to pretend that you're something that you're not. But more to the point, I think that that kind of pseudo-objective journalism neuters it. It means that you can't really ever be perceived as taking a strong position because that somehow compromises your objectivity. It means that you're basically toothless, that you no longer have the ability to check those who are in power or to call out their lies when they're lying or to be aggressive in telling the truth. That's a big part of why journalism has been failing.

If the options are polarization or failure, Greenwald has made the right choice.

In the cathedral of computation, Ian Bogost writes that "Algorithms are everywhere, supposedly" and takes issue with the near-religious reverence granted to them:

We are living in an 'algorithmic culture' [where] Google's search algorithms determine how we access information. Facebook's News Feed algorithms determine how we socialize. Netflix's and Amazon's collaborative filtering algorithms choose products and media for us. You hear it everywhere. [...]

Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.

It's part of a larger trend. The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

The problem goes deeper than the algorithms:

Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially "big data," whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity. Today, conventional wisdom would suggest that mystical, ubiquitous sensors are collecting data by the terabyteful without our knowledge or intervention. Even if this is true to an extent, examples like Netflix's altgenres show that data is created, not simply aggregated, and often by means of laborious, manual processes rather than anonymous vacuum-devices.

Think, for example, of the selection/sorting/tagging effort involved in Pinterest. My first reaction to hearing about the concept of pinning images was that it struck me as an ingenious way to aggregate vast analytical effort and apply it to the visual portion of the Internet--at relatively little cost. This method of divination trumps any computer-driven efforts (at least for the moment) for this type of problem, revealing that our creation is not yet our master:

Algorithms aren't gods. We need not believe that they rule the world in order to admit that they influence it, sometimes profoundly. Let's bring algorithms down to earth again. Let's keep the computer around without fetishizing it, without bowing down to it or shrugging away its inevitable power over us, without melting everything down into it as a new name for fate. We don't want an algorithmic culture, especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate, computational theocracy.


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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)

explaining Ebola

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In explaining what The Hot Zone got wrong, NPR talks to science writer David Quammen--author of the new book Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. Quammen has some harsh words for the author of another book about the virus -- Richard Preston's best-seller The Hot Zone:"

"I thought The Hot Zone was fascinating, mesmerizing. It's one of the things that got me interested in Ebola," Quammen says. But as he did his own research and talked to experts, including virologist Karl Johnson, a major character in The Hot Zone, he heard a different story.

The experts said, "Ebola is not like how it's portrayed in the book. People do not dissolve. Their internal organs do not liquefy. People do not shed bloody tears."

Sometimes people with Ebola hemorrhage, but in the majority of cases, there's no dramatic bleeding, Quammen says. For that reason, "the disease is no longer even classified as a hemorrhagic fever."

The piece continues by observing that "Ebola isn't a respiratory virus:"

It doesn't spread through the airborne route. So it's not likely to spread like wildfire around the world and kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. That's what I think of as the next big one. I think the virus for the next big one is more likely to be an influenza or a coronavirus than it is to be Ebola.

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.

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