January 2010 Archives

Esperanza Spalding

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I mentioned the phenomenal bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding before, and here are a few clips of her high-profile performances over the past year: playing "Overjoyed" in honor of Stevie Wonder at the White House,

performing during the White House's "Evening of Poetry, Music & the Spoken Word,"

and a gig, at Obama's request, in honor of his Nobel Peace Prize:

Her website has a list of upcoming tour dates--if you get a chance to see her perform live, I suggest that you take it--talent like hers is rare!

The PPP (Public Policy Polling) poll on trusted news media has gotten a lot of play this week, often summarized as "Fox is the most trusted news network." For those who look at the details, as pointed out by Ellen at NewsHounds, it is clear that Republicans are the ones who trust the (GOP-leaning) Fox because it tells them what they want to hear: the poll's crosstabs show that Fox is trusted by 70% of McCain voters, 74% of Republicans, and 75% of conservatives. Democrats and independents, slightly more skeptical about their news sources, are more evenly split between the networks.

In a blog post about the poll, PPP's Tom Jensen observed that "These numbers suggest quite a shift in what Americans want from their news:"

A generation ago Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in the country because of his neutrality. Now people trust Fox the most precisely because of its lack of neutrality. It says a lot about where journalism is headed.

A significant proportion of Americans believing that Faux News is "Real news: Fair and balanced" is as damning an indictment as I can imagine about both confirmation bias and credulity.

Today is NASA's Day of Remembrance in honor of the astronauts who lost their lives as our species began to explore the cosmos, particularly the following missions:

Apollo 1 (27 January 1967)
Challenger (28 January 1986)
Columbia (1 February 2003)

See NASA's press release or the Kennedy Space Center's media gallery for more. Interestingly, Gus Grissom wrote the following shortly before he died in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire:

"There will be risks, as there are in any experimental program, and sooner or later, we're going to run head-on into the law of averages and lose somebody. I hope this never happens, and... perhaps it never will, but if it does, I hope the American people won't think it's too high a price to pay for our space program."

The experience of watching the Challenger disaster live on TV made this scene from the 1982 art-house film classic Koyaanisqatsi (website, Wikipedia) all but unbearable:

As mentioned by Brian McLaughlin at Wired's GeekDad, the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera ("through difficulty to the stars") is particularly poignant when juxtaposed with our astronauts' sacrifices.

SOTU

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I read the transcript of Obama's State of the Union after missing the chance to watch it live last night. Two of my favorite passages were Obama's criticisms of the Citizens United case

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.

and the Clintonian failure that is DADT,

My administration has a civil rights division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination. We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate. This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do.

but most media attention seems to be focused on his simple statements of fact about the abyss into which we were staring at this time last year.

One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression. So we acted -- immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed. But the devastation remains. [...]

We can't afford another so-called economic ''expansion'' like the one from the last decade -- what some call the ''lost decade'' -- where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion, where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs, where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation.

Obama, against all expectations, managed to make Republicans sit on their hands when he discussed tax cuts--something that they haven't done for quite some time:

...we extended or increased unemployment benefits for more than 18 million Americans, made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who get their coverage through COBRA and passed 25 different tax cuts.

Now, let me repeat: We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.

The facts were just as one-sided when he talked about the spending side of the equation, saying "let me start the discussion of government spending by setting the record straight:"

At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door. [...]

Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office. [...] From some on the right, I expect we'll hear a different argument -- that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that's what we did for eight years. That's what helped us into this crisis. It's what helped lead to these deficits. We can't do it again.

Former Bush spinmeister Karl Rove complained that "I think it makes you look weak" for a president to discuss the mess left by his predecessor, but ThinkProgress wondered what Rove thought of this line:

To understand the State of the Union, we must look not only at where we are and where we're going but where we've been. The situation at this time last year was truly ominous. [...] First, we must understand what's happening at the moment to the economy. Our current problems are not the product of the recovery program that's only just now getting under way, as some would have you believe; they are the inheritance of decades of tax and tax, and spend and spend.

Oops! That wasn't Obama complaining about Dubya, it was Saint Ronnie Reagan whining about Carter in 1981. It should be pointed out that Democrats wouldn't have to collect taxes if Republicans weren't still stuck in the rut of Reagan's borrow-and-waste tactics from the Eighties. Can anyone seriously believe--despite the past three decades of evidence--that Dems are spendthrifts and Repubs are fiscally responsible?

Speaking of facts, FactCheck's analysis has plenty of support for its summarization that "while we found Obama strained the facts or cited uncertain statistics at times, we uncovered nothing we could show to be false." (There were no unseemly outbursts from the floor, so at least the GOP can claim to be doing something better than last year.)

Zinn remembered

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The ubiquitous AP obit of Howard Zinn can be read at the New York Times or the LA Times, but it barely scratches the surface of Zinn's life. Dave Zirin's piece "The Historian Who Made History" at The Nation praises Zinn's authenticity:

When he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and was arrested sitting in with his students.

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! had a nice discussion with authors Anthony Arnove, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Alice Walker about Zinn and his influence. Amid the reminiscences, Arnove commented that "Howard never rested. He had such an energy:"

And over the last few years, he continued to write, continued to speak, and he brought to life this history that he spoke about in that segment that you just aired. He wanted to bring a new generation of people into contact with the voices of dissent, the voices of protest, that they don't get in their school textbooks, that we don't get in our establishment media, and to remind them of the power of their own voice, remind them of the power of dissent, the power of protest.

Zinn's last published work may be a brief essay on Obama from The Nation, where he says of Obama, "I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much:"

I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican--as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people--and that's been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception.

RIP, Howard Zinn

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Historian and activist Howard Zinn (website, Wikipedia) died today at 87. The Boston Globe obituary is fitting, but I expect a great deal of passionate ink to be spilled over his passing as soon as the reactions to Obama's SOTU abate. Zinn was a formative influence on my thinking, and he inspired large swaths of two generations of intellectual dissidents. Here are my Quotes of the Day, a few favorites from the dozen or so of his books that I've read:

We who insist on looking critically at the Columbus story, and indeed at everything in our traditional histories, are often accused of insisting on Political Correctness, to the detriment of free speech. I find this odd. It is the guardians of the old stories, the orthodox histories, who refuse to widen the spectrum of ideas, to take in new books, new approaches, new information, new views of history. They who claim to believe in "free markets" do not believe in a free marketplace of ideas, any more than they believe in a free marketplace of goods and services. In both material goods and in ideas, they want the market dominated by those who have always held power and wealth. They worry that if new ideas enter the marketplace, people may begin to rethink the social arrangements that have given us so much suffering, so much violence, so much war these last five hundred years of "civilization." (The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, p. 497)
...knowledge has a social origin and social use. It comes out of a divided, embattled world, and is poured into such a world. It is not neutral either in origin or effect. It reflects the biases of a diverse social order, but with one important qualification: that those with the most power and wealth in society will dominate the field of knowledge, so that it serves their interests. The scholar may swear to his neutrality on the job, but his work will tend...to maintain the existing social order by perpetrating its values, by legitimatising its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its class order. (Howard Zinn on History, p. 167)
[This book is] a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction - so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements - that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission. (A People's History of the United States, p. 645)
The fact is, things are already unbalanced. The pretense is that things are balanced and you want to keep them that way. But of course they're already so far out of balance, we would have to put an enormous amount of left-wing weight onto the scales in order even to make the scales move slightly toward balance. (The Future of History, p. 39)

Think differently.

Harvard anthropologist Dr Daniel Lieberman (whose paper on endurance running I mentioned here) has a new study in Nature about barefoot running (h/t: Run Bare).

If you're not a Nature subscriber, check out Harvard's website "Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear." It has plenty of information: clips of shod-vs-unshod footstrikes, discussions of running biomechanics, and an explanation of how modern running shoes have altered our natural gait. It's a great resource that has just become my go-to link for anyone who wonders a) why I run barefoot, or b) what's up with those funny-looking shoes.

Dr Lieberman was also featured in the PBS series The Human Spark; here is a video of him discussing our species' two-million-year experience with endurance running:


update (8:24pm):
Here is another video of Dr Lieberman, discussing much of what is in his paper:

inspiring Avatar

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James Cameron's film Avatar (website, Wikipedia) has been criticized for its strong thematic parallels to Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, and another of its debts is also attracting attention. Vanity Fair asked back in October "Did Cameron spend his college years seeding pot with the double-album dust jacket of Tales from Topographic Oceans?" and stated:

Avatar's production design seems to have been strongly influenced by the trippy album cover art Roger Dean used to supply for Yes and other prog-rock bands in the 1970s...

The film's multiple visual borrowings from the imagination of Roger Dean (website, Wikipedia) do indeed deserve some scrutiny. There's a great selection of Roger Dean images at io9, and Signal to Noise reproduced some of Dean's images side-by-side with stills from Avatar's moon Pandora that drive home the similarity. Here are a few samples of Dean's art:

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Roger Dean did far more than design landscapes for progressive rock albums. His eclectic designs were featured in three books to date: Views (1975) and Magnetic Storm (1984) were reissued in hardcover last year, along with a new volume entitled Dragon's Dream. Check them out for a look at his incredibly fertile imagination. Entertainment Weekly asked Avatar's writer/director James Cameron about whether he was inspired by Dean's work:

Where did James Cameron get the idea for the floating mountains? Was that from a Yes album cover?

''It might have been,'' the director says with a laugh. ''Back in my pot-smoking days.''

I haven't seen the film yet, but have contented myself with repeated viewings of the trailer and several YouTube clips. The ten-minute "Making of..." is my favorite (sorry, embedding has been disabled) with the Sigourney-Weaver-narrated piece "Pandora Discovered" a close second:

To go full circle from art back to nature, here's a shot of China's Huang Mountains:

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I look forward to spending a few hours on James Cameron's Pandora, but the Huang Mountains could easily absorb much more of my time.

The Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC (see Wikipedia, ScotusWiki, and the SCOTUS decision) overturning part of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform is, as noted in "Justices Block Key Part of Campaign Law" at NYT, a travesty:

A bitterly divided Supreme Court vastly increased the power of big business and unions to influence government decisions Thursday by freeing them to spend their millions directly to sway elections for president and Congress.

The ruling reversed a century-long trend to limit the political muscle of corporations, organized labor and their massive war chests [...] the court set the stage for a wave of likely repercussions -- from new pressures on lawmakers to heed special interest demands to increasingly boisterous campaigns featuring highly charged ads that drown out candidate voices.

"US Government for Sale" at ThinkProgress is a great summary of the case, and includes this comment from Justice Stevens' dissent: "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." Obama's brief statement notes that "the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics:"

It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

John Nichols writes in "Unions Can't Compete with Corporate Campaign Cash" from The Nation that the pretended equivalence between corporations and unions is farcical: "Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling [...] will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations:"

They imagine that, with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.

It's a sweet fantasy. But the reality is that corporations will be buying so much more television time when it matters -- in the run-up to key elections -- that the voices of working Americans will drowned out with the same regularity that they are on Capitol Hill...

Besides that important observation, Nichols has also provided my first-ever Analogy of the Day:

The bottom line is that a union leader who supports the Citizens United ruling is like a steer who talks up a steak restaurant because they're both in the same business.

As noted at American Prospect, however, "The Real Problem with Citizens United" is that "[i]n striking down the federal ban, the Supreme Court overruled two of its decisions: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, decided in 1990, and McConnell v. FEC, decided less than 7 years ago." "Corporations Take the Court" pinpoints the same problem, that "a Supreme Court that is increasingly solicitous to the interests of big business [...] went well beyond the facts of the case to overrule two important precedents:"

...the five most conservative members of the Roberts Court have now held that corporations have virtually the same rights as citizens when it comes to spending money on electioneering, prohibiting long-standing prohibitions on corporate campaign spending by state and federal legislatures. It also overruled one landmark precedent and parts of another to reach its decision.

Ron Chusid has a great question at Liberal Values:

Can we expect to see conservatives protest this decision by an activist court which went against years of legal precedent?

Conservative activism--the reactionary kind--is OK with them; it's only liberal activism (voting rights for women, civil rights for African-Americans, marriage equality for same-sex couples) that will get Republicans riled up enough to protest. My favorite snark comes from Driftglass in "Five Conservatives Vote to Obliterate Democracy." After quoting some of the predictable right-wing reactions to the ruling, Driftglass makes this observation:

Of course, if the teabaggers were actually interested in saving this country from the actual enemies of democracy instead of blaming imaginary hippies for the sour taste that sucking George Bush's dick for eight catastrophic years has left in their mouths, this Supreme Court decision should put them in the street-- pitchforks and torches in-hand -- by the millions.

Which is about as likely as Pavlov's dog getting up on its hind legs and beating the crap out of the guy with the little bell.

Ding ding ding!

dream

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Many thanks to Stanley Abercrombie for including a reproduction of Thomas Cole's 1840 painting "The Architect's Dream" in his piece from the latest issue of The American Scholar:

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I hadn't seen this painting before, but I've fallen in love with it already. My dream library will certainly require a reproduction of it.

In a follow-up to last week's story about the suspicious "suicides" at Gitmo, Glenn Greenwald quoted General Taguba's 2008 remarks that "there is no longer any doubt as to whether the [Bush] administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account." Greenwald continues with the observation that "They plainly violated domestic law, international law, and multiple treaties to which the U.S. has long been a party:"

Despite that, not only has President Obama insisted that these crimes not be prosecuted, and not only has his Justice Department made clear that -- at most -- they will pursue a handful of low-level scapegoats, but far worse, the Obama administration has used every weapon it possesses to keep these crimes concealed, prevent any accountability for them, and even venerated them as important "state secrets," thus actively preserving the architecture of lawlessness and torture that gave rise to these crimes in the first place.

Andrew Sullivan remarked that "Most Americans simply don't or won't believe it, or they simply push it out of their consciousness and resort to irrelevant discussions of ticking time-bombs, which have nothing to do with what Bush and Cheney authorized:"

The Democrats are totally pathetic as they always, always are. Obama is a coward and Holder a tool. They too believe Americans cannot handle the truth. But the longer Obama and Holder kick this can down the road, or continue to cover it up, the sooner the responsibility for it will cling to them too.

President Obama: if you do not open up an investigation into the Gitmo "suicides", you are yourself guilty of reneging on the Geneva Conventions. Your wily pragmatism on this is not wily at all. It is, in fact, criminal.

Of course, there will be no independent investigator. Fishing expeditions about extramarital affairs are much more important to the "honor and integrity" of the Oval Office than getting to the bottom of torture, murder, and war crimes.

Glenn Greenwald writes about the corporate media's tendency to "Blame the all-powerful Left" for losing the Dems' 60th Senate seat last week. Greenwald is aghast not at the loss, but rather at the media's nonsensical suggestions that Democrats are too left-of-center:

In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by "the Left," let alone "the furthest left elements" of the Party? As Ezra Klein says, the Left "ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months." The Left wanted a single-payer system, then settled for a public option, then an opt-out public option, then Medicare expansion -- only to get none of it, instead being handed a bill that forces every American to buy health insurance from the private insurance industry. [...]

The very idea that an administration run by Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and staffed with centrists, Wall Street mavens, and former Bush officials -- and a Congress beholden to Blue Dogs and Lieberdems -- has been captive "to the Left" is so patently false that everyone should be too embarrassed to utter it.

He also has a few questions:

Is there anyone who actually believes that "The Left" is in control of anything, let alone the Democratic Party? [...] What are all of the Far Left policies the Democrats have been enacting and Obama has been advocating? I'd honestly love to know.

The media's Democrats-are-too-far-left meme is total BS, as Robert Borosage notes in "The New Democratic Nonsense" as he criticizes the "blithering stupidity of this argument:"

Let's see. Obama packs his White House and economic team with former Clintonistas; devotes one-third of his stimulus plan to ineffective tax cuts; rescues the banks without reorganizing them; wastes months seeking bipartisan support on health care, jettisoning the public option along the way and insisting on taxing health care benefits rather than the wealthy - and the "left" is to blame?

For one example, here's Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) talking to Raw Story about the Senate healthcare bill possibly being introduced in the House. Kucinich says, "I certainly wouldn't vote for it:"

"We lost the initiative the minute that our party jumped into bed with the insurance companies. And soon they were looking at increasing taxes as a way of subsidizing insurance companies. It's just madness."

"We're redistributing the wealth of the nation upwards by giving the insurance companies 30 million new customers, $50 billion a year more in revenue."

He continues by noting that we can't fix our economy "by playing paddycake with Wall Street, by caving into the demands of big banks, by playing footsie with insurance companies and by jumping in bed with the pharmaceutical industry. [...] This isn't a left-right argument; this isn't a liberal-conservative argument. This is about down or up."

Kucinich is right: this is a class issue rather than a political one. Washington's class warfare may not be as shameless as it was during the Bush era, but it's still going on. The Democrats' Wall Street wing isn't much better on economic issues than the preceding GOP majority, and ignoring the health and well-being of the American working class is intolerable on either side of the aisle.

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Romanov, Nicholas. Pose Method of Running (Coral Gables, FL: PoseTech Press, 2002)

After reviewing Danny Dreyer's ChiRunning, the Pose Method was the next major running technique book that I wanted to investigate. When considering several physical activities such as dancing, Dr Romanov applies that skill-based thinking to running, creating the Pose Method as a transition between identical footfalls:

I concluded that the principal pose in the ideal running technique is the vertical S-like stance on one leg. The running itself is performed utilizing the change of support from one leg to another, in the pose of running. (p. 30)

One of several differences I noted between Pose and Chi is that the Pose running cadence increases with speed rather than being constant. Dr Romanov explains "the symbiotic relationship between stride frequency and body lean:"

The faster you change support, the more permission you give to your body to freefall. And the faster you fall, the faster you run. (p. 85)

The amateurish clipart-style illustrations serve to explain the Pose Method well enough despite their aesthetic shortcomings, but they still grated on me somewhat. One seeming anomaly about the method is the high position of the airborne foot. I had considered the work of lifting the foot this high to be wasted effort--at least until I reached this passage:

Further improvement in your technique comes from permitting your knee joint to bend freely during the airborne stage. This has the effect of "shortening" your leg, which in turn reduces the pendulum action of the leg in flight. The shorter the swing of the pendulum, the quicker it moves. (p. 274)

There are many drills in this book, and to an extent I feel bad about reviewing The Pose Method without spending more time trying to master the technique. I'll likely revisit it in a few months when I've had more time to review the exercises and test their application. Until then, I'm glad to note that Dr Romanov is quite positive toward barefoot running, observing that "eliminating the big dead layers of shoes and socks will vastly increase the feedback you get from your feet:"

By increasing your kinesthetic awareness of what is going on beneath you will make it easier to correct mistakes and improve your technique. (p. 206)

[B]arefoot running will help develop local strength around the ankles and feet. Stability shouldn't come from the artificial means of a wide-platform shoe, but from strong muscles, joints and connective tissue. Developing this strength, instead of buying it, will greatly reduce your chances of being sidelined by Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis or other common runners' injuries. (p. 220)

Are there any runners in the audience who would like to share their experiences with either ChiRunning or the Pose Method?

Blog for Choice Day

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I missed the fifth annual Blog for Choice Day yesterday, but wanted to commemorate it by excerpting posts from two participating bloggers who I regularly read and admire. Bitch PhD's "Do You Trust Women?" examines anti-abortion arrogance:

When pro-choice feminists [...] or liberal men, or a lot of women, even, say things like, "I'm pro-choice, but I am uncomfortable with... [third-trimester abortion / sex-selection / women who have multiple abortions / women who have abortions for "convenience" / etc.]" then what you are saying is that your discomfort matters more than an individual woman's ability to assess her own circumstances. That you don't think that women who have abortions think through the very questions that you, sitting there in your easy chair, can come up with. That a woman who is contemplating an invasive, expensive, and uncomfortable medical procedure doesn't think it through first. In short, that your judgment is better than hers.

Think about the hubris of that. Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation?

Amanda Marcotte's "I'm pro-choice because I love life" at Pandagon rails against "the perversity of calling the anti-choice movement 'pro-life'---it's an oxymoron:"

They're motivated, on a base level, by a hatred of life. Or, life as most of us define it, when we use phrases like "what I want to do with my life", "living my life", "life is good", and pretty much every other use of "life" outside of anti-choice propaganda. Life, for most people, is about being in this world. It's about enjoying food, enjoying sex, having goals, making plans, creating relationships, loving each other, developing beliefs, thinking thoughts, learning, enjoying a good night's rest, listening to music, enjoying drama, enjoying quiet, kicking your feet up and petting the cat, diving into your work, making a difference, helping others, selfishly hiding away and doing for yourself, falling in love, grieving a loss, the thrill of winning, the sorrow of losing, the ambiguities of the human spirit, the bright light of reason, the joy of discovery, the curiosity inspired by mystery, a walk in the park, a Christmas with family, a loud concert, a good book.

But when anti-choicers speak reverently of "life", they don't mean this. They imagine things that are technically alive, but have no relationship to this word---Terri Schiavo laying in bed with no brain to speak of, a mindless fetus, a fertilized egg, a stem cell. They relate to these beings, who are not really living, and scrounge up nothing but anger and hatred at those of us who are perceived as actually living in the impure, disgusting, life-having world with connections to family and friends, brainy intellectual engagement with reality and of course, dirty, filthy, despicable sex. The impure wetness of real life disturbs them. They dwell endlessly on the medically disgusting aspects of abortion---aspects that exist in all medical procedures---because their minds are enraptured by hatred of the perceived filthiness of human bodies and life. The world with all its squirming, actually living life---it's bothersome. Better to dwell on the imagined peace of the fetus, the immoveable quiet of a person in a vegetative state. Someone who is recognizably human but not really living---the purest, simplest, least disgusting way of being. Purity is always under threat, from fluoride to uncontrolled sexuality.

Which really points up to why I'm pro-choice, and it's because I think life is for living.

firefighter win

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Pundit Kitchen has a great photo of firefighter win, just like that shot from Backdraft:

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(This photo was tentatively verified in this Snopes thread, and there are other examples here.)

need to read

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Actor Nathan Fillion and author PJ Haarsma have established a foundation called Kids Need to Read (h/t: Matt Blum at Wired's GeekDad), recognizing (via KNTR's Mission Statement) that reading "is the single most important skill children must learn to be productive members of society:"

Books open their minds, inspire their imaginations and stimulate their intelligence. As budget cutbacks increase, funding for libraries is often the first thing to go, especially in failing school systems. There are great numbers of schools that have not been able to buy new books for their students to read in years. Kids Need to Read was established to fight this disaster by sending exciting new books to under-funded schools and libraries across the United States, as well as to other institutions that serve children, particularly disadvantaged children whose gift from Kids Need to Read is sometimes the first book they have ever owned.

I'll echo Blum's suggestions about KNTR:

Consider donating some money to them -- I know that encouraging kids to read doesn't seem as urgent as saving lives in Haiti, so if you can't give now then give when you can, or buy something from their eBay store -- or donate books instead. If you know of a library or school that could benefit from Kids Need to Read, tell them about it. Get the word out! There aren't many causes that are both socially conscious and geeky, so we geeks really need to promote the ones that are.

In what I consider to be the first must-read article of the year, Harper's Scott Horton exposes the circumstances behind the suspicious deaths of three Gitmo detainees in 2006:

Late in the evening on June 9 that year, three prisoners at Guantánamo died suddenly and violently. Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, from Yemen, was thirty-seven. Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, from Saudi Arabia, was thirty. Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, also from Saudi Arabia, was twenty-two, and had been imprisoned at Guantánamo since he was captured at the age of seventeen. None of the men had been charged with a crime, though all three had been engaged in hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. [...]

As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Camp America to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths "suicides." In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. "I believe this was not an act of desperation," he said, "but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us." Reporters accepted the official account, and even lawyers for the prisoners appeared to believe that they had killed themselves.

Was the Pentagon telling the truth? Not so much:

The official story of the prisoners' deaths was full of unacknowledged contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report--a reconstruction of the events--was simply unbelievable. [...] Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and men under his supervision have disclosed evidence in interviews with Harper's Magazine that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths. The guards' accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred.

Summarizing the details of the three deaths which were presented in great detail by Horton, conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan opines that:

There are now credible accounts that, far from being suicides, these deaths were either the result of serious negligence in treatment of prisoners under "enhanced interrogation" or that, quite simply, they were tortured so badly in what appears to be a secret Gitmo black site that they died. Their deaths were then covered up and faked as suicides.

Aghast at the "pre-meditated lies" put into place to protect the White House culprits, Sullivan observes that "[t]hey are attempts to lie about some of the worst crimes committed by a president and vice-president of the United States in history:"

Anyone with their eyes open and their mind not closed knows this somewhere deep inside. And the only reason we do not know more about this is because of the criminal cover-up under the Bush administration and the enraging refusal of the Obama administration to do the right thing and open all of it to sunlight.

I'm going to quote Sullivan's conclusion at length, because he makes his point exceedingly well:

This deserves to be the biggest story on the torture issue since Abu Ghraib - because it threatens to tear down the wall of lies and denial that have protected Americans from facing what the last administration actually did. [...]

This case deserves a thorough and complete and exhaustive inquiry and investigation. I no longer believe that any entity in the US government can be trusted with such a task. The investigation must be able to go right to the very top of the torture program and do so with no political influence whatsoever. The investigation must be conducted by an independent prosecutor - Patrick Fitzgerald comes to mind - or by the Red Cross or an international body. It must go up the chain of command to the very top to find the real people who are responsible for this war crime and three homicides.

Among those who need to be subpoenaed are the former president and vice-president of the United States.

To protect Bush and Cheney from punishment, GOP partisans must claim that--when it comes to high crimes and misdemeanors--a blowjob is more serious than torture and murder, and lying about a blowjob is worse than lying about war crimes.

Can they do so with a straight face? Or a clean conscience?

Here are two videos for your enjoyment: Blasphemy Channel's "Children's Guide to Religion" (h/t: Atheist Media Blog)

and Christopher Hitchens' "There Is No Big Brother in the Sky" (h/t: God Is for Suckers!)

Have a blasphemous Sabbath!

Vibram Bikila

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Justin at Birthday Shoes mentioned the upcoming Vibram Five Fingers Bikila running shoes (named in honor of 1960/1964 Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila) last July and October, which I filed away as one of those things to look forward to in 2010. Well, yesterday he posted several more photos of the pre-production version of the Bikila, due to arrive in March:

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I can't wait!

keep fighting!

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Longtime gay activist Frank Kameny wrote a letter to homophobic bigot Peter LaBarbera that has been ruffling feathers at WingNutDaily and Americans for Truth [sic] about Homosexuality (h/t: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars). Here's the best part:

It is your homophobic God of Leviticus (and of the Bible as a whole) himself (herself? itself? themselves?) who is the sinner because of that homophobia.

Bigotry is sinful, whether it be racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia.

Your God of Leviticus (and of the whole Bible) is clearly a sinful homophobic bigot. He should repent of his sinful homophobia. He should atone for that sin, And he should seek forgiveness for the pain and suffering which his sinful homophobia has needlessly inflicted upon gay people for the past 4,000 years.

It is not homosexuality which is always wrong, immoral, and sinful. It is homophobia, including the homophobia of your god himself which is wrong, immoral, and sinful. And so your god is a sinner...

It was the inherent conservatism of revealed religion--and its need to protect ancient prejudices from criticism and revision--that I criticized in a comment here:

Since I don't believe in your god (or any other ones), I'm free to condemn sins such as tyranny, sexism, racism, slavery, homophobia, and other bigotries--not to mention rampant anti-intellectualism--wherever they are found. No sacred cows and no sacred books means that atheists have no reason to countenance evil in any form: we're not limited to the scientific (mis)understanding of a group of fishermen and goat-herders from two millennia ago.

Kudos to Kameny for continuing to fight the good fight! (Not that good fight--one that's truly good...)

Haiti follow-up

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Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph mentioned to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (h/t: Towleroad) that Haitian independence was a factor in enabling the Louisiana Purchase:

"What pact the Haitians made with the Devil has helped the United States become what it is."

Ambassador Joseph not only makes some important points, but he does so without descending to the televangelist's level. Bravo!

Meanwhile, a spokesweasel for Robertson's CBN claimed that "Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God's wrath." Leaving aside the exact semantics of Robertson's many direct and implied claims, there is considerable disagreement about whether his law degree entitles him to be referred to as "Doctor." (I prefer to reserve that honorific for those people who demonstrate more extensive academic achievements.)

That unctuous televangelist Pat Robertson is blaming the Haitian earthquake on their ancestors, who allegedly "swore a pact to the Devil" (h/t: People for the American Way). Robertson claimed that "something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it:"

They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said "OK, it's a deal." And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other...

That's almost as bad as his agreement with Jerry Falwell that we deserved 9/11 because of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians [...] the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America."

Why are his loathsome remarks about voodoo tectonics still on the air?

People who would like to actually help the Haitian earthquake victims (rather than worthlessly praying for them) can donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting "HAITI" to 90999.

Ritholtz on Stein

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Barry (Big Picture) Ritholtz had some choice suggestions when his publisher requested a blurb for Ben Stein's new book:

"When it came to pundits, few were more irresponsible and outright wrong about the crisis and collapse than Ben Stein; Find out what he's wrong about now!"

"Filled with money losing advice!"

"This book is the culmination of a longstanding campaign to make himself look foolish. Mission Accomplished!"

Bravo!

speaking of books

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Cory Doctorow's talk about DRM-restricted reading, "How to Destroy the Book," is online here and here (h/t: Fred von Lohmann at EFF). The section entitled "The people of the book" is a great paean to the printed word, and resonates very strongly with me:

We are the people of the book. We love our books. We fill our houses with books. We treasure books we inherit from our parents, and we cherish the idea of passing those books on to our children. Indeed, how many of us started reading with a beloved book that belonged to one of our parents? We force worthy books on our friends, and we insist that they read them. We even feel a weird kinship for the people we see on buses or airplanes reading our books, the books that we claim. If anyone tries to take away our books--some oppressive government, some censor gone off the rails--we would defend them with everything that we have. We know our tribespeople when we visit their homes because every wall is lined with books. There are teetering piles of books beside the bed and on the floor; there are masses of swollen paperbacks in the bathroom. Our books are us. They are our outboard memory banks and they contain the moral, intellectual, and imaginative influences that make us the people we are today.

If you'd like to follow up on how the technical aspects of copyright are influencing reading in the digital age, the great Richard Stallman story "The Right to Read" (printed in Free Software, Free Society) might be a good place to start.

The highly irregular magazine The Baffler, edited by Thomas Frank (website, Wikipedia) has returned! Electing to begin anew with Volume 2, Number 1--the first volume ended when issue 17 appeared in late 2006--The Baffler now sports a ribbon bookmark along with its trademarked brand of cultural snark, but is just as irreverent as before.

Of course, my joy at this new arrival comes when my TBR* magazine stack already contains 1,000 pages of serious reading: two issues of Lapham's Quarterly, two of National Affairs, and the "Causes of the Crisis" issue of Critical Review. Will I manage to read any books this month?

* to-be-read

Mr. Kramer's opus

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Jesse Green's New York article on author/activist Larry Kramer is a good primer on Kramer's fury. Green calls Kramer "the gay world's leading apostle of unrest" and asks "why has this man not been awarded a Nobel Prize?" Since Kramer nearly died of liver failure eight years ago, he's been working on the sprawling manuscript of his magnum opus: The American People.

At the moment, The American People towers high on a desk that has overtaken his book-lined living room. From a simple insight, it has grown to some 4,000 pages. "Ronald Reagan kept making speeches about 'the American people,'" he says, "and it totally pissed me off because his American people didn't include me or us. So that's the name of the book, but it's the gay American people."

[...]

From primordial Florida swamps to the homophilic colony at Jamestown to Lincoln's male love and the "holocaust" of AIDS, he reframes the country as a gay creation, culminating with the advent of modern antiviral drugs: "the single greatest achievement that gay people have accomplished in history."

Green observes that Kramer "has a messianic need to show the world, especially but not only the gay world, how much it has lost to the bowdlerizing of history," and it appears that The American People will be his corrective to the closet. Kramer's outing "beloved historical figures" will probably garner the most headlines and generate the most outrage, but a country that can't handle serious questions about Lincoln's sexuality needs to be jostled a bit--and Kramer is just the person to do it.

Despite "the continued progress the United States is making against homicide and other violent crime" over the past two decades or so (the "Great Crime Decline"), a particularly pernicious brand of brigand has flourished: criminal CEOs. Courthouse News Service is reporting some interesting fiscal numbers from a Goldman Sachs lawsuit (h/t: lambert at Corrente):

Goldman Sachs is using taxpayer money and wasting corporate assets to pay billions more dollars in pay and bonuses than it does to shareholders, according to a derivative complaint in New York County Court. The company earned $2.32 billion and paid $4.82 in bonuses in 2008; it paid more than 259 percent of its net income as compensation in the first quarter of 2009 and more than 193 percent of its net income in the second quarter, according to the complaint.

[...]

Shareholders sued the bank's 12 board members, including CEO Gary Cohn and COO Lloyd Blankfein, who would be direct recipients of the inflated compensation. The other 10 directors are on the company's compensation and audit committee.

Are the corporate media outlets failing to adequately report this type of malfeasance, or have we become so numb to financial rape that we've lost the capacity for outrage?

Devilstower unleashes some decade's-end snark at conservatives, observing that "this decade, no matter what anyone on the right might say, was conservatism on trial:"

You want less taxes? You got less taxes. You want less regulation? You got less regulation. Open markets? Wide open. An illusuion of security in place of rights? Hey, presto. Think we should privatize war by handing unlimited power given to military contractors so they can kick butt and take names? Kiddo, we passed out boots and pencils by the thousands. Everything, everything, that ever showed up on a drooled-over right wing wish list got implemented -- with a side order of Freedom Fries. [...] What did we get for it? We got an economy in ruins, a government in massive debt, unending war, and the repudiation of the world. [...]

Given half a chance -- less than half -- they'll do it again, only worse. Because that's the way conservatism works. Remember when the only answer to every economic problem was "cut taxes?" We have a surplus. Good, let's cut taxes. We have a deficit. Hey, cut taxes even more! That little motto was unchanging even when was clear that the tax cuts were increasing the burden on everyone but a wealthy few. That's just a subset of the great conservative battle whine which is now and forever "we didn't go far enough." If deregulation led to a crash, it's because we didn't deregulate enough. If the wars aren't won, it's because we haven't started enough wars. If there are people still clinging to their rights, it's because we haven't done enough to make them afraid.

A lot of voters need to get their memories jogged before pulling those levers on Election Day.

Over at WingNutDaily, Thomas Sowell (pimping his new book Intellectuals and Society) writes that intellectuals are "mostly useless to society" (h/t: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars). Although Sowell acknowledges that intellectuals have historically "played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers," he suggests that "for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place."

The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels we now take for granted.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

Whether their ideas turn out to work - whether they make life better or worse for others - is another question entirely.

Let's see what's necessary to produce those "tangible products and services:" experimentation, empiricism, epidemiology, physics, chemistry, medicine--nope, no ideas there! Good luck building an airplane built without the "intangible ideas" of physics, developing a vaccine without the germ theory of disease, or making any electronic device without knowledge of electromagnetism.

For those who don't recognize the name Thomas Sowell (website, Wikipedia) he's an economics professor, a Hoover fellow, and a very prolific author. Why is he so blasé about the ubiquity and necessity of powerful ideas? Does he assume that anti-intellectual WND readers will miss his logical lapses? Will pandering to the wingnuts really help sell his book?

For those with the time to investigate more thoroughly, this could be an interesting case study in self-loathing intellectuals.

poetry

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I mentioned a while ago that there wasn't enough poetry in my life, and began looking at some ways to remedy that shortcoming. The book-and-recording set Poetry on Record (4 discs, $50) attracted my attention, but I wanted to see a copy before I bought it.

While I was aimlessly browsing the remainder stacks at Borders today, I found Poetry Speaks Expanded: Hear Poets Read Their Own Work from Tennyson to Plath (large 400-page hardcover with 3 discs, list price $50) for $10...needless to say, I couldn't resist.

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If you're at all interested in poetry, pick up a copy before they're gone!

loudness wars

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A brief NPR piece on "The Loudness Wars" (h/t: Nathan at FlowingData) helps explain some of what's wrong with modern music: digital mastering tools let recording engineers increase the volume of the loud and quiet parts of the music unequally--reducing the dynamic range and making records more uniformly loud. This poster (9MB PDF) illustrates how music has been "physically getting louder:"

Because louder music creates a more immediately pleasing effect on the listener, record execs have been ordering the volume knob cranked up for the last three decades. This could be chalked up to harmless capitalism, but the problem is that audio can only get so loud before it begins to lose all the stuff that makes it so good. Once you compress the peaks and valleys of rhythm and sound too far, it becomes the visual equivalent of typing in all caps: All the loud sounds are loud and so are all the soft ones.

This YouTube video reminds us that "When there's no quiet, there's no loud:"

Wikipedia's "Loudness War" article goes into more depth, explaining the problems caused by clipping the peaks in recordings with a reduced dynamic range. It also references Robert Levine's "The Death of High Fidelity" from Rolling Stone, which identifies the non-technical result of this digital manipulation: "by maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song." The industry group TurnMeUp (Bringing Loudness Back to Music) is trying to foster an atmosphere conducive toward more dynamic recordings, and I wish them well.

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Dreyer, Danny. ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Danny Dreyer's ChiRunning uses the concept of Chi (or Qi, if you prefer) as the foundation of an "effortless" running technique. As he writes, ChiRunning "is accomplished by (1) maintaining good posture, (2) keeping your joints open and loose, and (3) making sure that your muscles are relaxed and not holding any tension as you run:"

The ChiRunning technique will completely alter the way you approach running because it combines relaxation with biomechanically correct running form. This book is designed to train your mind to direct and monitor your movements so that your body doesn't have to work as hard. (p. 15)

ChiRunning's form-first emphasis has its roots in the idea of running as a controlled fall. The runner's "Column" (comprising shoulders, hips, and ankles) stays in a straight line that leans forward; a greater lean produces a higher speed, and the legs serve as momentary support for the Column as it moves. Dreyer recommends using a metronome to keep a constant cadence, which is an interesting feature of ChiRunning:

In ChiRunning there's one thing that never changes: your cadence. [...] One thing in ChiRunning that does constantly change is your stride length. (p. 62)

Amid all the "Body-Sensing" exercises and other methodology-driven aspects of ChiRunning, Dreyer doesn't neglect the joy of running. He observes that "if you want to see what's really going on with a runner, watch her face:"

If you watch children run, they're generally all smiles. But what I see more often than not in adults is an expression that ranges somewhere between discomfort and terror. Lots of folks leave me with the impression that they're not enjoying themselves. No wonder running has a bad rap. What happened to all those smiles? (p. 9)

Dreyer makes a number of relatively unobtrusive plugs for his other ChiRunning products, often mentioning his DVD and the seminars that are run (no pun intended!) by "Certified ChiRunning Instructors." I don't fault him for seizing the marketing opportunity, though; I'm fairly intrigued by his technique, and have been experimenting with it. New Balance has been working with Dreyer on ChiRunning shoes, but the previous 800 model was rather heavy at 11 ounces. Its replacement, the 801 (men's only so far) is only 9.5 ounces--like the lightweight 905 but with no width options.

Leaving aside all the fuzzy mysticism, I do have one concrete complaint about Dreyer's book. The words introducing Chapter 6

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." (p. 140)

are not from Aristotle, as Dreyer (and many others) mistakenly claim. Those sentences lie between two quotations from Aristotle in Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; 'these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions'; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: 'the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life... for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.' (p. 61)

The sentiment is unimpeachable, though, making the erroneous citation a minor issue. Even if the ChiRunning technique doesn't work for you, learning to pay closer attention to your body can't help but be a positive influence on your running. Give it a try!

This field-trip permission slip from FAILblog is a great example of how ignorance is perpetuated by families, despite schools' best attempts at amelioration:

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"Note: Just to let you it is not that we don't believe in things like that, it is just misleading when you talk about it being billions of years old, when we all know that the world is only about 6,000 years old. So why would I pay so that you can misslead [sic] my children, your world is just a revolving [sic], ours has a start and an end. God created the world. He created animals and man all in the same week. It was also Adam who named all the animals, they will do the essay 'Rock and Minerals' but it might not be 5 pages long, and about billions of years, it will be according to the Bible."

office epiphany

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Here's a conversational snippet from my office today, while the Christmas decorations were being taken down:

INNOCENT BYSTANDER: "We should leave the decorations up; it's not Epiphany yet."

ME: I just had an epiphany: Christmas has been over for a week and a half!

The façade of the Kansas City Public Library (h/t: Snopes) is both gorgeous and appropriate:

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(Jonathan Moreau at Flickr)

A new study on "The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques" (text, PDF) notes that "Increased joint torques at the hip, knee, and ankle were observed with running shoes compared with running barefoot:"

Disproportionately large increases were observed in the hip internal rotation torque and in the knee flexion and knee varus torques. An average 54% increase in the hip internal rotation torque, a 36% increase in knee flexion torque, and a 38% increase in knee varus torque were measured when running in running shoes compared with barefoot.

A 6% increase in stride length was observed in the shoe-wearing study participants, commonly associated with a more pronounced heel strike--which is enabled by cushioned shoes. The study's conclusion looks to minimalist shoes as a goal:

The development of new footwear designs that encourage or mimic the natural compliance that normal foot function provides while minimizing knee and hip joint torques is warranted. Reducing joint torques with footwear completely to that of barefoot running, while providing meaningful footwear functions, especially compliance, should be the goal of new footwear designs.

(h/t: Runner's World Peak Performance and BarefootRunningShoes.org)

Fox's Brit Hume is an early front-runner for a 2010 asshat award, with this gem about Tiger Woods' adultery problem:

The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger is, "Tiger...turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."

Pam Spaulding asks: "How does this prescription for redemption explain Ted Haggard, Mark Sanford, John Ensign and all of the rest of the Christian GOP sexual hypocrites?" Steve Benen has a few more questions at Washington Monthly:

How many high-profile Christians have had damaging sex scandals of late? Why is Buddhism deemed inadequate for those with family problems? Why is a senior political analyst for a so-called "news" network proselytizing, on the air, during one of the network's "news" programs?

How does any religious opinion help them "recover" or make them better "examples to the world?" I just don't get it. Here's another list of notorious Christian adulterers that Hume would supposedly offer up as "great examples:"

Bob Barr
Larry Craig
Newt Gingrich
Rudy Giuliani
Henry Hyde
Rush Limbaugh
Bill O'Reilly

(Bill Clinton's adultery wouldn't qualify him to be a "great example," because in Fox-world everything is worse when a Democrat does it.) It's a full-time job keeping up with all the "great examples" of Christian conservatives who have their own problems with family values; check out Conservative Babylon for plenty more.

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