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131 posts from May 2006

May 28, 2006

Spider monkeys go to war

Spider Monkey on Watch, originally uploaded by churoval.

Spider monkeys go to war, according to a an article in The New Scientist:

Raiding parties, subterfuge and warfare - chimps and humans use these tactics, but now they have been observed in a non-ape for the first time. [...]

Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) usually spend all their time in the trees, so the researchers were amazed to see these males creeping along silently in single file on the ground, looking about them and rarely stopping to feed. [NS]

The full-text is behind the pay wall, unfortunately.

May 27, 2006

Would the media sandbag Gore again?

Shakes gives Howard Fineman the righteous reproof he deserves for this pissy little anecdote:

In Washington the other day, I got a chance to tell Al Gore something I’d meant to say for a long time, which was that I thought his real strength, his real contribution, was as an observer—writer, explainer, outsider—and not as a politician.

The new movie about him was evidence of that, I said. He gave me a blank, dismissive look, and an “umm” for a verbal response.

I’ve known and covered Gore for decades, so maybe his reaction was inspired by Groucho Marx, who always said that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. But I think the brusque reply carried a different message: don’t assume that I’m ready to be put out to that pasture just yet. [MSNBC]

I think Al Gore would make a very good president. He'd probably even run a good campaign.

However, I think Gore's supporters are underestimating how much the pundits hate Gore, and how much the pundit popularity contest matters in American presidential politics.

In 2000, Gore ran a decent campaign as the VP of the most popular president in living memory. Yet, somehow the election was still close enough for the Republicans to steal in Florida.

Gore's public persona wasn't as polished as it could have been, but the real problem was that the mainstream media wouldn't cut him a break. They decided early on to cast him as the stiff, arrogant, geeky, unlikable, stuffed shirt.

When Gore didn't do anything wrong, the press made up "fibs" to pin on him. Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, or to have inspired Love Story. Yet, the press kept repeating these truthy little chestnuts, even after they had been debunked. At first they warned him against being cold and haughty. Then when he followed their advice and warmed up his demeanor, they slagged him for being phony and desperate.

The media sandbagged Gore the first time around, and they still hate him.

The Fineman anecdote that brought down Shakes' wrath is a continuation of the same silly high school narrative. Fineman deliberately put Gore in an awkward position, just so he could write about how Gore seemed awkward.

Gore fans love the idea of payback. It is satisfying to imagine a good guy like Al Gore finally getting his due, after all those years in the wilderness. However, if you can understand the appeal of this narrative, you can also see why the press will fight Gore every step of the way.

They decided a long time ago that they didn't like him, and that we shouldn't either. They didn't like riding his bus. They didn't like paying attention to his "wonky" speeches. They didn't feel like reading his policy papers or analyzing his arguments. It was more fun to spin fables about the Eastern Stiff facing off against the Texas Everyman. So, they undermined him.

If Gore run in 2008, he'll be seeking payback from the press as much as from the Republicans. He'll be setting out to prove the media wrong, and the media won't like it one bit.

AT&T accidentally leaks info on NSA spying program has learned that AT&T's lawyers accidentally disclosed sensitive information about the NSA domestic spying program by forgetting to securely redact lines in a .pdf file. The "redacted" material consisted of AT&T's benign explanations for the existence of a room that the Electronic Frontier Foundation considers to be an illegal domestic spying facility, a room that AT&T does not officially acknowledge to exist....

The deleted portions of the legal brief seek to offer benign reasons why AT&T would allegedly have a secret room at its downtown San Francisco switching center that would be designed to monitor Internet and telephone traffic.[...]

Another section says: "Although the plaintiffs ominously refer to the equipment as the 'Surveillance Configuration,' the same physical equipment could be utilized exclusively for other surveillance in full compliance with" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The redacted portions of AT&T's court filing are not classified, and no information relating to actual operations of an NSA surveillance program was disclosed. Also, AT&T's attorneys at the law firms of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Sidley Austin were careful not to explicitly acknowledge that such a secret room actually exists. [CNET]

So, just to recap, AT&T doesn't acknowledge that the room exists, but they've already written up excuses for why the room they may or may not have is benign.

Telecom execs value their privacy

Will the telecom executives who handed over customers' records to the NSA will have to testify publicly under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee?

[Chairman Arlen] Specter wants to question the executives about a May 11 article in USA Today that said AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth gave the National Security Agency records of tens of millions of phone calls. NSA created a database of numbers dialed from particular phones to help detect and wiretap the calls of suspected terrorists, the newspaper said. The records did not include the contents of calls, the paper said, citing anonymous sources.

"It's not clear to me we need to have the executives of the telephone companies before the Judiciary Committee," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Subpoenas would "put them on the hot seat" and create "a no-win situation for them," he said. Kyl and Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the executives should be questioned in a closed session to protect the effectiveness of the NSA surveillance ordered by President Bush to detect terrorist plots after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) questioned the value of a closed session if members could not publicly discuss what the executives told the committee. "What's the point?" he asked. [WaPo]

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney continues to defend domestic spying and lie about it:

The highly classified program was "improperly revealed to the news media, some of which now describe it as domestic surveillance," Cheney said. "That is not the case. We are talking about international communications, one end of which we have reason to believe is related to al-Qaeda or to terrorist networks. It's hard to think of any category of information that could be more important to the safety of the United States." [WaPo]

The program that was "impropertly revealed" has the NSA monitoring millions calls within the United States without probable cause or court orders. Sy Hersh reports that that the NSA has been listening in to thousands of domestic conversations.

Katrina death toll hits 1836

Robert Lindsay reports that the death toll for Hurricane Katrina now stands at 1836.

Haditha, Iraq's My Lai

The Washington Post has a very good article on the Haditha massacre of November 19, 2005. According to eyewitnesses, U.S. Marines shot 24 Iraqi civilians in retaliation for an IED attack that killed one of their colleagues. The article provides a detailed account of the incident itself and an overview of the ongoing investigations into the killings.

May 26, 2006

"Here in the North there is no such thing as monkeys."

Ah, Canadian creationists.

Advice to grads: Start at the top

Remember when Hillary Clinton lamented that today's young people think that work is a four letter word?

[Clinton] said that "young people today think work is a four-letter word" and "think they're entitled to go right to the top with $50,000 or $75,000 jobs when they have not done anything to earn their way up." The remarks certainly got tongue rings wagging all over the country. Senator Clinton's own daughter, Chelsea, who earns high pay while working long hours as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, called to object that she and her friends work hard, indeed. Mom soon apologized. [NYT]

According to this rather depressing article in today's New York Times, young people can't expect to earn their way up, at least not within a given company. [NYT]

Net neutrality: We won this round!

Bipartisan Bill for Net Neutrality Passes House Judiciary Committee, 20-13

May 25, 2006

The fertile fringe: Rhythm method criticised as a killer of embryos

This just in from reader John:

Philosopher Luc Bovens argues that the rhythm method is wrong because it increases a couple's chances of creating embryos that don't become pregnancies:

The range of birth control choices may have become narrower for couples that believe the sanctity of life begins when sperm meets egg. The rhythm method, a philosopher claims, may compromise millions of embryos.

“Even a policy of practising condom usage and having an abortion in case of failure would cause less embryonic deaths than the rhythm method,” writes Luc Bovens, of the London School of Economics, in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

With other methods of contraception banned by the Catholic church, the rhythm method has been one of the few options available to millions.

In using the rhythm method, couples avoid pregnancy by refraining from sex during a woman’s fertile period. Perfect adherents claim it is over 90% effective – i.e. one couple in 10 will conceive in an average year. But, typically speaking, effectiveness is estimated at closer to 75%.

Now Bovens suggests that for those concerned about embryo loss, the rhythm method may be a bad idea. He argues that, because couples are having sex on the fringes of the fertile period, they are more likely to conceive embryos that are incapable of surviving. [...] [New Scientist]

I think Bovens has produced a near-reductio ad abdurdum for the claim that moral status starts at fertilization. (Update 2, based on the original paper, I suspect that Bovens meant to do exactly that, especially given his wry concluding paragraph: "And finally, one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens. One could simply conceive of this whole argument as a reductio ad absurdum of the cornerstone of the argument of the pro-life movement, namely that deaths of early embryos are a matter of grave concern.")

Update 1: Commenter Tofumar asked why Bovens' argument is a near reductio of the fertilization=person theory. Here's my argument, formulated on the basis on the New Scientist article, which, having read the paper, I now suspect of being a little off-base.

The so-called rhythm method exploits the fact that women are only capable of conceiving for a few days out of every month. The Catholic Church says it's okay for married couples to try to avoid pregnancy by guessing which days those are and abstaining on those days. Bovens' worry couples who only have sex on presumed non-fertile days may inadvertently end up fertilizing gametes that have been sitting around for way too long. Embryos are conceived on this "fertile fringe" are more likely to be non-viable than those conceived during the monthly sweet spot. So, Bovens suggests, the consistent use of the rhythm method may create far more doomed embryos than necessary. If you believe that a fertilized ovum is a full-fledged person, like your next-door neighbor, you can see how it might be morally problematic to follow a metric that might doom several extra "neighbors" every year, year in and year out, for the next couple decades....

It seems a little odd to classify intrinsically non-viable embryos as a rights-bearing subjects. Ex hypothesi, these embryos aren't even potential fetuses or potential babies because they're too damaged to gestate.

On the other hand, if you assume that embryos are persons, it makes sense to say that you have a responsibility not to kill them. However, Bovens is entertaining a much more radical claim, namely that you have an affirmative duty not to create dead-end embryos in the first place because they are going to die.

Bovens is arguing that the rhythm method is wrong because it's more likely to create doomed embryos. But what's the alternative? Presumably, just to have sex whenever you want. But couples who refuse to plan their reproduction are recklessly risking the production of doomed embryos.

Maybe the answer is not to abandon the rhythm method, as Bovens suggests, but rather to adopt a more conservative rhythm. Classifying more days as "unsafe" reduces the likelihood of doomed embryos. However, the rhythm method probably doesn't work any better for avoiding the edges of fertility than it does for avoiding fertility. A couple who tries to practice a modified rhythm method is still more likely to create doomed embryos than a couple who uses more effective forms of birth control.

If doomed embryos have human rights, it seems unconscionable not to use the most effective methods of artificial contraception during potentially potentially fringe-fertile times. So, Bovens' position seems to imply that couples must use artificial contraception, but only when they think they can't get pregnant.

Of course, stale gametes aren't the only cause of doomed embryos. Many embryos made from perfectly fresh gametes can't gestate because of chromosomal defects or other flaws. I've read that a significant percentage of all fertilized ova die before implantation. So, if you take the fertilization=personhood claim seriously, then trying to conceive is also morally problematic because you risk killing a lot of embryos before you make one that sticks.