Dazzling Knowledge

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Religious Right creates unexpected new coalitions

The New York times has a fascinating article about how the religious right has influenced crime and prison policies in ways that defy old-fashioned views of the conservative/liberal divide. It's long, and I excerpt at length:

Not too long ago, you could tell whether an election was under way by watching prime-time television and counting the number of ominous recitatives about prisoners and ex-prisoners in the commercials. This fall, however, the seven million Americans who are in the custody of the state — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — did not loom large on nightly TV; in fact, as has been the case for nearly a decade, they barely received any notice at all. Prisoners are no longer the charged political symbols and campaign-season scapegoats they once were.

Prison reform is not a highly advertised position of the Republican Party either, but a growing number of social conservatives are trying to make it a centerpiece of the Christian-conservative agenda. The most striking aspect of the Second Chance Act may be the cross-section of Republicans, from every wing of the party, who support it. Senator Arlen Specter, the top-ranked contender for the award of Least Favorite Republican among movement conservatives, is a lead sponsor, as is Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who may be Christian conservatives’ top choice for the 2008 presidential nomination. Among the House sponsors of the bill are Mike Pence, an Indiana congressman who is a leader of the conservative caucus in the House and a darling of Washington’s conservative press corps, and Dan Lungren, a California representative and former California attorney general who helped write California’s three-strikes law (which he still supports). “For liberals in criminal justice, he’s like the devil, almost,” says a key liberal lobbyist for the bill, Gene Guerrero of George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center.

If safer streets had something to do with the change in public attitudes, so did another development: the changing place of crime in the national debate over moral values. Over the past decade, as the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have suggested, the culture war of the 1970s and 1980s that revolved around race has been replaced by one that revolves around religion. A side effect has been a radically different crime debate. If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.

Like many Republicans and Christian activists, Earley’s prison-house conversion dates from an encounter with Chuck Colson, the Watergate crook turned Christian evangelist. When Earley lost the Virginia governor’s race in 2001 to Mark Warner, Colson asked Earley to take over Prison Fellowship, the ministry that Colson founded in the mid-1970s. Earley declined on the assumption that devoting himself to prisoners was tantamount to throwing his life “down a dark hole.” Over the next few months, Earley read his Bible and was struck by the number of criminals who play starring roles: Moses, for example, murdered a man and became a fugitive. Paul presided over the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Earley came to a realization: “If Moses or Paul had lived in Virginia or any state in the United States today, they would be serving, had they been caught, a multiple-decade prison sentence.” He took the job.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he did not dismantle the Clinton-era re-entry programs; rather, he adapted them to fit his faith-based agenda. Despite his strong support for capital punishment, President Bush may be the most pro-prisoner president in American history — at least if you disregard the war on terror (an admittedly enormous caveat). Certainly in terms of rhetoric, Bush has done more to advance the interests of prisoners than either Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. The Second Chance Act takes its name from the 2004 State of the Union address in which Bush asked Congress to pass a $300 million program to help prisoners as they re-enter society: “In the past, we’ve worked together to bring mentors to children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job-training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

There are few, if any, senators more closely identified with the Christian conservative movement than Sam Brownback. Like a growing number of conservatives, Brownback is a political proponent of the so-called new-evangelical causes, which range from AIDS in Africa and slavery in Sudan to poverty and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bill that helped build the coalition of Democrats and Republicans in the re-entry movement. Even when he disagrees with his fellow religious conservatives, he gives faith-based reasons for doing so. A convert to Catholicism, he has said his religion informs his support for a less punitive approach to immigration reform. In February, he held a hearing intended to foster debate on whether the death penalty can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s call to create “a culture of life.”

An interesting article on the strengths and weaknesses of non-violent protest, specifically applied to the situation in Nazi Germany. Linking it was weird, as it was a 2-part post (how fancy!), but you should be able to figure it out. Also, I should point out that the source calls herself the Neo-Neocon. I'm not sure what that means, but I'm sure some people hate that.


Nonviolent resistance to totalitarian governments can be very difficult because of Draconian retaliation against such efforts and the resulting climate of fear among the populace, as well as the constant propaganda designed to reduce dissent to a minimum. But not all totalitarian regimes are alike in how far they are willing to go to crush resistance. And even the same totalitarian regime is not always willing to go equally far to crush resistance under all circumstances at all times against all comers.

Random Thoughts, Volume I

  • Say it with me and you'll feel better: "Frothy poo."
  • I've got to hand it to guys who own hybrid automobiles; it takes a tremendous amount of confidence in one's sexuality to drive a car that screams, "Look at this giant homo."
  • You know who told the all-time best version of "The Aristocrats" joke? John Wayne Gacy.
  • One of the most painful experiences in my life involved a Rottweiler and my dick. I asked him to suck it and he said, "No, because I don't find you attractive."
  • Hey! What time is it when your best friend snorts what he thinks is cocaine, but is actually Drano? Time to get a new best friend!
  • Which emoticon do I use to represent the soul-crushing futility of existence in a godless universe? Is it the squiggly line or the lower-case “q”?
  • “Remember, Chamomiles -- the handle of the Big Dipper always points directly to the North Star.” That’s what my camp counselor said just before he raped me. But damn it if he wasn’t right.
  • My newest marketing idea? Try this on for size: Unconsecrated holy wafers, sold in Pringles-shaped canisters labeled, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Jesus!”
  • So, when is the appropriate time to hit on a dead man’s wife, anyway? After the funeral? During the autopsy? Just before he flatlines? Where’s Miss Manners when you need her?
  • If you can’t tell when too much is enough, then brother, you have no business beating up prostitutes.
  • I’ve heard it said that reading the Bible builds character. But I say rehab does, too.
  • Here’s a tip: if you eat a hot slice of pizza that burns the roof of your mouth, cauterize the wound by eating an even hotter slice of pizza. It’s a trick my great-grandmother brought with her from the old country. That, and a severe case of TB.
Look for more pearl necklaces of wisdom soon!


Sunday, December 24, 2006

It's Cheaper Than Going To A Pediatrician

¡Dios mio! [Obligatory tabloid-esque opening.] A Mexico-bound grandmother placed her one-month-old grandson into the baggage X-ray machine at Los Angeles International Airport.

Careful -- that diaper contains hazardous waste! (Oh, I'm good.)

Not wishing to pile onto the already-beleaguered TSA, but shouldn't someone have noticed this, you know, BEFORE the baby entered the machine? Having recently traveled, I know that there are plenty of uniformed individuals whose job it is to watch you remove your shoes, jacket, aluminum-foil-wrapped cucumber (or so I've heard) before you place them in the grey plastic washtubs that pass through the scanning equipment.

Surely a small, pinkish moving object, loudly objecting in baby Spanish, would have attracted someone's attention. What about the people in line behind this lady? How absorbed in your own shoe-removing activity do you have to be to have missed that?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Maritain on America

In the January issue of First Things, Thomas Albert Howard has an essay reviewing the thought of French philosopher Jaques Maritain on America. Some of this stuff is pretty profound:

Maritain was struck by the ongoing vitality of America's founding era. A living past, instead of an exhausted one, and a palpable sense of a future amenable to human initiative appeared to him to have inocculated Americans from continental ideologies claiming "historical necessity." Accordingly, he posited a "root incompatibility" between the American people and Marxism. "For Marx," he elaborated, "history is... [a] set of concatenated necessities, in the bosom of which man slaves toward his final emancipation. When he becomes at last, through communism, master of his own history, then he will drive the chariot of the Juggernaut which had previously crushed him. But for the American people it is quite another story. They are not interested in driving the chariot of the Juggernaut. They have gotten rid of the Juggernaut. It is not... in mastering the necessities of history, it is in man's present freedom that they are interested."
Maritain sought to rebut the frequent charge that Americans were peculiarly given to materialistic pursuits. He did not deny that untoward attachments to consumer goods characterized the postwar industrialized world, but he wondered if Americans, in some respects, were the least materialistic among the wealthy nations. The reproach of materialism did not derive from empirical evidence, he felt, but drew its strength from and Old World elitist tradition of "confusing spirituality with an aristocratic contempt for any improvement in material life." This elitist critique--perfected "among certain high-brow Europeans with large bank accounts and delicious wine in their cellars"--exerts such a powerful moralistic appeal that "you yourselves [Americans] are taken in by it."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This guy is blue. That's just smurfy.

Meet Stan Jones. He ran for congress as a libertarian in Montana. He is blue. He has awesome crazy libertarian views.
Rock on, Stan.
By the way, I got that video by putting this into Google: stan+ jones+ crazy+ libertarian+ views

Good work, you miserable sack.

Don't Whistle While You Work
By Rhitu Chatterjee
ScienceNOW Daily News
18 December 2006
Does a good mood help when doing your job? Not always, a new study suggests. Happy thoughts can stimulate creativity, but for mundane work such as plowing through databases, being cranky or sad may work better. The study is the first to suggest that a positive frame of mind can have opposite effects on productivity depending on the nature of a task.
Stress, anxiety, and a bad mood are notorious for narrowing people's attention and making them both think and see only what's right in front of them; for example, a person held at gunpoint usually recalls nothing but the weapon itself. Well-being, on the other hand, is known to broaden people's thinking and make them more creative. But whether a good mood also expands people's attention to visual details was unknown.
To answer that question, psychologist Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto asked 24 university students to take two kinds of tests after listening to sad, happy, or neutral music. In one test, the students were asked to think of unusual words, thus testing them for the breadth of their thinking. As previously reported by various other researchers, those who has listened to the happy music--and who claimed to be in a better mood--were more successful in recalling unusual words than the other two groups.
In the second test, students were presented with a row of three letters and asked to ignore everything except for the letter in the middle. This measured the breadth of their visual attention and ability to focus on what was in front of them. This time, the happy-music students were 40% more likely to be distracted by the unnecessary flanking information than students who had listened to sad music were.
"Attention can act as a beam of spotlight," says Anderson. A good mood broadens that beam, he says, encompassing more things than we would see otherwise, and in some cases leads to more distractions. But when focused inward, the broader beam yields creativity, the team suggests in a paper in the December 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.
"I like this study quite a bit," says cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Phelps of New York University. So does Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School in Boston. But, he cautions, "this is a modest manipulation of mood in a laboratory situation." Future studies should address the effects of mood variation "in more dramatic, real-life situations," he says.

Ah, College

I just love the picture that accompanies this article. It really sums up the higher education experience in some way.

Human Scent Tracking Nothing to Sniff At
By Greg Miller
ScienceNOW Daily News
18 December 2006
A surprising new study suggests that people can track a scent across a grassy field--at least if they're willing to get down on their hands and knees and put their noses to the ground. The findings are unlikely to put hunting hounds and drug sniffing dogs out of work, but they may earn a little respect for the poorly regarded human sense of smell.
Humans are widely believed to be poor at tracking scents, especially when compared to other mammals such as dogs and rodents. But few had ever put that idea to the test. A research team led by Jess Porter and Noam Sobel at the University of California, Berkeley, dipped 10 meters of twine in chocolate essence and laid it in a field to form two straight lines connected at a 135° angle. Then they blindfolded 32 undergraduate students and had them don earmuffs, thick gloves and kneepads to prevent them from using sensory cues other than smell. When set loose in the field, two-thirds of the subjects successfully followed the scent, zigzagging back and forth across the path like a dog tracking a pheasant, the researchers report online 17 December in Nature Neuroscience.
Nearly all the subjects reported that the task was challenging, Porter says, but four of them got a chance to improve with practice. Over the course of several days, they learned to follow the trail faster and deviate less. Even so, their performance remained well below what other researchers have reported in dogs. Additional experiments with noseplugs suggested that people use two strategies to localize smells: comparing the odor intensity between subsequent sniffs and comparing the odor intensity at the two nostrils during single sniffs.
"This is an innovative approach to teasing out what olfactory abilities humans actually have," says Gordon Shepherd, a neuroscientist at Yale University. It's assumed that after our primate ancestors started walking on two legs, their sense of smell became less acute, Shepherd says. The relatively small repertoire of olfactory receptor genes in primates compared to animals that kept their noses closer to the ground seems to support this notion. However, Shepherd says, the new study suggests that "if we go back on our four legs and get down on the ground, we may be able do things we had no idea we could do."

Plus, that last line? Totally "That's what she said."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ahh. Internet videos.

Why I love people and their hats.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Still looking for that special gift?

I'm sure that this will be appreciated by any man, woman, or child.

This is too funny

This is an excerpt from an evangelical Christian giving advice to parents to help them protect their kids from catching gayness:

Meanwhile, the boy's father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son's maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help his son learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.

That may be the most spectacular bit of unintentional humor I've ever seen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I was just scratching the perimeter, I swear.

I have come across some pretty interesting things while researching MRSA, but I had to share this:

Nose picking and nasal carriage of Staphylococcus aureus.
Wertheim HF, van Kleef M, Vos MC, Ott A, Verbrugh HA, Fokkens W.
Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. h.wertheim@erasmusmc.nl
OBJECTIVE: Nasal carriage of Staphylococcus aureus is an important risk factor for S. aureus infection and a reservoir for methicillin-resistant S. aureus. We investigated whether nose picking was among the determinants of S. aureus nasal carriage. SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS: The study cohort comprised 238 patients who visited the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) disease outpatient clinic of a tertiary care hospital and did not have a nose-specific complaint (defined as ENT patients) and 86 healthy hospital employees (including medical students and laboratory personnel). MEASUREMENTS: All participants completed a questionnaire on behavior regarding the nose and were screened for S. aureus nasal carriage; only ENT patients underwent nasal examination by an ear, nose, and throat physician for clinical signs of nose picking. RESULTS: Among ENT patients, nose pickers were significantly more likely than non-nose pickers to carry S. aureus (37 [53.6%] of 69 vs 60 [35.5%] of 169 patients; relative risk, 1.51 [95% confidence interval, 1.03-2.19]). Among healthy volunteers, there was a statistically significant positive correlation between the self-perceived frequency of nose picking and both the frequency of positive culture results (R=0.31; P=.004) and the load of S. aureus present in the nose (R=0.32; P=.003). CONCLUSION: Nose picking is associated with S. aureus nasal carriage. The role of nose picking in nasal carriage may well be causal in certain cases. Overcoming the habit of nose picking may aid S. aureus decolonization strategies.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More on planets

You may recall that I posted on the Pluto controversy. Now it turns out that astronomers apparently have no idea what's going on.

Over the past few years, astronomers have found several extrasolar objects that by weight would qualify as planets, yet they lack what would seem to be the most basic of planetary prerequisites—a parent star. Many of these free-floating orphans are surrounded by disks of dust and gas with enough mass to coalesce into their own miniature solar systems. One of the orphans, which some researchers call planemos, may even have a planetary-mass object orbiting it.

The discoveries are blurring the line between planets and stars—and may bring about a revolution in thinking about planets that goes far beyond the Pluto debate.

It's worth reading, if you're into that sort of thing (Nerd!). Here's my summary: It was once thought that stars formed when an interstellar cloud coalesced into a giant mass with enough gravity to cause nuclear fusion. Planets were smaller chunks that were spit out during this process and orbited the star. But we observe a few things that don't fit this model. We have some planets that don't appear to orbit a star, for example. Then, there are brown dwarfs. These massive bodies were big enough to cause fusion, but were not big enough to sustain it, so they are big dark objects. The weird part is that there appears to be no clear line between a massive planet (many times more massive than Jupiter), and a small brown dwarf.

Whole thing here.

Would it have picked Football in the Groin?

As if anyone needed more proof that movie producers are babbling imbeciles, some clown from Wharton has developed a computer program that picks profitable movies based solely on counting words and phrases in the script (actually, the spoiler).

To help studios and movie investors screen scripts, Eliashberg and his coworkers developed a new computer tool for forecasting the potential return on investment based only on the proposed storyline. For a given script, their tool applies natural language processing to extract key textual information and make a prediction.
Eliashberg and his coworkers didn't have access to movie shooting scripts in electronic form. To develop their script prediction tool, they instead worked with detailed, blow-by-blow movie summaries known as spoilers, written by viewers after they watch a movie. Each spoiler is about 4 to 20 pages long (see http://www.themoviespoiler.com/).

In the so-called bag-of-words model in natural language processing, a document is represented entirely by the words it contains and how many times each word appears, without regarding the order in which the words appear. Such a representation allowed Eliashberg and his coworkers to pick up the themes, scenes, and emotions in a script.

"For instance, the frequent appearance of words such as 'guns,' 'blood,' 'fight,' 'car crashes,' and 'police' may indicate that the script contains a crime story with action sequences," the researchers comment. "When this information is coupled with known box office receipts for the movies already made in the recent past, we would know if the movies of this type tend to sell well or not in theatres."


To test their model, the researchers used it to choose 30 movies from a set of 81, aiming for a superior investment package. The resulting portfolio had a total budget of $1,044.5 million and generated gross box office revenue of $1,996.8 million, giving the studios net revenue of $1,098.2 million (5.1 percent return on investment). In comparison, randomly selected portfolios of 30 movies had an average net loss of 18.6 percent. And portfolios that replicated a typical studio's slate returned –24.4 percent.

Whole thing here.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Democrats eager to "fix" prescription drug benefit?

At Reason, Katherine Mangu-Ward speculates on what the new congress will be up to. This part scares me:

3) "Fixing" the prescription drug benefit. When the Republicans passed Medicare part D, I—like many libertarians—despaired of the GOP. The only thing worse than a massive new entitlement ushered in by Republicans? A passel of aggressive Democrats promising to "fix it." By allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and permitting more importation of pre-price controlled drugs from Canada, Democrats will add another command-and-control component to our already monstrosity of a health care system.There's the old familiar song and dance about how if you decrease Big Pharma's prospective profits on new drugs, they will (reasonably) retaliate with less spending on research and development. According to the author of a new study from the Manhattan Institute: "Prices would be driven down by over 35 percent by 2025. The cumulative decline in drug R&D for 2007-2025 would be about $196 billion in year 2005 dollars, or $10.3 billion per year. Because R&D costs for new medicines are about $1 billion, the loss would be about 196 new drugs."But to really understand the havoc a Democratic "fix" could wreak, warily eyeball the Department of Veterans Affairs, which already negotiates for its drugs and has been cited by Democrats as a model for Medicare. At the VA, prices for drugs are very low. But one way that the VA keeps overall prices down is by making it tough to get new, expensive drugs. Their formulary includes about 1400 drugs, and they refuse to consider a drug for inclusion until it has been on the market for three years. Compare that with the 4,300 drugs currently listed at (the privately negotiated) Part D formularies. Right now, a third of VA seniors say they would rather be on Part D. If Dems have their way, at least these vets won't have to bother with the paperwork for switching.

And here's Johna Goldberg on the same issue:
Now that the Democrats have taken over Congress, they are promising to “fix” Medicare Part D by making it more government-run, more generous to better-off recipients, and much less profitable for those evil disease-curing drug companies. The hitch is that the current, supposedly disastrous plan costs much less than expected and seniors are overwhelmingly happy with it. Shocking, isn’t it? People like to get expensive stuff cheaper!Oh, and before I get grief about minimizing such a vital issue, let’s keep in mind that the greatest generation has a lot going for it, but a healthy aversion to statism isn’t one of them. In 2000, when the prescription-drug crisis was reaching a crescendo — Al Gore seemed to find old ladies who had to choose between pills and food everywhere he went — senior citizens were nonetheless the most insured Americans. All of them were entitled to Medicare, most had other insurance, and four out of five of them already had prescription-drug coverage by a third-party provider. Yes, some poor seniors needed help, but as a group, old people spent more of their money on entertainment (5.3 percent) than they did on drugs (3.2 percent). And yet the federal government refused to create a new entitlement to cheap Matlock DVDs.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What kind of American accent do you have?

Take this fun quiz. Mine is Philadelphia, yo.

Discussion with Skeptical Environmentalist

An excerpt from an interview with Bjorn Lomborg:
TCS: Do you think that there are times when policy choices can actually do more harm than good? Are there any past examples of environmental policy that should give us pause?
LOMBORG: The use of DDT is probably the best example of this and its use in the third world was badly mismanaged. DDT is not dangerous to humans, but it is dangerous to some animals. So if you're in a rich country where you have malaria under control, clearly you should ban DDT or severely restrict its use.
But our concern about DDT in the early 70s basically meant that most of the developing world restricted their use as well. That was probably an immensely bad judgement because yes, it harms animals like birds, but it also saves human lives. These actions undoubtedly led to many millions of lives lost. So that is one example of where we need to be very careful about what we do.
But I think we are doing a little bit the same thing with climate change discussions right now. We have spent so much time over the last 10 years trying to do something about climate change. We have a treaty that will essentially do nothing whatsoever about climate change and it will still end up costing us quite a bit. And you've got to ask yourself, couldn't we have spent that amount of time and effort and consideration on addressing some of the issues in the world where we could have done an enormous amount of good?
So if we stand back, as Al Gore asks us to do, and look at it from the coming generation's point of view, they are going to ask 'what were they thinking?' They tried to do a tiny little bit about climate change at a fairly high cost, but have done very little good, whereas there are many other problems that they could have tackled that would have left a much better world behind.

Whole thing here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Funny, I never would have guessed that

From the Daily Mail:

Women talk three times as much as men, says study

...women talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day - 13,000 more than the average man.
And, if that wasn't enough, the simple act of talking triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.
...the brain's "sex processor" - the areas responsible for sexual thoughts - is twice as big as in men than in women, perhaps explaining why men are stereotyped as having sex on the mind.