Archive for May, 2005

Danner on the Blair Memo

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

From Mother Jones, an in-depth analysis by Mark Danner of the revelations in the Tony Blair memo: Secret way to war.

Feldman on the Consequences of Moral Failure in Iraq and Elsewhere

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

In keeping with my newly heightened interest in objective analysis, as opposed to ideologically slanted advocacy, I’ve been shining my lantern around, Diogenes-like, looking for people who demonstrate a willingness to adhere to a higher standard in the pursuit of truth. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner: New York University law professor Noah Feldman, who analyzes the legal and moral dimensions of the Bush administration’s approaches to terror and prisoner abuse in the latest issue of The New Republic: Ugly Americans.

I’m not going to excerpt it, because I’d be excerpting all day, and because the arguments deserve to be examined in full. Feldman’s conclusions are powerful, but it’s the way he arrives at them that impresses me the most: He carefully, methodically addresses all aspects of the issue, giving serious attention to every party’s arguments, before reaching his verdict.

Scientific American on the Evolutionary Basis of Self-Deception

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

I’m not sure if this would fascinate me as much if I didn’t already have lying to oneself on my mind, but I do, and it does. From the upcoming issue of Scientific American, as excerpted on their web site: Natural-born liars.

But why would we filter information? Considered from a biological perspective, this notion presents a problem. The idea that we have an evolved tendency to deprive ourselves of information sounds wildly implausible, self-defeating and biologically disadvantageous. But once again we can find a clue from Mark Twain, who bequeathed to us an amazingly insightful explanation. “When a person cannot deceive himself,” he wrote, “the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.” Self-deception is advantageous because it helps us lie to others more convincingly. Concealing the truth from ourselves conceals it from others.

In the early 1970s biologist Robert L. Trivers, now at Rutgers University, put scientific flesh on Twain’s insight. Trivers made the case that our flair for self-deception might be a solution to an adaptive problem that repeatedly faced ancestral humans when they attempted to deceive one another. Deception can be a risky business. In the tribal, hunter-gatherer bands that were presumably the standard social environment in which our hominid ancestors lived, being caught red-handed in an act of deception could result in social ostracism or banishment from the community, to become hyena bait. Because our ancestors were socially savvy, highly intelligent primates, there came a point when they became aware of these dangers and learned to be self-conscious liars.

This awareness created a brand-new problem. Uncomfortable, jittery liars are bad liars. Like Pinocchio, they give themselves away by involuntary, nonverbal behaviors. A good deal of experimental evidence indicates that humans are remarkably adept at making inferences about one another’s mental states on the basis of even minimal exposure to nonverbal information. As Freud once commented, “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” In an effort to quell our rising anxiety, we may automatically raise the pitch of our voice, blush, break out into the proverbial cold sweat, scratch our nose or make small movements with our feet as though barely squelching an impulse to flee.

Alternatively, we may attempt to rigidly control the tone of our voice and, in an effort to suppress telltale stray movements, raise suspicion by our stiff, wooden bearing. In any case, we sabotage our own efforts to deceive. Nowadays a used-car salesman can hide his shifty eyes behind dark sunglasses, but this cover was not available during the Pleistocene epoch. Some other solution was required.

Natural selection appears to have cracked the Pinocchio problem by endowing us with the ability to lie to ourselves. Fooling ourselves allows us to selfishly manipulate others around us while remaining conveniently innocent of our own shady agendas.

Weisberg, Goldenberg on the Bush Team’s Media Judo

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Here are a couple of interesting followup items on that story about Newsweek having to retract their Koran-flushing-guards-at-Guantanamo news item. First, from Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, a really nice analysis of the degree of hypocrisy required for the Bush people to get feisty with Newsweek for harming our reputation in the Muslim world: Abuse Week – Behind Bush’s latest assault on the press.

And from David Goldenberg, whose Golden Palace monkey piece I just linked to, and who made me feel special by singling out for a personal submission of same, here’s an aspect of the Bush team’s asymmetrical media warfare that I should have noticed myself: How the Man is helped by today’s Deep Throats.

Government officials had the opportunity to respond to the Koran in-the-toilet story before it aired, and were evasive or declined to comment. Therein lies the biggest lesson about how this information made it to print. The Bush team seems to have figured out that it is better to force media organizations to scramble around in damage-control mode after printing overreaching stories than to correct them beforehand.

I remember how that was very much a part of the Dan Rather Memogate scandal, but I hadn’t realized it was part of this Newsweek incident as well. (Goldenberg also references a third example of the same practice.)

Sneaky, sneaky politicos! Wicked! Tricksy! False!

The Golden Palace Monkey

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Here’s another one of those stories that people more plugged into the world of television than I am probably heard about a long time ago. From an article by David Goldenberg about recent discoveries of hitherto unknown primates (A primate explosion), comes this bit about the Golden Palace monkey:

Robert Wallace, who found the new titi monkey in Bolivia, auctioned off the naming rights for the new species, eventually earning $650,000 for the nonprofit organization that protects the monkey’s habitat (WCS). The Golden Palace casino, the same online company that bought the grilled-cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary and has paid a woman to name her baby, eventually outbid Ellen DeGeneres for the honor (official site); unsurprisingly, the new species has the scientific name Callicebus aureipalatii, the Golden Palace monkey.

Dawkins on Creationism

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale lately, and it’s fun stuff. I encourage you to track down a copy. In the meantime, here’s an essay Dawkins recently wrote for the Sunday Times of London: Creationism: God’s gift to the ignorant.

The whole creationism/evolution debate provides an interesting test-case of the objectivity I’m striving for in the post-manifesto It helps clarify something that I think people (including some in the mainstream media) sometimes forget: Balance isn’t objectivity, and objectivity isn’t balance.

Back during the 2004 presidential campaign, there was a brief flurry of weblogger comment, both for and against, regarding a memo from ABC News director Mark Halperin, who wrote:

We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides “equally” accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.

This led to Kevin Drum’s doing an actual comparison of the two candidates’ lies, on the basis of which he ended up concluding that “deception seems to be central to George Bush’s campaign while it’s basically peripheral to John Kerry’s.”

It’s a similar story with the evolution/creationism “debate.” The people who seriously examined this question 150 years ago fairly quickly reached a consensus that evolutionary explanations were superior to creationist ones. And evolution didn’t win because of some a priori bias; it was fiercely resisted, and only won because compelling evidence from scientific research in many different fields converged to corroborate it.

I recently took Michael Williams’ Master of None weblog out of my blogroll. More than anything else, it was Williams’ periodic postings attacking evolutionary theory and touting Intelligent Design proponents like Stephen Meyer that caused me to yank him. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be troubled to do the research required to identify such nonsense as nonsense, you don’t deserve a seat at the table.

There are many real mysteries in the world, and evolutionary explanations of human origins do not provide all the answers. Also, everyone’s judgement is clouded by bias, by the desire to pick out the confirming bits in the matrix of evidence and ignore the disconfirming bits as representing mere noise in the data. But that does not mean all explanations are equal. They’re not. And a respect for the diversity of human backgrounds and viewpoints doesn’t mean I need to give all opinions equal weight.

Creationist explanations of human origins represent a precious legacy from our ancestors. They embody unique insights preserved and passed on through thousands of years of written and oral tradition. They should not be ignored; they should be reflected on, cherished, and revered. They have important things to teach us.

But they’re not science. And just because some people choose to pretend that they are doesn’t mean I have to go along.

Lessig and the American Boychoir School

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Lawrence Lessig is one of my personal heroes. So I was really interested in this long article from New York Metro that details his role in pressing the legal case against a school where not only Lessig’s client, but Lessig himself were longterm victims of child sexual abuse: Lawrence Lessig and John Hardwicke fight sexual abuse and the American Boychoir School.

During his work on the case, Lessig has been asked more than once by the press if he had experiences at the school similar to Hardwicke’s. And Lessig has replied, “My experiences aren’t what’s at issue here. What’s at issue is what happened to John Hardwicke.”

The answer is appropriate, politic — but it’s not entirely true. For Lessig has told me that he too was abused at the Boychoir School, and by the same music director that Hardwicke claims was one of his abusers. Lessig is by nature a shy, intensely private person. The fact of his abuse is known to almost no one: not the reporters covering the case, not the supreme-court justices. The fact of his abuse isn’t even known to Larry Lessig’s parents.

Well, until now.

Here’s another excerpt:

“Is this really right? Should you really be doing this?” Lessig asked.

“You have to understand,” Hanson replied, “this is essential to producing a great boychoir.” By sexualizing the students, he explained, he was transforming them from innocents into more complicated creatures, enabling them to render choral music in all its sublime passion. “It’s what all great boychoirs do,” Hanson said.

It ratchets up several notches of complexity from there.

FAA Wants to Regulate Space Advertising

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

From CNN: No billboards in space.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed Thursday to amend its regulations to ensure that it can enforce a law that prohibits “obtrusive” advertising in zero gravity. “Objects placed in orbit, if large enough, could be seen by people around the world for long periods of time,” the FAA said in a regulatory filing.

I’m torn between really liking the concept of preventing space-based advertising, and being fairly horrified at the notion that the FAA would just up and suggest that it has any business regulating such activity.

Am I a free-market wolf in liberal sheep’s clothing? A closet libertarian? I have to wonder sometimes.

Fredrick Taylor in Spiegel on Dresden

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

I found this interview with British historian Frederick Taylor, author of a new book on the firebombing of Dresden, really interesting: Dresden bombing is to be regretted enormously.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some critics have accused you of writing a justification of the bombing of the city of Dresden. Is this accusation misplaced?

Taylor: Yes it is. Some people mistake the attempt at rational analysis of a historical event for a celebration of it. My book attempts to be distanced and rational and where possible I try to separate the myths and legends from the realities. I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific. It was overdone, it was excessive and is to be regretted enormously. But there is no reason to pretend that it was completely irrational on the part of the Allies. Dresden had war industries and was a major transportation hub. As soon as you start explaining the reasons for the attack, though, people think you are justifying it. Podcast 4

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

No script, music, or found audio this time; just random yacking in my best Dave Winer fashion: Podcast 4 (13.9 MB mp3 file). I talk about my car accident, the manifesto, and (of course) I complain some about George Bush.

I’m curious what you all who actually listen to these (both of you!) think about the unscripted vs. the scripted approach. Thanks.

Rich on the Bush Administration on Newsweek

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Here’s an excellent op-ed piece from the New York Times by Frank Rich: It’s all Newsweek’s fault.

“Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care,” said the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, as he eagerly made the magazine the scapegoat for lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan. Indeed, Mr. McClellan was so fixated on destroying Newsweek – and on mouthing his own phony P.C. pieties about the Koran – that by omission he whitewashed the rioters themselves, Islamic extremists who routinely misuse that holy book as a pretext for murder.

That’s how absurdly over-the-top the assault on Newsweek has been. The administration has been so successful at bullying the news media in order to cover up its own fictions and failings in Iraq that it now believes it can get away with pinning some 17 deaths on an errant single sentence in a 10-sentence Periscope item that few noticed until days after its publication. Coming just as the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is “worth fighting” and only 42 percent think it’s going well, this smells like desperation. In its war on the press, this hubristic administration may finally have crossed a bridge too far.

Let’s stipulate flatly that Newsweek made a serious error. For the sake of argument, let’s even posit that the many other similar accounts of Koran desecration (with and without toilets) by American interrogators over the past two years are fantasy – even though they’ve been given credence by the International Committee of the Red Cross and have turned up repeatedly in legal depositions by torture victims and in newspapers as various as The Denver Post and The Financial Times. Let’s also ignore the May 1 New York Times report that a former American interrogator at Guantánamo has corroborated a detainee’s account of guards tossing Korans into a pile and stepping on them, thereby prompting a hunger strike. Why don’t we just go all the way and erase those photographs of female guards sexually humiliating Muslims (among other heinous crimes) at Abu Ghraib?

Even with all that evidence off the table, there is still an overwhelming record, much of it in government documents, that American interrogators have abused Muslim detainees with methods specifically chosen to hit their religious hot buttons. A Defense Department memo of October 2002 (published in full in Mark Danner’s book “Torture and Truth”) authorized such Muslim-baiting practices as depriving prisoners of “published religious items or materials” and forcing the removal of beards and clothing. A cable signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez called for interrogators to “exploit Arab fear of dogs.” (Muslims view them as unclean.) Even a weak-kneed government investigation of prison abuses (and deaths) in Iraq and Afghanistan issued in March by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy authenticated two cases in which female interrogators “touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees’ religious beliefs.”

To my mind, the reaction by the Bush people (and by the right-wing echo chamber) to the Newsweek story is very reminiscent of the reaction to “Rathergate,” in which Dan Rather was excoriated for running a story about Bush’s spotty National Guard record based on a memo that turned out to be a forgery.

In each case, we have a media outlet that has run a story damaging to the Administration, where the specific evidence used turns out to be bogus (or, in this latest case, at least potentially bogus). But in each case, there also is substantial other evidence that makes the story seem plausible, if not proven. By attacking the specific piece of bogus evidence, while leaving the large body of corroborating evidence unmentioned, the Bush people are able to fight the public relations battle on ground of their own choosing. Suddenly the story isn’t about the underlying scandal (Bush’s spotty National Guard record, or the ill-treatment of muslim prisoners), but is instead about the lax reporting standards and irrational anti-Bush animus of the media.

Since the media outlet in each case actually does operate within an ethical framework that compels it to acknowledge error, the engagement plays out favorably for the Bush people. They make lots of hay over the specific media screw-up, leaving the larger body of evidence unacknowledged and uncontested. Then, having undercut their opponent’s credibility, they simply move on to whatever the next battle is that they’ve defined as offering the best chance of playing out in their favor.

Operating largely free of the media’s self-imposed requirements of fairness and accountability, the Bush administration and its supporters are in effect fighting a “guerilla war” of information. It’s an unconventional, asymmetrical conflict, using the strength of the opponent against him, sniping from behind trees and hedgerows at the enemy’s massed troops, leaving improvised roadside bombs to blow up in the enemy’s face, then melting away to fight another day rather than facing the enemy’s counterattack.

Pretty slick.

Afghan Death-by-Torture Details

Sunday, May 22nd, 2005

So, the story is an old one, but as is often the case with stories like this, it takes time before the details come out, and the devil in this case is very much in the details.

From the New York Times: In U.S. report, brutal details of 2 Afghan inmates’ deaths. The Times is going to rotate the content behind their for-pay barrier at some point, so here are links to some webloggers with outraged reactions, and significant amounts of quoting from the article: Pulpified (Digby of Hullabaloo), and The death of Dilawar (Jeanne of Body and Soul).

You can support Bush’s “war on terror” or not, view the larger goals of our military action in Afghanistan as justifying this sort of thing or not. But regardless of what position you take on that, you have an obligation, I think, to include the specifics of what actually happened in this case in your cost-benefit analysis.

The Manifesto

Friday, May 20th, 2005

I’m tired of being lied to. I don’t like it when other people do it to me, and I really don’t like it when I do it to myself (by which I mean, when I fool myself into accepting as true something that’s false, or accepting as false something that’s true, merely because doing so matches up with my pre-existing biases). So I’m going to do something about it.

Henceforth, for the purposes of my posting and commenting on this site, I’m going to make a conscious effort to evaluate claims without regard to who’s making those claims.

If someone is bullshitting, and I find out about it, I’m going to call them on it, regardless of who they are or what position they’re advocating.

If someone is telling the truth, I’ll acknowledge it, regardless of who they are or what position they’re advocating.

In either case, I will be do my best to evaluate sources objectively, without regard to whether their statements happen to conform with my pre-existing biases.

Also, I will do my best to clearly distinguish between my statements of fact and my statements of opinion, and in the case of the former, to provide supporting information (like links to outside sources) so you can make your own evaluation of my conclusions.

I’m asking you, the readers of this site, to help keep me honest about this. If you think I’ve violated one or more of the commitments given above, say so, either in email or (preferably) in a comment on the item in question.

This manifesto isn’t really new, since I’ve been trying to do this all along. It’s called “being honest,” and I think most people try to do it, at least when dealing with themselves.

What’s new here is that I’m stating the guidelines explicitly, and publicly pledging to adhere to them, and commiting myself to take it very, very seriously whenever someone asserts that I’ve violated them.

Note that I will be using this same approach when evaluating users’ asserations that I’ve failed to live up to the manifesto. So to the extent you can provide actual evidence (for example, in the form of links to supporting sources, which naturally will be subject to the same sort of evaluation) rather than merely asserting that I’ve blown it, that will tend to give your words more weight.

Disclaimer: There is one form of bias I intend to preserve. In fact, I intend to strengthen it. It’s this: I will, as I said, do my best to evaluate the truthfulness of sources objectively. Before putting someone in the “demonstrated to be unreliable” category, I will perform a careful and, to the extent I can manage it, unbiased investigation of that someone’s truthfulness. But having once determined that someone’s assertions are unreliable, I’m going to be strongly biased against accepting that source’s assertions at face value in the future. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… er, um… won’t get fooled again.


Schwarz: Pray to God They’re Lying

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Inaugurating a new, leftward tilt in my official blogroll, Jonathon Scwarz of A Tiny Revolution offers one of the more-apt metaphors I’ve seen lately: We’ve Got To Pray To God They’re Lying.

Life in the United States now is like being trapped on a jet piloted by people who keep claiming there’s a huge secret tunnel through the Rockies — and they’re going to use it to fly us all through to the other side. You just have to pray to god they know they’re lying.

Note, by the way, that if they actually believe there’s a secret tunnel through the Rockies, then, just like Craig likes to point out about Bush’s pre-war Iraq WMD claims, they’re not really lying. They’re merely mistaken.

Very, very badly mistaken.

Which, as Schwarz is saying, would actually be much, much worse for us passengers.

Burke, Cole on Newsweek’s Flushed-Koran Story

Friday, May 20th, 2005

So, it’s now going on five days since the big Newsweek-Koran story became big, and there has certainly been a great deal written about it, especially by poltiically conservative webloggers, if my smallish sample is any indication. But at least in that sample, I haven’t seen anything that sounds more intelligent to me than these two items, both of which appeared way back on Monday: From Tim Burke of Easily Distracted: “Demonstrably false”. And from Juan Cole of Informed Comment: Guantanamo Controversies: The Bible and the Koran.

WaPo Ombudsman on the Blair Memo Story’s Coverage

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Here’s a really interesting followup from Michael Getler, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, on his and his paper’s previous handling of the Tony Blair memo story: News over there, but not here.

The key line in the leaked memo, in my view, is the assessment by British intelligence, after a visit to Washington, that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” That kind of assertion has been made by critics and commentators, but it has not been included in official post-invasion assessments here about how the country went to war under what turned out to be false premises about weapons of mass destruction and other matters. Investigating that assessment, coming from the key U.S. ally in the war, certainly seems journalistically mandatory. Indeed, while official U.S. commissions and committees have documented just how bad U.S. intelligence was, they have stopped short of assessing what happened to that intelligence after it was prepared.

Moyers on the Campaign to Silence Dissenting Voices in Public Broadcasting

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Journalist Bill Moyers gave an achingly good address to the National Conference for Media Reform last Sunday. Salon is running the text of it, and it’s very much worth watching the commercial for the one-day pass: A democracy can die of too many lies.

Zinn on the Dangers of Nationalism

Friday, May 20th, 2005

From an upcoming issue of The Progressive comes this piece by radical leftist Howard Zinn: The scourge of nationalism.

Sadly, I suspect that some of those who could benefit most from reading Zinn’s thought-provoking essay will be the first to dismiss it unread, based merely on who it is doing the speaking.

Ajai Raj in His Own Words

Friday, May 20th, 2005

I previously linked to the Smoking Gun’s copy of the arresting officer’s report in the case of Ajai Raj, who disrupted an Ann Coulter appearance at the University of Texas (Coulter heckler gets arrested).

Now I’ve finally come across something that has been floating around for a while, apparently: Ajai Raj’s own account of the incident. It adds a interesting layer of extra detail: Open letter to anyone who gives a shit about justice.

Movies and Politics

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

With summer approaching, let’s look at some developments surrounding a few new movies. First is the dopiness surrounding “Revenge of the Sith”. It appears that a story originated out of the Cannes Snob Festival that indicated that some anti-Bush dialogue and symbolism may have been intentionally placed by George Lucas in his film. Lucas claims that his inspirations are more historically based, including Nixon, but he doesn’t dismiss talk of modern day comparisons. This has resulted in suggestions that some late-stage dialogue changes could have been possible. It’s his film and his conceptual vision, so he can obviously do as he wishes. As long as his intentional parallels don’t take away from the internal logic and flow of the movie itself, which would cheapen the movie experience and betray his long-time loyal fans, then I really don’t care. Let all the Bush-haters snicker in their popcorn with their perceived insider knowledge. However, all these preening self-important Hollywood blowhards really amaze me with their screeds about the gathering fascist storm. Lucas tries to impress everyone with his world history knowledge as he suggests possible past analogies, but he forgets his US history and discounts the strength of the American people and the ever-changing pendulum swings of power between parties. When there have been dark chapters, such as McCartheyism and Japanese internment, not to mention a Civil War, the resiliency of our democracy and its people has proven itself well over time. So while a number of alarmists (i.e. Democrats) insist we are in such a stark period now, and believe we are on a direct course to dictatorship, let me go on record and say that if Iraq’s democratic makeover should falter, and and troop levels remain over 100,000, and the economy stalls or slips back at all, then please make a note to explain to me how the cowed and mindless masses ended up electing a Democrat in 2008 (there may even be one elected regardless!).

Then there is this story about Jane Fonda’s latest repercussions from her Hanoi Jane days. This is on top of getting a faceful of tobacco juice from a Vietnam Vet during a recent book signing. In that case, the anger is understandable, but the action is quite juvenile. In regard to the article, the movie owner has every right to decide what he will or won’t show in his theatres. And given that his businesses are near Fort Knox, he likely has compelling business reasons to not offend his primary customer base. Those who really want to see that insipid (yet popular) film can go to the neighboring county or watch it on DVD in the near future (so please spare me the censorship speeches). However, it seems to me that the publicity generated by such bans just gives the movie more juice and actually helps its sales, when it would otherwise have died a quick death once Bush Wars and other big Memorial Weekend movies rush in. Plus, its not like you’re crippling Fonda herself. Its not her production company or her finances being sunk into the film. It’s not like her career will be stalled. She pretty much has gotten her money from the film already (apart from any piece of the box office, which she doesn’t likely have the “pull” to get anyway), and will get more in DVD sales.

Regardless of political overtones, let’s hope for a worthwhile collection of summer movie diversions this year!