CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Heartland’s Taylor fails to discredit authors of National Climate Assessment

On January 11, 2013, the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) published its draft National Climate Assessment for public comment. The first paragraph of the Executive Summary found that

Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.

Given these findings, it is not surprising that individuals and organizations who deny that global climate change is “primarily driven by human activity” would attack the report.

Yesterday James Taylor of The Heartland Institute wrote a blog at Forbes attacking the Assessment by questioning the objectivity of seven of the scientists involved in writing the report. However, Taylor’s entire argument is based on the false assertion that being associated with an environmental organization automatically biases the scientists’ judgement. This is known as the “guilt by association” logical fallacy and it’s an attempt by Taylor to defame the character of the scientists.

Taylor asserts, without proof, that scientists James Buizer, Jerry Melillo, Suzanne Moser, Richard Moss, Andrew Rosenberg, Donald J. Wubbles, and Gary Yohe are all supposedly “crooked” because they have current or former associations with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Second Nature. This assertion is absurd. Is Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, inherently biased simply because he works at Princeton? Is commentator David Brooks inherently biased because he writes for the New York Times? Is Richard Lindzen, the contrarian MIT climatologist, inherently biased because he teaches at MIT? Are all registered Democrats inherently biased against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because most environmentalists are Democrats? In every case the answer is clearly “no” – any individual may well be biased, but simple association does not and can not prove bias.

If we applied Taylor’s own poor logic to Taylor himself we could automatically dismiss everything he writes on the subject of industrial climate disruption simply because he’s a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute.

When we look at the professional experience and scientific expertise of the seven scientists that Taylor names, the fact that Taylor is attempting to smear their reputations becomes clear.

And most of these seven scientists have also been asked to work on climate reports by the National Academy of Sciences and other expert panels just like the USGCRP itself. These seven scientists have nearly two centuries of cumulative experience in climate-related science and public policy. As such they can legitimately claim to be authorities in their climate-related fields.

Taylor, on the other hand, has a background in law and government, not science. There is no evidence that Taylor has written any peer-reviewed scientific papers or been intimately involved in crafting regulations relating to climate policy in the way that Moss and Rosenberg have. Taylor’s Forbes bio indicates that he “studied” atmospheric science while getting his government degree from Dartmouth, but he certainly hasn’t worked as a scientist or maintained any scientific expertise since.

More damning, however, is that Taylor has a habit of distorting scientific studies and taking other peoples’ words out of context. S&R found in early 2010 that Taylor had incorrectly applied the results of a small small self-selected poll of broadcast meteorologists to all scientists. In February 2011, S&R found that Taylor had incorrectly accused scientist Mark Boslough of lying and criticizing former astronaut Harrison Schmitt when Boslough did neither. S&R found in late 2011 that Taylor had dishonestly claimed that so-called “skeptics” merely question the source of industrial climate disruption – to not know that many of his fellow so-called “skeptics’ would require that Taylor be incompetent. In addition, S&R found in mid-2012 that Taylor deceptively took quotes out of context in ways that dramatically changed their meaning and implications.

Taylor_Heartland_NCA

Percentage of authors of the Assessment affected by Taylor’s fallacious criticism (Climate Nexus)

And Taylor continues his habit of distorting facts in this Forbes blog. While Taylor mentions that there are 13 senior scientists engaged in guiding the report (one chairman, two vice-chairmen, and 10 members of a “secretariat”), he fails to mention that the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee led by these 13 scientists was actually composed of 60 scientists and policy experts. And he fails to mention that the Committee “engaged more than 240 authors in the creation of the report.” As the graph shows, Taylor’s illogical and deceptive criticisms apply to only a small percentage of the report’s authors. Even if they had merit, Taylor’s criticisms would have insignificant impact on the Assessment’s science and data-based conclusions.

Taylor’s Forbes blog is a failed attempt to distract readers from the overwhelming data and objective facts documented in the Assessment. And those facts demonstrate the reality of industrial climate disruption, namely that it is “primarily driven by human activity” and that it is “already affecting the American people.”

CATEGORY: Farming

China changes its mind on food

CATEGORY: FarmingIn something of a Big Deal, it has emerged that China no longer will pursue the goal of being self-sufficient in food. According to the South China Morning Post, Chen Xiwen, who is the director of the rural affairs policy-making committee of the Communist Party, and who therefore presumably knows a thing or two, the policy of self-sufficiency laid out with great fanfare in 1978 won’t work anymore. Xiwen is quoted as saying the following: “During the process of urbanization, we must pay attention to modern agricultural development and to farm product supplies, but of course, we certainly cannot pursue self-sufficiency.” I imagine agricultural commodities traders worldwide creamed their jeans when they heard this—because China is now going to have to decide what to import and what to keep growing. But the traders probably already knew this—in fact, most of us knew this, long before the Communist Chinese government could actually admit that this was going to be the case.

Rice is probably fine. But as the Chinese middle class grows and wants to eat more like the west, farmland is coming under pressure, so crops like corn are coming under more pressure as well. The corn, of course, is used for meat production, which is also growing rapidly. Then there’s the ongoing and very rapid urbanization that’s taking place over the past several decades, which has seen an estimated 260 million farmers leave the field (so to speak) according to the SCMP article, and the rural population decline by about 80 million since the early 1980s. The urban population, already pretty large, continues to grow, which is more or less the problem—or a significant part of it. All this is compounded by China’s increasingly serious water issues. As a result, China’s hunger for farmland outside of China has become significant enough that it has roiled local property markets in any number of regions.

I still remember the hoo-hah that accompanied Lester Brown’s book Who Will Feed China when it appeared in 1995. Brown’s central point was that there simply weren’t the global resources—to say nothing of indigenous resources within China—to feed the population of China to the standard of Western Europe or the US. At that time, the Chinese government pushed back strongly on this, and did so for many years, suggesting that Brown was full of crap. Hmmm, not so much now. But there was a corollary point as well, which was the pressure that Chinese demand would put on global food supplies. As the SCMP article cited above indicates, food imports are growing rapidly in China, and represent an increasing share of what’s available to Chinese consumers. And, of course Chinese food imports are actually food exports from somewhere else.

Everywhere we look we’re bumping into resource constraints, but we continue to deny this. Carbon in the atmosphere is just the most glaring example, but there are plenty of others—the imminent (but probably preventable) collapse of global fisheries being perhaps the best example. This year, 2013, we’re likely to see further strains on agricultural commodities as droughts persist, but demand continues to increase. Even with additional acreage being planted in North America in 2012, the crop was well short of targets. It would be nice to think we had political systems that could deal with this sagely—but we don’t. We do have an economic system that sort of knows how to deal with this—but we don’t know yet how successfully it will deal with food scarcity on a global level when the capacity to actually grow food is compromised. Pity.

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Not by Fire, but by Ice – thinking through the politics of now

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrativeIce is the Rodney Dangerfield of basic elements. It gets no respect.   “Is there a Greek god of ice?” someone posted on Ask.com. The answer came back, “Are you kidding me? Have you been to Greece? Why would they have an ice god?” It’s easy to understand why Greece might not have an ice god, but not as easy to understand why almost no cultures have them.

There are gods of earth, wind and fire in most religions. But not ice. The Norse do have Ymir[i], a six-legged ice ogre whose legs mate with each other to produce offspring, and who later gets torn apart and his bits used to make our world. But that’s about it. 

 The truth is earth, wind and fire are only good for small scale mayhem like earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires and bad albums. For real, serious destruction—rerouting rivers and gouging out valleys, breaking down mountains and pushing up new ones, scraping plains flat, you need ice.  Given enough time, ice will not stop until every mountain and every rock has been reduced to dust.

Perhaps it is because wind, fire and earthquakes wreak their havoc on a more-comprehensible human scale (although ice can do a pretty good job on a human scale as well, just ask those on the Titanic.) People fear wind, fire and earth. They run to the grocery store and stock up on batteries when they know a hurricane is coming, race into the streets and fall on the ground during an earthquake, and dive into cellars for tornadoes. Those same people sit home and make cocoa when the weatherman predicts an ice storm. Sheesh, some people even look forward to ice storms, because they’re “pretty.”

No respect, no respect.

St. Louis, Thanksgiving, 1976

The strawberry-haired girl and I met in Peace Corps.  We fell into mad love at a diamond dealer’s party in Kono in Sierra Leone, later made famous in the movie Blood Diamonds. Laughing, feral young Lebanese men wandered through the walled courtyard puffing cigarettes, their armed African bodyguards trailing behind them like shadows. The girl and I spent the night in a corner of a gazebo talking and woke up the next morning in the nursery of the host’s home lying in a crib. I remember that first night together as wonderful and extremely uncomfortable, which pretty much sums up our entire relationship.

I returned to the States first. She joined me in 1976, and we began the process of auditioning me with her family. Of course back then I was even more socially clueless than I am now, and I had no idea how important the process was.  I thought love was enough. Oh my.

She knew exactly what we were up against.  I was certainly interesting, in a loud, macho, profane, crude and profoundly socially-unacceptable way, and I clearly had potential. But she knew I would be a hard sell to her quiet, mid-western family. If she’d brought home a dignified Muslim African schoolteacher, they wouldn’t have blinked an eye. But an impoverished white trash college dropout from South Georgia? That was cause for serious heartburn.

 She wisely decided that we needed to have a dress rehearsal in a smaller venue before opening on Broadway, Broadway in this case being Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin for Christmas. On Thanksgiving we borrowed my brother’s truck, a long bed Chevy Silverado, and drove from Louisiana to her cousin’s house in St. Louis for our first test.

It went well. They were kind, gracious and accepting people, and we had a pleasant enough holiday. It was an easy audition, but I passed it. It didn’t mean much, sort of like getting a standing ovation in Peoria, but still, it was something.

We rose on Friday satisfied and ready to get home. Our hosts tried to talk us out of it, because we’d had an overnight ice storm. St. Louis is in the ice belt that runs from down to Atlanta, where winter storms drop not snow or sleet but ice. But I was from Waycross, Georgia. I’d only seen snow two or three times in my life and never seen ice outside of a glass of tea, so I lacked any respect at all.

This day it was a challenge even to make it out to the truck and chip the doors open.  As we loaded the truck, I looked around and marveled at the ice coating everything in sight, every tree and shrub. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I loaded the truck and we pulled out of their driveway at the top of a lengthy hill.

Long-bed pick-ups are not particularly grippy on a good day. I took off too fast and we made it as far as the first stop sign, where I applied the brakes and instead of slowing down, we went into a spin and sailed gracefully right through the stop. We spun slowly down a long hill, parked cars coming into and out of our vision, other drivers stopped at side streets and staring at us open-mouthed as we gently floated by, a ton of steel completely out of control, floating down a steep frictionless street. Finally, we reached the bottom and like a whisper touched up against the curb and stopped. We looked back up the street at the dozens of cars we’d missed, not a scratch, and then at each other and laughed. We were young and in love, and the world could not touch us, we thought.

But just because you miss all the cars one day doesn’t mean you will miss any the next, as we found out in Prairie du Chien.

***      ***      ***

Even the New York Times, which has an answer for everything, thinks that ice is a “very mysterious solid.[ii]” For example, no one really knows why ice is slippery. To be very precise, no one knows why the ice we know is slippery. There actually are a dozen or so different types of ice, some of which have crystalline structures like our and some of which don’t, some of which only exist in cold and some of which could theoretically exist in rocks heated to thousands of degrees.

The problem is liquids are slippery but solids like ice are generally not. If a basketball player runs as hard as he can and tries to slide across a basketball court, he will stop dead.  But if someone pours a cup of water on that same court, the running basketball player will slide easily and probably fly across into the seats. That’s why kids with towels run out to wipe up the sweat whenever a player falls to the court, because a basketball court with water on it is as slippery as, well, ice.

Scientists have been working on the slippery ice problem at least since Michael Faraday, likely the greatest scientist of all time, experimented with ice cubes in 1850. The theory used to be pressure. The example in the textbooks was an ice skate. The idea was that the pressure of an ice skate was so intense that it melted a tiny bead of water under the front of the skate, which then refroze behind the skate as it passed. Simply put, an ice skater was thought to be sliding on a tiny line of slippery water on top of un-slippery ice.

Hmmmm. The problem is: Ice is slippery to things that don’t generate very much pressure at all.  For example, it’s very hard to walk across an ice rink in street shoes, even for a person that doesn’t weigh much and thus creates little pressure.

Another theory developed. It too was a variation on the water-on-top-of-the-ice idea. This time the idea was that it wasn’t pressure but friction that melted the top of the ice to form a small layer of water. The problem with that theory is that ice is slippery when a person is standing perfectly still on it, not generating any friction at all.

So a third theory emerged. This one says that the outside of ice isn’t really frozen at all, that there’s an impossibly small film of water on the outside, even at absurdly low temperatures. But most scientists don’t buy that one either.

In other words, we just don’t know much about ice.  We don’t even know why it’s slippery, even though experiments with Chevy trucks on steep streets in St. Louis have confirmed that it is, whether scientists think it should be or not.

* * *

From US News & World Report:[iii]

Spending on entitlements is the highest in American history. In 2010, entitlement spending had grown to be almost 100 times higher than it was in 1960; it has increased by an explosive 9.5 percent per year for 50 straight years. Entitlement transfer payments to individuals (such as for income, healthcare, age, and unemployment) have been growing twice as fast as per capita income for 20 years, totaling $2.2 trillion in 2010 alone—which was greater than the entire gross domestic product of Italy and roughly the same as the GDP of Great Britain.

In 1960, entitlement spending accounted for less than a third of all federal spending; in 2010, it was just about two thirds of government outlays, with everything else—defense, justice, all the other duties of government—making up less than one third. Over the last half-century, income-related assistance (which we used to call “welfare”) multiplied more than thirtyfold after adjusting for inflation. The most shocking growth has been in Medicare and Medicaid. In the early 1960s, neither program existed; by 2010, these two programs cost more than $900 billion a year.

More Americans rely on government handouts than ever before….According to the Census Bureau, only 30 percent of American households in the 1980s relied on any public assistance.

Winterville, Georgia, January, 1980

After the strawberry-haired girl and I split up, I met a lovely blonde girl, fell even madder in love, and we married. We lived in an old farmhouse owned by Billy. Nominally, we were supposed to pay Billy $25 a month in rent, but he was a nice man and rarely remembered to collect it. He said he was happy enough to have the place occupied. Empty, the house might have been vandalized and he would not have been able to get fire insurance on it. The truth is he knew that even $25 was a load for us in those days.

The house had been built in the early part of last century, and stood on top of a hill high above the ground, perched up on cinder blocks and stones. We heated with a woodstove. There was a bathroom attached to the house, but we couldn’t use it because there was no septic tank. Presumably at one point there had been a pipe which emptied out into the field but people don’t do that stuff anymore. So we used an outhouse. And anyway, the bathroom was just tacked on to the farmhouse and built of cheap lumber. As a result half the floor was rotten and wind whistled in through gaps around the window.

The house did have running water. At least there was running water three quarters of the year, because every winter the pipes froze. For two months each year we had to take our showers at the University gym and tote water back out to the house in five gallon containers.

I tried everything to stop the pipes from freezing.  I insulated the pump house. I nailed tin around the foundation of the house to block the cold wind. I exchanged the copper piping for plastic, which froze and broke, too.  The second year I even purchased a long strand of heat tape, which we couldn’t afford, and crawled around under the house methodically wrapping every pipe. No matter, come the first freeze every year, the pipes froze solid and split.

When the blonde-haired woman became pregnant (surprise!), Billy’s wife ordered him to put in a septic tank and rebuild the bathroom. Billy was a little pissed about this. Who could blame him? Now he had to put money into a house he wasn’t even getting rent for. Still, he hired someone to dig a septic tank, and after extracting my promise to help, showed up one day with a truckload of lumber, wiring and plumbing supplies. He and I started tearing off the old bathroom so we could build the new one.

Billy was a farmer. He was in his late forties, far too heavy, and may have finished high school or not. He looked at us with a mixture of fondness and disdain, fondness because we were nice enough young people, disdain because he wasn’t quite sold on this whole education thing. He teased me about it. It was gentle, but he made it pretty clear that he thought “college boy” was a synonym for “soft.” That’s okay. I thought “forty” was a synonym for “old.”

We started work early. Billy arrived in a pissy mood.  We worked silently. At mid-morning we were brought snacks and coffee.

“You want to take a break?” Billy snapped.

“Nah, I’m good,” I said, gulping the coffee and chewing while I worked.

That escalated it. Soon we were competing to see who could work fastest and hardest. We ate lunch with sandwiches in one hand and sledgehammers in the other. We ran from the truck to the site with lumber and cinder blocks. We tore down old walls with pry bars and losing our patience, ripped at them with our bare hands. We ripped, mixed, dug, slammed, hammered, nailed and drilled at hyper-speed, not pausing between tasks, working like madmen toward some non-existent deadline.

Finally, about four o’clock, Billy looked up. “Hey, fella, you work like this all the time?” he gasped.  He was panting, his face was red, and sweat ran down the side of his face in rivulets.

I stopped working and looked back, panting myself, “No, man, I’ve never worked this hard in my life.”

He nodded. “Me neither. You reckon we could slow it down a little bit tomorrow?”

Billy and I were fine from then on. The next day we worked and joked our way through as we framed walls, ran wire and applied siding. Later, Billy told the story widely enough that we became accepted in the local community. Before long I couldn’t drive to town without getting a wave from every pick-up I passed.

The bathroom was beautiful, and the toilet flushed. Nor did the pipes freeze. We used a new type of pipe, soft gray plastic, that expanded and contracted. Or rather, the pipes continued to freeze but they never broke, and we would only be out of water for a day or two at a time while they thawed. That plastic was later pulled from the market because it turned out to be carcinogenic. I’m not sure if I’d known if I would have cared. When you’re young, cancer isn’t as real as a hot shower.

* * *

Ice expands as it freezes[iv].  A container of water, when frozen, will take up 8% more space than water, which is why the ice cubes in a tray are always bulging at the top. The liquid in the tray has expanded as it turned into a solid.  The expansion is the result of the crystalline structure of ice. As a liquid, water is just a jumble of hydrogen-oxygen molecules, the molecular equivalent of a sock drawer, molecules all crammed together. But as it freezes, it takes on a beautiful hexagonal crystalline structure. Every molecule is neatly stacked and spaced exactly the same distance from every other molecule. They spread out.

It is this expansion property that is responsible for much of the impact ice has on the environment. The simplest example of course is splitting a rock. One year, a little water seeps into a tiny crack, freezes and widens the crack the tiniest amount, perhaps a thousandth of an inch. It thaws and evaporates in the spring. Then next year more water seeps in and freezes. This is repeated over thousands of years, a long time to be sure, but then ice is patient. It has nowhere it has be. Eventually the rock splits. Water seeps into the new cracks that have formed on the fresh face of rock and the process starts again.

In Yosemite, it is ice that has seeped down inside cracks of giant boulders, frozen and pushed outward, leaving giant rocks split into two neat halves like a tangerine prepared for a preschooler. Let’s see wind do that. Or fire.

* * *

From Vanity Fair[v]:

During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected…..

The 15 Republicans were in a sombre mood as they gathered at the Caucus Room in Washington, an upscale restaurant where a New York strip steak costs $51…..

The dinner table was set in a square at Luntz’s request so everyone could see one another and talk freely. The session lasted four hours and by the end the sombre mood had lifted: they had conceived a plan. They would take back the House in November 2010, which they did, and use it as a spear to mortally wound Obama in 2011 and take back the Senate and White House in 2012, Draper writes.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

The Republicans have done that, bringing Washington to a near standstill several times during Obama’s first term over debt and other issues.

Kankakee, Illinois, March, 1983

Jobs were hard to come by in 1981. The blonde woman, our daughter and I moved to Kankakee, Illinois, a little ghetto-in-a-cornfield an hour south of Chicago, where I worked as an engineer in a dog food plant.

The first two years we were there were two of the coldest on record. Both years, the temperature dropped to -27 degrees. Mountains of snow fell and built up on country roads until they were far higher than the top of the car. People on white roads through white tunnels. At every stop sign it was necessary to slow to a crawl and creep out into the blind intersection. I-57, the interstate between Kankakee and Chicago, is elevated and freezes easily. One of those years it was covered with a two inch thick coat of ice. News helicopters flew overhead, showing literally hundreds of vehicles scattered in the center and the ditches alongside the road. It was so cold a state trooper was blinded as his eyes froze while he worked through the night rescuing motorists.

We lived on the Kankakee River, which froze solid both years. In the spring when it thawed, we walked down to the riverbank to watch as the huge sheet of ice began to break up. Giant ice flows from upriver piled up behind the sheet and pushed, accelerating the break-up. Each floe was the size of a large living room and a foot or two thick. They jostled their way down the river, creaking and groaning. We stood right on the edge and watched.

Suddenly, I heard someone yell. I turned to see our crusty old neighbor, an avid boater and lifelong resident, frantically waving us back. We walked back up in the yard. He scrambled down his steps to explain that the ice was unpredictable and could come up onto the shore. At that moment, two of the floes rammed together and sent a third flying five or so feet up into the air.  It was as if the river had decided to play jacks with chunks of ice the size of pick-up trips. We watched as the massive piece of ice crashed down on top of other floes and slid along, a jagged multi-ton missile. For weeks the ice broke and piled up on the banks in massive pieces, until our riverbank looked like a barricade from the Days of Rage.

* * *

Ice and water have an uneasy relationship. It’s a good question for high school physics exams. “The freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit at standard atmospheric pressure. If a bucket filled half with ice and half with water is put outside in exactly 32 degree weather, how long will it take to freeze?” Ha! It’s a trick question. The answer is it will never freeze, because water is stable at 32 degrees and so is ice. Nor will it thaw. As long as it stays exactly 32 degrees and exactly one atmosphere of pressure, the water will stay water and the ice will stay ice forever.

Except of course it’s impossible for anything to stay the same.  If the temperature increases just a fraction of a degree, say 0.000000001 (it doesn’t matter–add as many zeroes as you like,) the ice will start to thaw, or if it decreases by that amount the ice will begin to freeze. Or if a weather front moves through, that will upset the equilibrium. If it’s a high pressure system, the ice will start to freeze. A low pressure system will cause it to thaw, even if the temperature stays exactly 32 degrees.

One constant of the ice-water relationship is that since a pound of ice takes up 8% less space than a pound of water, ice floats. Those ice floes on the river will never sink. They will always be on top of the water. And that’s a darn good thing, because if ice sank then ponds and rivers and lakes and oceans would freeze from the bottom up, and since sunlight would never penetrate deep enough to thaw them completely even in the hottest summer, over time every body of water on the earth would freeze as solid as the pipes under our kitchen in Winterville, and that would be it for life on the planet.

The ice that floats on lakes is usually white, due to ice bubbles. Ice in its natural state is blue. That’s because ice, like everything else, wants to hold onto warmth. In this case light absorbs the relatively warm red portion of the light spectrum and spits out the blue. However, it’s a very, very, very light blue, and in thin layers ice is invisible. Invisible ice on a roadway is often called black ice, even though it’s not black at all. Anyone who has climbed out of a Hertz rental car into a poorly lit parking garage at the Eden Prairie, Minnesota Marriott in January, and felt his leather-bottomed shoes slide right out from under him and found himself completely horizontal in the air and headed earthward like a cartoon coyote can attest to that.

* * *

From Salon[vi]:

Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done… for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now….

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of traveling — a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence — in about 60 percent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged — provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

* * *

Ice destroys. It destroys by slipping and sliding, by freezing and thawing, by swelling and crushing. It destroys rocks, relationships, and the things we build, at whatever scale we build them. It destroys in front of our eyes, and in invisible and slow ways we don’t even see.

The strawberry girl and I didn’t last. We survived the heat and wind of our passion, but we slipped and crashed on the ice. She got her doctorate in economics and now teaches at a small school in the northeast, where she lives with her partner of 30 years. 

The blonde girl and I did last. Thirty five years, two children, one grandchild, four dogs, seven cats, eighteen countries and fifteen houses and apartments later, it looks like we might make it. But you never know. That’s the way ice is. We have avoided the slippery stuff and the crashing ice floes of middle age, although not without effort. But that doesn’t mean that right now, even as I write this, that somewhere down in a tiny crevice, ice crystals aren’t forming.

Of course, that is the human scale, and as we have said, ice works on a grander scale than that. One of the climate change denialists has published a book titled, “Not by Fire but by Ice” that suggests the real threat is from global cooling. Great idea for a title, foolish idea for a book. A book with that title should be about politics in America, where we spend a great deal of time fretting over the fire and wind of political discourse. But the real threat to the way we live will come from ice.  

How will it come? Perhaps it will be slipperiness that gets us. Perhaps we will slide over a fiscal cliff over entitlements and become Portugal or Italy, once great nations and now quaint tourist destinations.

Or will the pressure becomes too much, and like the ice on the river, will we simply break apart into huge jagged fragments, like Rome and Russia? For that is how empires often end, crushed under the weight of trying to fight too many wars in too many places.

Or will our ice threat come from internal pressure, and will we split like frozen water pipes? Will the tiny seep of distrust build and build until we are so far apart that it is impossible to bring us back together? Each year, with each generation of politicians, the fissure seems to grow a little wider. A tiny crack under Nixon, wider under Reagan, wider under Clinton, wider still under Bush V2.0, and now fist-sized under Obama. Is that the ice that will challenge us?

Ice is mysterious stuff indeed.


[i] Gill, N.S. “Creation of the World—Norse Mythology…” ancienthistory.about.com, accessed January 24, 2013.

[ii] “Explaining Ice: The Answer is Slippery,” New York Times, February 21, 2006.

[iii] Cary, Mary Kate. “The Shocking Truth about Entitlements,” USN&WR, December 19, 2012.

[v] Wolcott, James. “The Conspiracy to Commit Legislative Constipation,” Vanity Fair, January 24, 2013.

[vi] Turse, Nick. “How many secret wars are we fighting?” www.salon.com, August 4, 2011.

President Obama expresses optimism: now in super-sized gibberish

‎”…when it’s that easy to get these high clip magazines that can fire off hundreds of shots in a few minutes…”

*blink*

In a nutshell, this is why I remain opposed to gun control at this time. When the political leaders that advocate for it cannot even address the subject intelligibly, this is not the time to have that debate. I don’t care that one can read between the lines to see what he’s trying to get at. The fact is, that string of words is gibberish.

“High clip magazine” WTF?

“[T]hat can fire off”… What? No, sorry. The magazine doesn’t fire.

And no, I don’t think I’m splitting hairs. If there is a legitimate argument to be made for a restriction on high-capacity magazines, then it needs to be made intelligently. Full stop. Less than that, and what we are witnessing is more loaded speech and rank emotional appeal. FEAR THE HIGH CLIP MAGAZINE THAT FIRES HUNDREDS OF ROUNDS IN A FEW MINUTES.

FWIW, if I’m not trying to hit a particular target (read: just spraying ammo downrange willy-nilly), about the fastest I could go would be 100 rounds in 1 minute if I were using 30-round magazines, allowing for very fast changes of magazines and chambering the first rounds of the new ones.

How many rounds could I fire using 10-round magazines (again, assuming *very* fast magazine changes)? 80. This I have tested by simply going through the motions, which assumes zero fumbling with ejecting a spent mag, zero fumbling getting a fresh mag out of a pouch, zero fumbling with inserting the fresh mag, and zero issues with jams, i.e., an absolutely ideal use of a semi-auto rifle.

Not only would the actual numbers be lower once ideal/imaginary circumstances are replaced with reality, note the degree of rank emotional appeal.  In a “few minutes,” one could still fire off hundreds of rounds with 10-round magazines, ergo, the argument is *not* about magazine capacity. It’s rank politics, pure and simple.

If anyone cares to fund the expense of hundreds of rounds of ammo, a dozen 30-round mags, 36 10-round mags, and suitable web gear/pouches, I’d be more than happy to test this count in real life, using a real weapon, and post the results as a video.

Note: It should be abundantly clear to the astute (and regular) reader that my opinion on the subject of gun control diverges rather significantly from that of many, if not all, of my fellow Scrogues.

CATEGORY: World

Egyptian protesters eat their own

Two years after the Lara Logan assault, women continue to be attacked at protests in Tahrir Square.

Remember the Tahrir Square attack on Lara Logan two years ago while she was covering the demonstrations for CBS News? It seems that women — even protestors — continue to be sexually assaulted. At the Egypt Independent, Tom Dale writes:

A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals, in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. … She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. … There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.

To experience the sheer horror of one of these attacks second-hand,  read this account at the Nazra for Feminist Studies website. Meanwhile, Dale again:

It is neither my place nor my wish to draw conclusions about “the revolution” from all this: I do not believe that is possible or wise. But I can say that as the familiar chants resonated in the square, the demands for justice, a new government and new constitution, I felt a little sick.

“Tahrir Square,” he writes, “is both a place in which people both demand dignity for themselves and, in some cases, violently strip it from others. … It is not inevitable that Egypt’s revolutionary street politics be undercut by a current of rape.”

Still, there’s a certain inevitability to the emergence of mob mentality. Especially with all the unemployed — and thus un-marriageable — young men in Egypt. Ideally, the perpetrators would be singled out and subjected to some form (not fatal!) of “revolutionary justice.” Still, these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy. At Time, Tony Karon elaborates on Egypt’s foundering economy.

Youth unemployment, one of the key drivers of the revolutionary upsurge in 2011, continues to grow, with official figures revealing that 25% of economically active [not sure what that means -- RW] people ages 25 to 29, and 41% of those ages 19 to 24, are jobless.

Karon again: “President Mohamed Morsi’s plans to save Egypt’s sinking economy hinge on” — stop me if you’ve heard this one before –

… a $5 billion loan from the IMF [which] can be accessed only on the condition of implementing austerity measures that will bring a sharp spike in the economic pain suffered by millions of impoverished households.

In any event, male Egyptian protesters would do well to remember it’s not their sisters who are oppressing them. Diverting resources to policing their own while at the same time fighting the Egyptian government only slows the advance of their cause and diminishes its integrity.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Wilderness worth getting lost in—a review of Lance Weller’s “Wilderness”

Wilderness-coverNo Civil War battlefield offers a writer more metaphoric possibility than the Wilderness. Not only was the Wilderness a virtually impenetrable second-growth forest—“the dark, close wood” and “one of the waste places of nature,” as soldiers called it—but the very idea of “wilderness” suggests a place and a time of being directionless and lost. One wanders through the wilderness.

Novelist Lance Weller is the latest to wander into this literary territory. In Wilderness, the tale he tells proves to be a rich, dreamlike journey.

Weller’s novel follows the story of the Dickensian-named Abel Truman, a New Yorker by birth who finds himself fighting for North Carolina in the war because that’s where he happens to be living when hostilities break out. By then, Truman is already a broken man, haunted by a tragedy that has robbed him of his wife and child.

War proves to be the first of several wildernesses Abel wanders through. However, for the first few years, he “had only been scratched and bruised, had never gotten sick, and was thought by many to be a lucky man. Men took bets on how Abel would fare that day.”

At the Wilderness, however, a wounded Yankee, blind and dying, shoots Abel as his dying act, “ruining” Abel’s arm. Abel is nursed back to health by an escaped slave named Hypatia, who in turn dies because of her service.

Abel’s wartime experiences provide only half the book’s narrative, which alternates back and forth between those experiences in 1864 and Abel’s later self-exile in the coastal wilderness of the Pacific Northwest some thirty-five years later. There, broken and alone, Abel finally has the opportunity to find redemption even as he’s haunted and hunted.

“In the fall of that year, an old man walked deeper into the forest and higher into the hills than he had since he was young and his life was still a red thing, filled with violence,” Weller writes. “He walked longer and farther than he had since he was a soldier, campaigning with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Great War of the Rebellion when the world was not yet changed and his body was not yet shattered.”

Wilderness is at times gritty and wild, lush and lovely—always poetic and always thoughtful. Weller inhabits individual moments with fullness and attention, which he captures through his gift for description:

The trees gave way to the back of a steep ridge that fell before him in a confusion of frost-coated stones as though something great and beastly had raked the back half of the hill raw. The day was clear and sunny on this side of the pass, and the old man could see across miles of snowy foothills down into the rolling green of Puget Sound. He saw the blue of the inland waterways, cold with the sun bright upon their faces, and he saw distant smoke rising from stacks at Port Angeles. And he could see far to the east, where night was already darkening the Cascades, folding Mount Rainier in shadow while a round white moon rose behind.

While there’s some description of battle, Wilderness isn’t really a novel about the Civil War despite its centrality in Abel’s life. It’s not his life’s great tragedy, though—a tragedy not even time in the Wilderness could eclipse.

Wilderness is an intense exploration of those things that make us lonely and those things that help us connect, about grief and hope and the scars we carry with us. It’s about the things we remember and the things we run away from in an attempt to forget. Like any wilderness, Weller’s novel is easy to get lost in, but there’s much to discover and much beauty to behold.

———-

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

CATEGORY: Guns

New NRA enemies list provides great ideas for people and companies to support

CATEGORY: GunsI am not anti-gun. I am, however, anti-NRA, which isn’t pro-gun so much as it is the advocacy wing of the arms dealer industry.

Anyway, the organization has now released a compilation of National Organizations With Anti-Gun Policies (aka an enemies list). In their words:

The following organizations have lent monetary, grassroots or some other type of direct support to anti-gun organizations. In many instances, these organizations lent their name in support of specific campaigns to pass anti-gun legislation such as the March 1995 HCI “Campaign to Protect Sane Gun Laws.” Many of these organizations were listed as “Campaign Partners,” for having pledged to fight any efforts to repeal the Brady Act and the Clinton “assault weapons” ban. All have officially endorsed anti-gun positions.

The roundup also targets “Anti-Gun Individuals & Celebrities,” “national figures,” “journalists [who] actively editorialize in favor of gun control laws,” “Anti-Gun Corporations/Corporate Heads” and “Publication and Media Outlets.” When you dig into the specifics of whom the NRA regards as a menace to a free society, things get really entertaining. Here are just a few.

  • A & M Records
  • AARP
  • American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing
  • American Multi Cinemas Entertainment, Inc.
  • Amitai Etzioni – Teacher
  • Anne Rice – Writer
  • Barry Manilow – Singer
  • Ben & Jerry`s Homemade, Inc.
  • Billy Crystal- Actor
  • Bishop Edmond Browning – Espiscopal Leader
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield – Kansas City
  • Bob Barker – TV Personality
  • Boys II Men – Pop Group
  • Capital Cities/ABC
  • Carrie Fisher – Actress
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones – Actress
  • CBS Television Network
  • Chaka Khan – Singer
  • Children`s Defense Fund
  • Christie Brinkley – Model
  • Congress of National Black Churches, Inc.
  • Cox Newspapers
  • Crown Central Petroleum Corp.
  • Doug Flutie – NFL player
  • Drew Barrymore – Actress
  • E.J. Dionne Jr. – Columnist
  • Earthgrains – St. Louis
  • Ebony Magazine
  • Episcopal Church-Washington Office
  • Frank Rich – Columnist
  • Gannett News Service
  • George Clooney – Actor
  • Gloria Estefan – Singer
  • Gray Panthers
  • Hallmark Cards
  • Henry Winkler – Actor
  • Interfaith Neighbors
  • Jack Nicholson – Actor
  • Jerry Seinfeld – Actor
  • Jon Bon Jovi – Singer
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds – Singer
  • Kenneth Cole
  • Kevin Costner – Actor
  • Keyshawn Johnson – NFL player
  • Kim Cattrall- Actress
  • Knight-Ridder Newspapers
  • Lauren Bacall – Actress*
  • League of Women Voters of the United States*
  • Leonard Nimoy – Actor
  • Levi Strauss & Co.
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Louis Anderson – Comedian
  • Madonna – Singer
  • Mandy Patinkin – Actor
  • Maya Angelou – Poet
  • McCall`s Magazine
  • Mel Brooks – Actor/Director
  • Miami Herald
  • Michael Eisner, Former Chairman and CEO The Walt Disney Company
  • Mike Luckovich – Cartoonist
  • Mike Peters – Cartoonist
  • Missy Elliott – Singer
  • Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine
  • National Association of Police Organizations
  • National Black Nurses` Association
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • NBC Television Network
  • Peter Yarrow – Singer
  • Richard Parsons – Pres. Time Warner
  • Robert Reno – Columnist
  • Rolling Stone Magazine
  • Russell Simmons – Record Producer
  • Sally Field – Actress
  • Sara Lee Corporation
  • Sarah Jessica Parker – Actress
  • Sean Connery – Actor
  • Shania Twain – Singer
  • Sheryl Crow – Singer
  • Sigourney Weaver – Actress
  • Spike Lee – Director
  • Sprint Corp PAC
  • St. Louis Rams
  • Steve Buscemi – Actor
  • Stoneyfield Farms Yogurt
  • Susan Sarandon – Actress
  • The Christian Science Monitor
  • The New York Times Corporation
  • The Temptations – Pop Group
  • The Tribune Company
  • Tim Toles – Cartoonist
  • Time Magazine
  • Time Warner Inc.
  • Tom Freston – MTV President
  • Tom Oliphant- Columnist
  • Tony Bennett – Singer
  • United Church of Christ, Office for Church in Society*
  • United Methodist Church, General Board & Church Society
  • United States Catholic Conference
  • Washington Post
  • YWCA of the U.S.A.

Maya Angelou? Jon Bon Jovi? The St. Louis Rams? Hallmark? Inigo Freakin’ Montoya?

[sigh] I guess the most disappointing thing about this list, though, is that I’m not on it. Time for a belated New Year’s resolution.

In the meantime, not a bad collection of people and organizations to support, huh?

Thx to Cat White for the idea…

What. The. Fuck.: Gays shouldn’t be allowed to have children because they plan?

I … I … ummm. This is a joke, right?

Marriage should be limited to unions of a man and a woman because they alone can “produce unplanned and unintended offspring,” opponents of gay marriage have told the Supreme Court.

By contrast, when same-sex couples decide to have children, “substantial advance planning is required,” said Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for House Republicans.

Apparently no, no it is not.

Used to be teh queers couldn’t be trusted because they’d hump anything they could catch. Now they have to be restricted because … they’re responsible.

2016 is going to be a banner year for Dem candidates if the GOP keeps this up….

CATEGORY: RamseyCase

CNN commits journalistic malpractice. Again.

Remember Richard Jewell? He was accused of placing a bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics. He endured a horrific trial (and conviction) by media and had his life destroyed. Turned out he was innocent. The guilty party was anti-abortion terrorist Eric Rudolph. Jewell sued several media outlets (including CNN), reaching settlements in all cases save one (which was dismissed after his death).

Now, let’s say that you’re surfing CNN this morning and you come across an item where they report that Richard Jewell was the Olympic Park bomber. What would you make of that? What conclusions would you draw about the credibility of an organization that reported as fact something that has long been disproven?

Well, something painfully similar is happening on CNN.com right now. The story, entitled “Ramseys’ attorney: Grand jury ‘likely confused’ about JonBenet,” centers on the revelation that the grand jury in the infamous Ramsey case wanted to indict her parents, John and Patsy.

The malpractice occurs in paragraph 24:

Investigators didn’t find footprints in the snow outside the home, there was no sign of forced entry.

CATEGORY: RamseyCaseThe problem? Well, there are a couple. First, the “footprints in the snow” meme was fiction from the start and was addressed years ago. You could have galloped an elephant through that yard without leaving footprints in the snow because there simply wasn’t much snow.

Another, key story emerged in March 1997 when it was reported that police found it curious that there were “no footprints in the snow,” around the house. The implication was obvious, and intended: no footprints, no intruder. The slight problem with this, as law enforcement knew and the crime scene photos from December 26 make clear, was that there was little or no snow around the house.

These facts have been long established. In addition, the “no sign of forced entry” meme has been dismissed. There was, in fact, an unlocked basement window and Lou Smit, who had established himself as Colorado’s premier murder investigator, demonstrates how easily an intruder could have gotten in. Watch the video, and there’s more here.

And yet, here are CNN reporters Carma Hassan and Greg Botelho parroting long-dead fictions as though they were fact.

FOX takes a beating for its “news” coverage, and rightly so. Not only have they helped pioneer a new age of post-truth “journalism,” they’ve actually gone to court and argued that it’s okay for them to lie.

The attorneys for Fox, owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, successfully argued the First Amendment gives broadcasters the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves.

Better yet, the court agreed with them. Yay for America.

But FOX hardly invented cynical news entertainment. CNN has been in the business of “shaping” stories into ratings-generating narratives for a long time. For instance, remember Elian Gonzales? Before April 22, 2000, CNN.com had been my home page. After that I killed it and probably haven’t been back ten times since.

Why? When the federal authorities broke in to take the kid, AP photographer Alan Diaz took a famous picture. CNN posted it along with their story. Here’s that picture.

elian gonzales original

I checked back a few minutes later, though, and something had changed. See if you can spot what happened.

elian gonzales crop

What do you see? What do you think was the point?

For the vision-impaired, picture one depicts the agent pointing a nasty looking automatic weapon at the man holding Elian Gonzales. Which is a pretty good photo. But it isn’t as thrilling as a picture of a federal agent pointing a nasty looking automatic weapon at six year-old Elian Gonzales, is it?

This was a deliberate editorial decision that served no legitimate journalistic purpose. However, it served the purposes of entertainment and marketing quite enthusiastically.

If it hadn’t been clear before, that was the day the facade came down and CNN revealed that they were not a news organization, they were a news-like entertainment product organization. Newz-Whiz®, if you will. It was the day that anyone who cared about being told the truth walked away and never came back.

So today’s little one-sentence transgression against journalistic competence and ethics is hardly anything new or surprising, although it is a reminder of how shoddy the standards are at the place that invented the 24/7 news entertainment cycle.

I would say America deserves better, but how can I until we start demanding better?

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRogues

S&R makes major change to commenting policy

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRoguesOnce upon a time I could be counted on to say something like “the comment thread is often the most important part of a blog post.” When you have an intelligent community of good-faith readers and commenters, the initial post need not be fully baked and comprehensive – it can instead be treated as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for something larger and organic. I have learned a great deal in comment threads, and I imagine many of our readers have, as well.

I not only participate in comment threads here at S&R, I have been aggressive in counseling my former employers and business clients with blogs to keep the comment section as open and free as possible because such a policy promotes clear, productive communications between the company and its customers. (It also serves an important canary-in-the-coalmine function – if you let your customers say what they want, a lot of times you’ll glean useful information and you’ll frequently get a clue of impending problems before you would through conventional channels.) In sum, comments good.

Lately my belief in the value of the comments sections has waned, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone on the S&R staff feels some level of frustration at how unproductive our comment threads have been lately, and many other online publishers are encountering the same issues. How to respond? Some sites, including Xark, Dan Conover and Zen Habits, have gone so far as to completely shut comments off. (Some big names, including Seth Godin, The Dish, John Hawks and Talking Points Memo, never enabled comments in the first place.)

Fueling our individual and anecdotal suspicions that the train has jumped the tracks is a new study suggesting that the modern-day comment thread can actually damage the perceived credibility of the original post.

In an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Researchers found that even knowledge of science did not seem to mediate the effects of the comments.

These findings are specifically concerned with scientific conversations, but I suspect a similar dynamic plays out around nearly any kind of expertise-oriented post. I know what I see in comment threads these days often follows the path suggested by the study, regardless of the topic.

Why Have Comment Threads Deteriorated?

So, once upon a time comment threads were great and now they’ve gone to hell. What has happened? I described what I called “Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld” for an op-ed in Editor & Publisher back in 2004, and I suspect what Brossard and Scheufele are finding is eight years of further deterioration around a couple of predictable variables.

First, the rise of social media is siphoning off discussions. There have been a number of times where an S&R post has spurred lengthy and lively comment threads…somewhere else. Like at Reddit or Current or, of course, Facebook. Perhaps the reason here is simple: blogs and online publications like Scholars & Rogues are perceived as “public” space. Anyone can wander in and say whatever.

Your social networks are controlled by you, however. If you want to discuss something we have written, you can port it over to FB and do so with your own circle of trusted friends. You have constructed those networks in a way that suits you – if you don’t like flaming and shouting, you have unfriended the people who are prone to that kind of behavior. Beyond that, these people are “friends,” not strangers. While you may not know them very well all the time, there exists a social contract between you.

Second, what’s left once the nice people are gone? We have known since the ’90s that online conversations can quickly get nasty. Online forums are impersonal and seem to foster appalling behavior of the sort we’d never exhibit in person. There have been any number of times when participants in online groups have hidden behind anonymity and said things to me that they wouldn’t say to my face, and if you have spent more than ten minutes online you have seen this happen. It has probably happened to you. Perhaps you have been the one exhibiting the anti-social behavior yourself, and if so, you may well have felt embarrassed later as you reflected on your actions and words.

The Internet also tends to be a very “male” environment – that is, it favors those who speak loudly and aggressively. Women have never participated as much as we’d like because many of them, if I might generalize a tad, don’t like being bullied by testosterone-soaked jerks. Further, loud debates are frequently not thoughtful ones, which has the effect of driving off a lot of smart folks, most of whom have better things to do than trade insults with people who are more reliant on attitude than intellect.

In other words, over time online environments self-select for the worst elements: the loud, the belligerent, the less informed, those with agendas and firmly closed minds. In other words, says Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American…

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

This isn’t always the case, of course. We’ve been fortunate here at S&R to host some fantastic comment threads. Lisa Barnard’s recent online dating post, for instance, spurred a genuinely friendly response, and we heard from dozens of people who shared their own experiences in ways that reminded us all of what a comment section ought to be like.

What Can Be Done?

The staff has kicked the comments question around a good bit. We’ve discussed the good and the bad, we’ve offered up a variety of proposals (ranging from “leave it alone” to “kill them entirely”). In the end, we decided that as badly as we want to rid ourselves of the ignoramuses, the jackasses and the trolls, we don’t want to sacrifice those moments where our readers can be genuinely enlightened by smart input from other readers (nor do we want to deprive our thoughtful followers of the chance to engage in public discussions that interest them).

After some discussion, we think we’ve hit on a better model given the current environment: the old newspaper “letters to the editor” section. Our new policy, which is effective immediately, will operate like a cross between that and what we have now.

The New S&R Comment Policy

The comment section will remain at the bottom of each post, and we will encourage readers to craft thoughtful responses to what they’re seeing. Unlike a regular comment thread, which posts the comment unless it’s objectionable, our new approach will reverse the presumption: we will not post a comment unless we feel it legitimately furthers the conversation. This doesn’t mean we’ll require a fully sourced and cited thesis, but it does mean that we need to see evidence of thought and/or insight.

It also means that we won’t be green-lighting any of the “me, too” comments you find on most blogs. If your response is essentially “hey, I like this,” then please hit the “Like” button at the top of the page (and even better, click the links at the bottom of the post, which make it easy for you to share the article with your social networks).

We don’t want our new policy to come off as too intimidating. We do want to set the bar higher, though. If you read the site regularly, it’s obvious how much effort our writers put into S&R, and we can no longer abide those cases where our hard work is undermined by commenters who aren’t advancing the conversation or who are deliberately sabotaging it for their own narrow, cynical ends.

It goes without saying that hateful, ad hominem, substance-free submissions will be deleted and repeat offenders will be banned.

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Unsolicited book review: First Class—A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, by Chris West

What a cool idea! How come I didn’t think of this? West has written an engaging history of Britain from around the time of the early post office system—the early 19th century–to the present day, with 36 stamps as the leads for each short chapter. So we learn about the growth of the mail service in Britain (which got there first, after all), and West flags what was going on in the country, or the empire, or the world at the time of each particular stamp he discusses. How simple and elegant is that? I’m in awe.

West is an affable companion—he’s mildly progressive, and has a good sense for the drift of history. In fact, this is actually a pretty good history of Britain from 1840—there’s not much I would fault (although he does have some kind words for Margaret Thatcher, but I think that’s mostly because he’s a good sport). He’s not kind to everyone, though—he’s got some harsh words for politicians when appropriate, and for the City in general.

The weaving of the social and political history of Britain and the growth of its mail service turns out to be an inspired concept. We start out, of course, with the Penny Black, the most famous stamp in history, and move on from there. Some of the chapters are great fun—the great Exhibition—and some, like the chapters on the First World War, are heartbreaking. West pretty much has it all here, although he does apologize for not having a chapter on Darwin. Still, there’s not much of the general story here that’s he’s missed. What makes the book shine, though, are his discussions of the stamps. He’s got a lot of good ones–the Penny Lilac (all 33 billion of them), the British Empire Exhibition commemorative, the Machin decimals, the Diana series following her death. He’s even got some of the blunders–the Parliamentary Conference 4d commemorative, and the National Productivity Year issue (which was a blunder only because National Productivity Year was a bust.) And he does them justice in terms of discussing their designers, what the Post Office was doing at the time, how they were printed, the controversy over the introduction of commemoratives, and the impact of the internet (letters are down, packages are up). This is a nifty arc for hanging the history of Britain and its empire on, but it’s a sturdy one, and bears the load well.

A word about the book itself is in order as well. It’s a handsome, well-designed book, with a great dust jacket, heavy paper stock, stitched pages instead of just glued, and attractive color reproductions of the stamps introducing each chapter. The pages have printed perforations to make them look like a stamp. It’s the kind of book you want as a book, not an e-book. Kudos to Square Peg, a subsidiary of Random House, for giving us a book that actually looks and feels like a book. This is the perfect gift for that stamp-collecting partner, friend or relative–if you have any.

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

An unexpected Hush

An unexpected Hush

Hush in waiting

I bought Hush one of those new life-blogging collars about a month ago. It’s the version with a GPS and wifi transmitter and takes a picture every half-a-second of whatever happens to be in front of him. I thought it would be something to remind me of the day going on outside my studio. I’d get to watch Hush as he toured his domain. Maybe I’d even find some new places to draw in.

Hush and I moved here a few months ago, after the Olympics had died down and rentals in Hackney Wick had dropped a bit. We were in Shoreditch, but the software companies were gentrifying the place and driving up the rents. Haven’t you heard? Hackney Wick is the new artists’ commune. Even an organised band of anarchists have moved in to a warehouse in Maverton Road. Always stringing up new wifi transmitters, which is why I thought the collar might work.

I always wanted to move to Hackney Wick as my family has a bit of a dark connection to the place. My great grandfather, Henry Muller, was the nephew of Franz Muller, England’s first railway murderer. The murder took place here. Quite the family secret, but I’ll get to that later. Continue reading

Remembering my son

Guest Scrogue Kaye Lynne Booth is a Colorado-based book reviewer and writer. Her son Michael took his own life in 2008.

I’ve always been drawn to amethyst, perhaps because of the vibrant purple coloring. Purple has always been my favorite color. Although it is associated with Pisces, my March 3rd birthday falls three days after the date for me to have the February birthstone as my own. Instead I’m stuck with the stagnant blue-green of aquamarine that is the birthstone for March. I sit looking at the amethyst crystal that I found tucked in a box in storage a few days ago, pondering these things. It is oblong, tapering from a deep wine purple fat end that fades to a lighter violet, down into two thin jutting white tips. Its smooth, flat planes where other pieces have been separated from it intersect at sharp angles that catch and refract the light, making it sparkle and shine. It is clear, in that you can see through to where the stone has been shattered within, as if it encases shards of crushed glass, tiny imperfections that only add to the beauty of the gem.

My son, Michael, who took his own life at the age of nineteen, gave me this crystal although I can’t remember the occasion. He always put thought into the gifts he gave me. He knew purple is my favorite color and he knew I like amethyst, but his reasons would have gone deeper than that. He might have chosen amethyst because according to Chinese lore, amethyst is a psychic protector, warding off nightmares and supersensory attack, aiding in remembering and interpreting dreams as well. Amethyst is supposed to increase focus and transfer negative energy, creating a meditative, calming effect and balancing moods. Michael was into oriental teachings and would have known this. The idea would have been appealing to him.

Michael was also into natural healing, so perhaps he gave it to me because of the beneficial properties attributed to amethyst, which are many. Depending on the source you use, amethyst is associated with healing in the endocrine, immune and respiratory systems. It is reputed to help with headaches, mental illness, skin conditions, anxiety, depression, cellular disorders and maladies of the digestive tract.

Michael didn’t like the fact that I smoke, so perhaps he chose to give me this crystal because amethyst is said to ward off excesses and protect against addictions. In fact, the word amethyst has roots coming from the Greek words a-, meaning not, and methustos, meaning intoxicated. There is some irony to this if you look at Greek mythology concerning how the amethyst got its purple coloring. It seems Dionysus, god of wine and mischief, was irritated by Artemis, virgin hunter and lunar goddess, and her followers, so he set a sacred tiger against a maiden attending Artemis’ shrine. To save the maiden, Artemis petrified her, turning her to quartz so that the tiger could cause her no harm. Dionysus then tipped his goblet, pouring wine over the crystal maiden, infusing the color of the grape from which the wine was made into the stone. Michael would have found humor in the fact that an alcoholic beverage created the color of the gemstone said to be the “sobriety stone.”

Gazing at this amethyst, I recall wanting to make a necklace out of it. The thin rough end would be perfect mounted with a metal clasp, but I’d prefer a more natural hanger, such as a thin strip of leather wrapped around the two small, jutting tips. Somehow that just feels right. I hold the crystal against the soft hollow of my throat, moving the hard smooth surfaces of it gently back and forth as if it were a pendulum hanging there. Although it was cold when I first picked it up, now it feels warm and I can almost feel the energy radiating from it. I don’t know how many healing powers this crystal has. I’m not sure if it will ease my headache, clear up my skin or cure my ailments. What I do know is that rubbing my thumb over the smooth surfaces and edges has a calming effect that soothes me and makes me feel at peace. But even if it didn’t have this effect, I would be drawn to it, because the way the purple shades gleam and glisten in the sun is pleasing to my eye.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment

Children, baseball bats, and foreign policy

The boy, bigger than the rest, strode into the schoolyard, carrying a shiny, new, 34-inch Louisville slugger. He saw groups, some large, some small, of other boys. In darker, shady corners, lone boys lingered. The big boy looked around, here, there, everywhere. Everyone noticed that. Some of the other boys had bats, too, but none were as bright, shiny, and heavy as that of the big boy.

He stopped at one group of smaller boys. He held his gleaming white, hard-maple bat behind him. When he spoke, they smiled. They showed him their bats. He inspected the bats, nodding every now and then. One boy held out his bat and asked a question. The big boy took the bat and showed the smaller child a better way to hold it. He demonstrated to the child how to swing it. The smaller boy stepped away from the group and practiced swinging his bat. The others nodded approvingly.

The big boy walked to another group. He held his bat in front of him, barrel pointed at the biggest of these small boys with furtive eyes. They would not look directly at him. Most had no bats. A few did, but those bats had splintered. Tape held broken chips to the bats’ barrels. A few of the boys sidled up the big boy, smiling, their hands outstretched. The big boy poked sharply at their hands with his bat. The smaller boys slunk away.

The big boy left the group and returned to the entrance of the schoolyard. He looked toward those darker, shadowed corners intently. A few of the loners were hunched over, their backs turned toward him. The big boy could not see their hands.

The big boy reached into a bag he’d left with a trusted smaller boy. He took out two of his large bats — but not quite as large as his big maple bat — and walked to the first group of boys. He spoke to two of the boys. He asked questions. He liked the answers. He gave each boy a new bat, larger than either had ever possessed.

He walked toward a dark corner of the schoolyard, beckoning the two smaller boys to follow. They did, emboldened by their bright, shiny, new bats. They waved the bats, almost arrogantly, at other boys as they passed by.

As they approached the loner in the corner, the big boy waved the smaller boys to his side. The trio of bar wielders fanned around the loner. The big boy approached the loner, whose face was indistinct in shadow. The big boy poked at the dirt next to the lone boy, motioning him back.

As the loner stepped back, his foot kicked a small bag, moving it behind him. But the big boy could see some of its contents — pieces of wood, some small, some large; some were maple, some ironwood, some ash. Then the big boy saw the glue. The bottle was nearly empty; the big boy could tell the loner had been given — or stole — a used bottle from some other boy.

The big boy spoke to the one smaller boys, who scurried off to try to find who provided the glue. As the big boy turned back to the loner, he spotted another solitary boy sidling along the fence toward the loner. The big boy stepped between the loner and the other boy and waved his bright, shiny, new bat at the latter. The boy slunk away. As he did, the big boy saw the tip of a piece of wood and a container of glue poking out of the boy’s pockets.

The big boy turned to the loner and waggled his bat at him. No bat building, he warned. The loner glowered at the big boy, angered. The big boy walked away. He ordered one of the smaller boys to keep watch on the loner, albeit from a distance.

The big boy walked around the yard again, occasionally smacking his bat against his palm. All is order, he thought.

But he’d lost track of that solitary boy with the piece of wood and bottle of glue in his pocket. The big boy never saw that solitary boy approach another smaller boy, sprawled in the dirt after being pushed down by an arrogant, ambitious boy who hung with that first group of boys favored by the big boy.

The solitary boy glanced around the yard. The big boy was back with his bat-wielding friends. The big boy never saw the solitary boy quickly ease the piece of wood and bottle of glue from his pockets — and give them to the smaller boy bullied by a larger one.

That small boy hurriedly hid the wood and disguised the bottle. Come another day, as the big boy circumnavigated the schoolyard, he paid no attention to the bullied boy’s dirty water bottle.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Drones on their own at home and abroad

Drones are becoming simultaneously more fantastic and more ordinary at the same time.

At the Atlantic, Brian Fung writes:

Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it’ll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. … Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we’ll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we’ll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it’s okay for a computer to end a human life.

Domestic DroneNovelist Daniel Suarez treated this with frightening prescience in his thinking man’s (or woman’s — the protagonist is female) techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult). Drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or whom — to attack.

First, fighter pilots have begun to be replaced by drone operators. Next, drone operators will begin to be replaced by robots. Also, many of the tasks of infantry will be offloaded to robots. Then, when infantry robots become autonomous, what becomes of individuals who, unable to find work in the civilian sector or pay for college, join the military for a job and a route to a college education? Not everyone can be employed in designing artificial intelligence and manufacturing robots. The obvious irony, of course, is that we wind up in the service of robots, which were designed to serve us.

At the other extreme, at Global Guerillas, John Robb continues his campaign for a “door to door, drone delivery system.” Sure, he foresees problems.

• The drones will be noisy.
• The payloads are going to be tiny (ounces) and the containers they are held in will be clunky.
• The  distance drones travel will be short (less than a mile).
• There will be frequent failures (drones in trees and on rooftops).
• Hassles will occur (problems with government regulators, police, and nutty neighbors).

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that drones can be turned to civilian uses — aside from citizen surveillance — especially since they might be of more benefit to the economy than military drones. But, count me as a “nutty neighbor.” The prospect of them buzzing around one’s community — replete with treetops draped with pizzas they’ve dropped while still in beta — is not an attractive one.

Conceivably, commercial drones will become autonomous. No doubt, that would help acclimatize us to autonomous drones in combat. Face it: between the everyday world and war, proponents of drones have got us in the grips of their pincer attack.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

The Rest is Noise (3)–Webern, Schoenberg, Mahler

So onward this week into the music of Schoenberg and Webern. And you know what? It’s not only interesting—it’s also fun. We expected to find the music challenging, and it is. We expected to learn something about why it’s considered important, and that we’ve done. What we didn’t expect was to actually, you know, like the music—but we do. Will wonders never cease? Schoenberg is great—in addition to everything else, he’s got a wicked sense of humor. Early Webern is incredibly melodic—they both are, in fact. It’s just that, especially with Schoenberg, you initially feel disoriented because there are no long themes to anchor you. It’s all bursts and loops. The kinds of temporal patterns that you normally use to ground the musical experience? They mess with it—in fact, they remove it almost entirely. And it’s great fun.

Let’s start with Wednesday’s concert, which was the London Philharmonic, under the direction of Mark Elder, doing Webern’s Im Sommerwind, followed by Five Orchestral Pieces (Opus 16) by Schoenberg, which was then followed by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The Webern was quite lovely—a gentle, pastoral piece with little in the way of an overall theme, but an expressive mood punctuated by occasional burst of light. This was composed in 1904, before Webern became Schoenberg’s student, but while he was still incorporating his discovery of Mahler. This is not the short, abrupt Webern of his later career. This is an expansive, expressionistic, almost opulent piece that Webern, actually, never heard performed during his lifetime—it wasn’t premiered until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered. Webern seems to have described it as an “orchestral idyll,” and that’s about right. It’s a tone poem, characteristic of the period. It’s the lightness of touch and texture that I found beguiling, though—it’s expressionistic, but not even close to the kind of loud, brassy orchestration that characterizes much of the period, including Strauss and (particularly) Mahler.

This was followed by the Schoenberg, which was, I have to say, great. As I mentioned above, I went into this sort of resigned to learn something, but I had no feelings one way or the other about what I might find enjoyable. But Schoenberg has surprise me. I haven’t heard anything by him yet that I haven’t liked—in fact, I’ve ordered both pieces, the Chamber Symphony, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, from Amazon already. I hadn’t really expected to want to hear them again—but I do. Maybe they’re just programming Schoenberg for people who don’t like Schoenberg, that sort of thing—but it’s working. The Five Orchestral Pieces are just that—five short pieces, all short—the entire works takes about 16 minutes. These are extremely expressionistic—there’s virtually no structure, no architecture to the work. It’s all mood, short bursts of line, what Schoenberg called “total chromaticism.” We’re not technically interested here in tonality, but it emerges anyway—you take this music and mentally structure it somehow. That’s how it makes sense. This could only have been composed in Vienna, obviously—Schoenberg is deliberately delving into his own musical unconscious here, as he had earlier in some of his more radical piano pieces, capturing bits here and there. It’s the kind of work where memory seems to intrude constantly. It’s all musical thoughts, many of them apparently random, but that’s just the impression you take away. It’s clearly much more structured than that, and it works wonderfully.

That was the first half—then the Mahler. Schoenberg and Webern (and Berg) all worshiped Mahler, so it was fitting to include him in these programs. But I’m not sure that this is the Mahler piece I would have chosen for this sort of concert, although the rather depressing theme of the piece fit. Mahler started writing it in 1908, the year after the death of his daughter, his resignation from conducting in Vienna after years of dealing with Austria’s increasingly vocal anti-semitism, and his first year as a conductor in New York—and after learning that his own heart was irreparably damaged. (It would kill him three years later.) The somber tones of the work seem to fly in the face of what has gone before—the bonhomie of the drunkard (who sings twice) seems forced, and the final section—the Farewell (Das Abschied)—is one of the most desolate in music. It’s six songs strung together, and Mahler, who normally composed in a fury of activity, took his time here, knitting things together gradually. It’s a long piece, of course. Well, all of Mahler is long, but some pieces seem longer than others. Mahler at the time was apparently influenced by a volume of ancient Chinese poetry. Of all of Mahler’s symphonies, this is the work where he attempted to integrate voice and orchestra most completely.

So overall, a somber piece. Well performed, I must say, with perfectly capable solos by mezzo Lilli Paaskivi and tenor Paul Groves. If I were programming, I would have chosen the fourth symphony, which does have a quite lovely soprano accompaniment in its final movement. But the organizers and programmers here apparently decided that somber was the way to go, and it pretty much worked that way. By the end of Mahler’s life the music world was changing rapidly. The romanticism inherent in Mahler’s final years was rapidly making way to radically new musical style—that was already clear with Schoenberg’s work, including the Five Orchestral Pieces, which were first performed in 1909—the year after Mahler started work on Das Lied, and two years before Das Lied actually was performed. It’s not clear to me how much of a summing up Mahler considered this work to be—he did complete another symphony (the 9th) before his death, and started work on another one. But still, this has the feel of a valedictory piece, and the programmers obviously intended this to be perceived as the “end of an era” piece to be contrasted with what was coming along.

Just how radical was to have been demonstrated by Thursday’s concert, Air from Another Planet, featuring Schoenberg’s 4 Songs (Opus 2), Alma Mahler’s 4 Songs, and 7 Early Songs by Berg, all followed by Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, with soprano soloist Barbara Hannigan accompanying the Quatuor Diotima string quartet. Which we missed! Because we both had sudden drippy colds and didn’t feel like ruining everyone else’s evening by sneezing and honking throughout. But we already have a feel for this, because the pieces we’ve heard already by Schoenberg (including the piano pieces from the weekend concert) were all composed around this time as well—the Chamber Symphony (the first one, of two) in 1907, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, as said, in 1909, and the piano pieces in 1909 and 1911. Clearly a time of turbulence, for Mahler and Schoenberg to be composing what they were composing at around the same time. And it’s important to understand, I suppose, what Schoenberg was actually doing—he was trying to take the romanticism that he loved—from Strauss, from Brahms, from Mahler—and extend it as far as it could go. His later decision to pursue atonality—intimated throughout all the pieces we have heard thus far—resulted from his decision that he couldn’t take it further, there was nowhere else to go. Mahler clearly would not have agreed—nor, for that matter, would have Sibelius, who comes along next month—but you can see why Schoenberg made that decision. One wonders, though, what Schoenberg thought of Sibelius’s 6th Symphony?

And so we leave Vienna behind—but not really. Vienna pervades the century, as we’ll see. Next up—nationalism, starting with Elgar in England on Saturday, but then back to Webern next week to finish off the month. Well, I’ve been converted to Schoenberg—maybe I’ll be converted to Elgar as well. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. I have to say that South Bank keeps putting together a bang-up set of events to surround the music—here’s the schedule of events for the February weekend. The days are just packed!

What must the world’s data growth curve look like?

Vertical, pretty much?

In 1993, during my first semester of doctoral work at the University of Colorado, we had a guest speaker from one of the federal administrations in a class talking about this newfangled thing called “the Internet.” (There are a number of US agencies in Boulder, and I can’t remember which one he was from. NIST, maybe.) The thing he said that really stuck out was that at that moment in time, the single largest repository of stored electronic data in the world was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), located maybe four miles from campus (and just up the street from where I would later live for a couple of years). How big was this massive bright spot of data? Two terabytes.

Damn.

So I’m visiting some friends this week. Let’s call them “Bob” and “Jane.” Bob and I got to talking about massive concentrations of stored data because I’m insufferably curious and he works at a very large company that you have heard of (and have probably done business with) but that I can’t name here. I told him my two terabyte story and asked him how much stored data he thought his company was sitting on. Now, Bob is an engineer/developer type who, when posed with a question like this, tends to figure it out and give you an answer. This one, though, was clearly a stumper. He said that by the end of next year, he expects the four-person group that reports to him to own maybe four petabytes. A petabyte is a thousand terabytes.

Then he tried to extrapolate. They have these data centers that are over a million square feet, and he thinks if you figured one blade per square foot you wouldn’t be too far off. And each of those blades is between one and two terabytes.

Wow. How many of these centers are there? He isn’t sure. He knows of one state where there are eight of them.

So, over 8M terabytes of stored data in just these data centers in this one state. And this is an international company. But it’s just one company.

Not sure I have a real point here, other than damn, my head hurts. If you’d like your head to hurt, too, try processing some of these numbers.

Have a nice day.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Who’s degraded more — the torture victim or the torturer?

Exactly what is waterboarding a prisoner 83 — or 183 — times supposed to accomplish?

We recently posted about the railroading of former CIA offer John Kiriakou on flimsy charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In the course of his article about the case — in which he himself was a protagonist — Scott Shane of the New York Times writes that Kiriakou

… led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah. … While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

In fact

… the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other C.I.A. officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Meanwhile, in 2009, at Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler wrote: “According to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo” — the same memo that revealed how many times Abu Zubaydah had been tortured — “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.”

Eighty-three times? 183 times? To begin with, there’s something insidious about the neat difference of 100 in the number of tortures meted out. Other, more tangible, questions come to mind. Before moving on to the humanistic, what about the sheer logistics? Ms. Wheeler cited a memo that explained

… how the CIA might manage to waterboard these men so many times in one month. …where authorized, it may be used for two “sessions” per day of up to two hours. During a session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer (but never more than 40 seconds). In a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application. … Additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period.

So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you’d need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you’ve waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to KSM.

Next, one wonders why the victim — much as one resists casting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in this light of a victim, can there be any doubt that our “enhanced interrogation” practices has turned him into a victim, too? — doesn’t die from the relentless assault on his body? Of course, a doctor is present to make sure he lives to be tortured another day. But how many brain cells does near-asphyxiation kill?

Also, even though interrogators were presumably vetted to weed out psychopaths, if the practice alone doesn’t suggest unbridled sadism at work, the repetition does. In — facetiousness alert! — fairness, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may have been extraordinarily tough as well as holding out for concessions of some sort — better conditions in jail, treatment of their families.

Or the repetition may have been a measure of the interrogator’s frustration with the perceived inadequacy of the tools of torture with which he’d been supplied: “They call this waterboarding and all we’re allowed to use is a common water bottle? Let me dunk his entire head in a tub and I’ll get answers after his first immersion.”

Perhaps, too, the more they tortured, the more they hated themselves and took out their anger on their subjects.

In any event, as Ms. Wheeler wrote:

The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM.

That doesn’t sound very effective to me.

In the end — and while torture by American citizens may have ended, we may still be outsourcing the practice — the sessions described above certainly fulfilled all the requirements for the frequently cited definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over, ad nauseam). The torturer and the government that empowers him inevitably wind up as degraded as those tortured.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Byron’s birthday…one myth debunked…and replaced by another….

I’ve written several appreciations of Lord Byron, our first Scrogue, over the years for S&R. In one of these, entitled, “Byron’s Birthday,” I mentioned that his lordship’s heart was buried in Greece. Today I received the following comment on that post:

Kathryn January 22, 2013 at 1:36 am 

As current Rector of the Church where Byron is buried, I have to dispute the comment that his heart is buried in Greece. It is in the church, in the family vault, although in a separate casket from his body.

As an academic, I know full well the foolhardiness of using that bastion of misinformation, Wikipedia, as a source – but I’d done just that and so found myself hoisted on my own petard, as it were, by the kind but justifiably critical Rector of Mary Magdelene Church in Hucknall where Byron was laid to rest in the family crypt after being refused burial in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Still, one hates to be wrong, so I went out and did some serious research on my own to satisfy myself that the Rector’s emendation to my post was, indeed, accurate.

And it was.  So kudos to her for helping S&R get its facts straight.  However…

That, as the old saying goes, is not the end of the story.

In my research I stumbled upon a delightful post on the exhumation of Byron’s body. And another, perhaps even more Byronic myth. It seems that his heart was not the only impressive element of Byron’s person. Here’s a description of why, it would seem, George Gordon was, as Lady Caroline Lamb termed him, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”:

Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

Ahem.  And so another myth arises about this most mythic of English bards. Be sure, however, to read the post I link to above. The close of that interesting essay offers an explanation for how such a myth might get started…

Happy Birthday, your lordship!