Archive for June, 2005

Mars Rover Free at Last

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

It’s a bit dated (they freed the rover a little more than a week ago), but I still want to link to driftglass’s account of this, mostly for the title: Mars, bitches!

Bush Lets Another One Get Away

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

For all his talk about going after evil-doers, Bush sure can be a wimp when it comes to standing up for the public interest in the face of big campaign contributors. I thought that when he let Bill Gates off with a wrist-slap after Microsoft’s antitrust conviction, and now he’s done it again: Tobacco escapes huge penalty.

After eight months of courtroom argument, Justice Department lawyers abruptly upset a landmark civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry yesterday by asking for less than 8 percent of the expected penalty.

What a wuss.

Thinking Without a Brain

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

I could while away the hours
Conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain
And my head, I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.

I’ve just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and it’s had me thinking about the non-neurological component of intelligence.

Dawkins’ book is a journey backwards through our ancestors, cast as a pilgrimage to the “Canterbury” of the remotest common ancestor shared by all life on earth. It’s an interesting journey, in part because of the way it emphasizes the literal truth of the notion that all life is related. Reading the book puts you in the position of imagining what it was actually like to be a pre-human hominid, a shrew-like early mammal, a proto-vertebrate, a worm, an amoeba, a bacterium.

In the ‘later’ (that is to say, earlier) stages of that journey, you’re inhabiting a body that doesn’t have much in the way of a brain. And yet, despite their lack of big cerebral cortexes and the resulting large vocabularies that would let them do things like post rambling conceptual pieces on their weblogs, “simpler” organisms seem to have some pretty interesting abilities that are analogous to what we like to think of as the characteristically “human” manifestation of intelligence.

I also just finished reading Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature. Narby writes in his book about Martin Giurfa of the Centre of Animal Cognition Research in France, who, along with four co-authors, published The concept of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ in an insect. In Giurfa’s experiment, bees were trained to enter a simple Y-shaped maze that had been marked at the entrance with a particular color. Inside the maze was a branching point where the bee was required to choose between two paths. One path, which led to the food reward, was marked with the same color that had been used at the entrance to the maze, while the other was marked with a different color. Bees learned to choose the correct path, and continued to do so when a different kind of marker (black and white stripes oriented in various directions) was substituted for the colored markers. When the experimental conditions were reversed, rewarding bees for choosing the inner passage marked with a symbol that was different than the entrance symbol, the bees again learned to choose the correct path. “Thus,” write Giurfa et al., “not only can bees learn specific objects and their physical parameters, but they can also master abstract inter-relationships, such as sameness and difference.”

Narby also talks about slime molds, which in part of their life cycle resemble huge colonial assemblages of one-celled individuals who have fused their cytoplasm into a single enormous (well, by unicellular standards) cell containing thousand of nuclei. Narby visited Japanese scientist Toshiyuki Nakagaki, whose studies have shown that slime molds can “solve” a simple maze, arranging their bodies to lie along the shortest path between two food items placed in opposite corners (see Slime mould solves maze puzzle).

Plants, too, manifest something that could arguably be called intelligence. We hyperactive denizens of kingdom Animalia aren’t really wired to notice it, but on longer time scales plants adapt and respond to their environment, and research has shown that they actually respond surprisingly quickly (albeit in ways not easily visible) to outside stimuli of various kinds — all without benefit of brains, or even individual nerve cells.

Narby visits with Scottish scientist Tony Trewavas, who has been making waves in recent years by publishing studies describing what he refers to as “plant intelligence”. (See Root and branch intelligence and Aspects of plant intelligence.) For example, Trewavas talks about earlier research by CK Kelly showing that dodder, a parasitic plant that takes the form of bright orange twining tendrils (and which I happened to be checking out a couple of days ago while taking a hike in the Caprinteria salt marsh with my son), can quickly discriminate between a “good” host and a poor one, “choosing” in a matter of an hour or two how much of its resources to devote to a particular new host plant.

All of which brings me to the item I actually wanted to talk about when I started this posting: Scientists experiment with ‘trust’ hormone. It’s an article describing recent research into how the hormone oxytocin, which I’m mainly familiar with from its medical use in stimulating contractions during childbirth, can render people more trusting.

Oxytocin is secreted in brain tissue and synthesized by the hypothalamus. This small, but crucial feature located deep in the brain controls biological reactions like hunger, thirst and body temperature, as well as visceral fight-or-flight reactions associated with powerful, basic emotions like fear and anger.

For years oxytocin was considered to be a straightforward reproductive hormone found in both sexes. In both humans and animals, this chemical messenger stimulates uterine contractions in labor and induces milk production. In both women and men, oxytocin is released during sex, too.

Then, elevated concentrations of the hormone also were found in cerebrospinal fluid during and after birth, and experiments showed it was involved in the biochemistry of attachment. It’s a sensible conclusion, given that babies require years of care and the body needs to motivate mothers for the demanding task of childrearing.

In recent years, scientists have wondered whether oxytocin also is generally involved with other aspects of bonding behavior – and specifically whether it stimulates trust.

The article goes on to describe how researchers dosed experimental subjects with oxytocin, then had them play a simple investment game that revealed the level of trust they were willing to extend to a randomly assigned trading partner. Those who got the hormone were dramatically more trusting.

Researchers said they are performing a new round of experiments using brain imaging. “Now that we know that oxytocin has behavioral effects,” Fehr said, “we want to know the brain circuits behind these effects.”

I’m sure there’s more to learn about how the brain is involved in all this, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that it necessarily plays the most important role. Brains are a relatively recent innovation. For most of our collective history of living on the planet we haven’t had them — yet we’ve been intelligently negotiating our environment the whole time, presumably through the same sorts of complex chemical interactions that underlie the “intelligent” behavior of our distant relatives, the slime molds and dodder plants.

Okay. Done rambling for now.

Goodall on Chimpanzees, Briefly

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

I’ve had this kicking around in my post-to-lies folder for a while. It’s a short interview with Jane Goodall: Animals and us: Close encounters

What is the most human-like behaviour you saw in chimpanzees?

Chimps can be deliberately deceptive. For example, when we wanted the young males to get the bananas, the big males would come and take them all, so we took to hiding some of the bananas up in the trees. One day a young male called Figan suddenly looked up into a tree and there was a banana nobody else had seen. He glanced over at three older males grooming. Chimps follow each other’s gaze, and if the males had noticed where Figan had been looking they would have immediately taken the banana, and if he had tried to get it quickly they would have attacked him. I think he knew if he stayed there he wouldn’t be able to resist looking, so he went out of sight. The moment they left, he came back to fetch it.

I very much recommend the whole thing.

Buy Sven’s Arnold DVDs

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

From valued lies.com contributor Sven:

In honor of $chwarzenegger’s 80 million dollar “special election” announcement today, Jenny and I have decided to sell our entire collection of Arnold movies on Ebay:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=6405678244

Hedges on the Realities and Myths of the Iraq War

Monday, June 13th, 2005

Recommended reading for amateur occupiers, from Antiwar.com’s Chris Hedges: War: Realities and myths.

We are losing the war in Iraq. We are an isolated and reviled nation. We are pitiless to others weaker than ourselves. We have lost sight of our democratic ideals. Thucydides wrote of Athens’ expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others, it finally imposed on itself. If we do not confront the lies and hubris told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, if we do not remove from power our flag-waving, cross-bearing versions of the Taliban, we will not so much defeat dictators such as Saddam Hussein as become them.

The Latest from My Obsession with the Senate Report of Prewar Intelligence on Iraq

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

So, the reason I’ve been kind of lax about posting lately, while simultaneously willing to engage for page after page with Craig in the comments to the items on the Downing Street memo, can be revealed: I’ve been plowing most of my free time into revising and expanding the Wikipedia article on the Senate report of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Check out this photo I snagged from whitehouse.gov to illustrate the article:

Colin Powell displays a vial of anthrax during his presentation to the UN security council, February 5, 2003

That’s Colin Powell waving the vial of anthrax at his UN Security Council presentation on February 5, 2003. I love how you’ve basically got the whole WMD conspiracy theory in one image: Powell trading on the shreds of his credibility to try to sell the bogus intel to the world, watched by George Tenet, point-man on the bogosity, and John Negroponte, eventual inheritor of the bogosity, by virtue of his appointment to the new “director of national intelligence” uber-spook position that was created in the reforms resulting from the blowing up of the intel.

A cool thing about Wikipedia (probably the cool thing about it) is the way it strives for a neutral point of view (abbreviated NPOV by wikipedians) on controversial subjects like this. So Craig, here’s your opportunity to save the world from the bias that is the inevitable result of my Bush hatred: Go thou and edit likewise, fixing the article where I’ve crossed the line into advocacy, and inserting the material I’ve overlooked.

Or not. But the opportunity’s there, and in a venue that is explicitly committed to countering the kind of bias you’ve pointed out in my writing here, policed by third parties dedicated to producing a fair outcome.

Colin Powell on the Daily Show

Saturday, June 11th, 2005

It was another one of those frighteningly good segments Jon Stewart pulls off sometimes: Celebrity interview – Colin Powell.

I thought Powell gave a pretty strong defense of the Bush/Blair position vis-a-vis the Downing Street memo. The interview wasn’t explicitly focused on that; it was more wide-ranging, but the memo did get mentioned, and for all that the Daily Show is comedy, this was very much one of those times when Jon Stewart takes his outsider-critic role seriously, and Powell came off as the principled guy that I still want to believe he is, and the result was some really good discussion that felt truer to me than the shouting-head back-and-forth that passes for public debate in too many places these days.

At the same time, the line Powell took was close enough to the one that Blair and Bush took at their joint press conference that I’m not kidding myself; I don’t doubt for a second that it’s still coordinated spin. But he sells it pretty well.

Anyway, I went ahead and transcribed the appearance for those of you who are interested in it but don’t want to (or can’t) stream the video from the Comedy Central site. Follow the link below, or scroll down, for the transcript.

(more…)

Bush, Blair on the Downing Street Memo

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

I didn’t mention it at the time, but I wanted to point out the responses on the Downing Street memo made by Blair and Bush at their joint press conference on Tuesday. See the transcript (and a link to video) at whitehouse.gov: President welcomes British Prime Minister Blair to the White House, which includes the following:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Steve.

Q Thank you, sir. On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?

PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all. And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations. Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November 2002 United Nations resolution, to give a final chance to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn’t do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action.

But all the way through that period of time, we were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict. As it happened, we weren’t able to do that because — as I think was very clear — there was no way that Saddam Hussein was ever going to change the way that he worked, or the way that he acted.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I — you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race. I’m not sure who “they dropped it out” is, but — I’m not suggesting that you all dropped it out there. (Laughter.) And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There’s nothing farther from the truth.

My conversation with the Prime Minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do. And this meeting, evidently, that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations — or I went to the United Nations. And so it’s — look, both us of didn’t want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It’s the last option. The consequences of committing the military are — are very difficult. The hardest things I do as the President is to try to comfort families who’ve lost a loved one in combat. It’s the last option that the President must have — and it’s the last option I know my friend had, as well.

And so we worked hard to see if we could figure out how to do this peacefully, take a — put a united front up to Saddam Hussein, and say, the world speaks, and he ignored the world. Remember, 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.

My own take on this is that they’re not disputing the authenticity of the memo per se, but neither are they confirming its authenticity. In classic spin-control mode, they’re making the strongest case they can while avoiding giving anything away to the other side. For me personally, this raises the status of the memo’s authenticity to the level of having been pretty well established, since if they could dismiss it as not being authentic, that would clearly be a stronger rebuttal of its contents than what they’re giving us (and indeed, this has been the biggest argument in favor of its authenticity since it was first revealed). Since they’re not challenging the memo’s authenticity, they don’t feel they have that option available, ergo, the memo is authentic.

By this interpretation, though, what they’re actually contending in their statements yesterday, without actually being explicit, is that the memo is just wrong: Either the statements made at the meeting and summarized in the memo were summarized inaccurately, or the statements themselves, while they actually were made at the meeting, were factually incorrect in contending that the US has already committed itself to a policy of going to war. As evidence for this, Bush and Blair both cite their subsequent pursuit of a diplomatic solution at the UN as making a prima facie case that they had not, in fact, committed to war at that point.

Which is a pretty artful bit of spin, and serves nicely to shift the emphasis away from the memo itself. They did, in point of fact, go to the UN and work hard to obtain resolutions critical of Iraq’s WMD programs and support of terrorism. The question then becomes whether they did so in good faith, actually seeking to avoid the necessity of war, or did so in bad faith, merely attempting to obtain diplomatic and legal cover for a decision that had already been made. (Note, too, that it’s possible that Blair was legitimately seeking to avoid war, and only Bush who was acting in bad faith. Or, I suppose, vice versa.) As those familiar with legal issues know, proving that someone did something in bad faith is a very difficult task. And again, since they’ve carefully avoided offering any explanation for the memo itself, they (and their supporters) remain free to adopt whatever explanation seems strongest at any given point: either that the memo is not authentic, that its account of what was said at the meeting is inaccurate, or that it is accurate, but that the statements it reports were themselves factually incorrect.

Of course, the memo itself is Exhibit A in the case that the UN efforts were made in bad faith, in that it describes in detail British (though not American) plans to use the UN in order to help with the justification for going to war. But I won’t be holding my breath waiting for some muckraking journalist to point that out, or to ask Bush or Blair to account for the apparent contradiction between the memo’s version of reality and the one they offered at Tuesday’s press conference. Personally, though, I think the memo really is a smoking gun. The available evidence strongly supports the interpretation that it is, in fact, an unvarnished, your-eyes-only account of what the head of MI6 believed in July, 2002, about the Bush administration’s firm-as-of-that-date commitment to go to war. And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I don’t see any reason to think he was incorrect in believing that. I mean, it’s not like he was retarded or something.

Jonathon Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution also comments on the press conference: Nature’s perfect lying machine. And I have to wonder if the people at democrats.com, who previously offered a $1000 reward for getting Bush to answer Downing Street minutes, are going to reward reporter Steve for popping the question. I’m not sure if Bush’s response qualifies as a clear “yes” or “no”; it’s more like a substantive waffle, which I guess would mean Steve only qualifies for the $500 reward, not the full $1000. Still, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a stick.

There’s also Cindy Sheehan’s take: Bush on Iraq: “Comforting families” and telling lies. As the mother of a son who died in Iraq, she’s not impressed with Bush’s protestations that he kept war as the last option.

Julia Sweeney’s Crisis of Faith

Tuesday, June 7th, 2005

Here’s an unauthorized capture of the awesome bit by Julia Sweeney that This American Life aired over the weekend: Letting go of God.

Disclaimer: I, too, have invited Mormon kids going door to door in to discuss their beliefs, and found private amusement in the whole story of the gold plates and the magical translation device. So I guess I was predisposed to like this. But anyway, I do. And don’t neglect to scroll down in Norm’s posting to get Sweeney’s response, as posted on her web site, to all the people who’ve contacted her about the program.

Dinosaurs Attacked the Ark!

Tuesday, June 7th, 2005

Here’s a fun item from net.kook theferret: The weirdest book I ever got.

(P.S. Sorry I’ve been lax on posting lately; I’ve got a Wikipedia obsession going on, and have been caught up in updating an article on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Iraqi WMD. Sigh. This too shall pass.)

Schoenkopf on Schwarzenneger

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

Sven posted a comment mentioning this extremely fun article on Schwarzenegger from the Orange County Weekly: Capitol Punishment.

Recently termed-out Senate President John Burton holds court in a corner but leaves before I see him. I nearly cry when someone tells me he’d been there. Lovely, foul-mouthed John Burton! Here’s the LA Times when Burton was termed out from the Senate: “To protest what he considered Republican political attacks on the poor, he once drafted legislation that would have made it a crime to have an income below the poverty level. Another Burton bill would have required that state orphanages serve gruel.”

Iraq War Deaths for May 2005

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

US military deaths in Iraq continued to climb in May, reflecting a big increase in car bombings, as well as aggressive counter-insurgency operations in the western part of the country.

Again, I’m getting these figures from the advanced search tool at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, and from Lunaville’s page on Iraq coalition casualties. The figures are for the number of US dead per month, without regard to whether the deaths were combat-related.

The first graph shows the first 27 months of each war. (Click on any image for a larger version.)

Next, the same chart, with the Vietnam numbers extended out to cover the first four years of the war:

Finally, the chart that gives the US death toll for the entire Vietnam war:

Disclaimer: I’m aware that we have more troops in-theater in Iraq than we had during the corresponding parts of the Vietnam War graph. Vietnam didn’t get numbers of US troops comparable to the number currently in Iraq until shortly after Johnson won the 1964 election, some three-and-a-half years after the starting point of the Vietnam graphs above.

These graphs are not intended to show the relative lethality of the two conflicts on a per-soldier basis. I was just curious how the “death profile” of the two wars compared, and these graphs let me see that. You are free to draw your own conclusions.

The Deep Throat Reveal

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

The WaPo, fittingly, confirms that Bob Felt, former second-in-command at the FBI, was, in fact, Woodward and Bernsteins “deep background” source during their investigative reporting on Watergate: FBI’s No. 2 was ‘Deep Throat’.

Caught flatfooted by Vanity Fair’s announcement, Woodward and Bernstein initially issued a terse statement reaffirming their promise to keep the secret until Deep Throat died. But the Vanity Fair article was enough to bring the current executive editor of The Post, Leonard Downie Jr., back to Washington from a corporate retreat in Maryland. After he consulted with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, “the newspaper decided that the newspaper had been released from its obligation by Mark Felt’s family and by his lawyer, through the publication of this piece,” Downie said. “They revealed him as the source. We confirmed it.”

So, no more teasing bait-and-switch non-revelations by John Dean, no more speculation about it being Pat Buchanan, no more “wasn’t it Hal Holbrook?” jokes.