Friday, June 28

Every Sperm Is Sacred

Given this week's events, this seems appropriate for a Friday:

Thursday, June 27

The IRS "scandal" was a scam, coordinated by Republicans

Matt Gertz writes:
"Monday's revelation that progressive as well as conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status had been singled out for review by the Internal Revenue Service left one pressing question: Why did the inspector general's report detailing improper scrutiny only mention conservative groups?
"Last night we got the answer: The IG only reported on conservative groups because that's what Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the notoriously partisan chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told him to do."
The IRS "Scandal" Was A Scam (Media Matters)

Wednesday, June 26

Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act

Majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy:
"DOMA's principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their state, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state."
Supreme Court Bolsters Gay Marriage With Two Major Rulings

Tuesday, June 25

"[Snowden] had a belief that what he was exposed to—U.S. actions in secret—were violating human rights and privacy on a very, very large scale."

John Cassidy in the New Yorker:
"To get a different perspective on Snowden and his disclosures, here's a portion of an interview that ABC—the Australian Broadcasting Company, not the Disney subsidiary—did today with Thomas Drake, another former N.S.A. employee, who, in 2010, was charged with espionage for revealing details about an electronic-eavesdropping project called Trailblazer, a precursor to Operation Prism, one of the programs that Snowden documented. (The felony cases against Drake, as my colleague Jane Mayer has written, eventually collapsed, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.)
"INTERVIEWER: Not everybody thinks Edward Snowden did the right thing. I presume you do…
"DRAKE: I consider Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower. I know some have called him a hero, some have called him a traitor. I focus on what he disclosed. I don't focus on him as a person. He had a belief that what he was exposed to—U.S. actions in secret—were violating human rights and privacy on a very, very large scale, far beyond anything that had been admitted to date by the government. In the public interest, he made that available.
"INTERVIEWER: What do you say to the argument, advanced by those with the opposite viewpoint to you, especially in the U.S. Congress and the White House, that Edward Snowden is a traitor who made a narcissistic decision that he personally had a right to decide what public information should be in the public domain?
"DRAKE: That's a government meme, a government cover—that's a government story. The government is desperate to not deal with the actual exposures, the content of the disclosures. Because they do reveal a vast, systemic, institutionalized, industrial-scale Leviathan surveillance state that has clearly gone far beyond the original mandate to deal with terrorism—far beyond."
Demonizing Edward Snowden: Which Side Are You On?

Friday, June 21

How Many Laws Did You Break Today?

I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
If someone tracked you for a year are you confident that they would find no evidence of a crime? Remember, under the common law, mens rea, criminal intent, was a standard requirement for criminal prosecution but today that is typically no longer the case especially under federal criminal law.
The proliferation of laws and the rise of the surveillance state have made everyone a potential convict.

Thursday, June 20

The U.S. seems to be taking another step toward merging state and corporate power (i.e., Fascism)

Representative Alan Grayson comments on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national trade agreement that is currently being negotiated in secret by the United States and eleven other countries:
"The TPP is nicknamed 'NAFTA on steroids.'  Now that I've read it, I can see why. I can't tell you what's in the agreement, because the U.S. Trade Representative calls it classified. But I can tell you two things about it.
1)    There is no national security purpose in keeping this text secret.
2)    This agreement hands the sovereignty of our country over to corporate interests.
3)    What they can't afford to tell the American public is that [the rest of this sentence is classified]." …
"It is ironic in a way that the government thinks it's alright to have a record of every single call that an American makes, but not alright for an American citizen to know what sovereign powers the government is negotiating away."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has this to say about the TPP:
"TPP raises significant concerns about citizens' freedom of expression, due process, innovation, the future of the Internet's global infrastructure, and the right of sovereign nations to develop policies and laws that best meet their domestic priorities. In sum, the TPP puts at risk some of the most fundamental rights that enable access to knowledge for the world's citizens."
First Congress Member Allowed to Read Secret Treaty Says "There Is No National Security Purpose In Keeping This Text Secret … This Agreement Hands The Sovereignty of Our Country Over to Corporate Interests"

Wednesday, June 19

A relinquishment of privacy not even George Orwell imagined

Peter Marks:
"The NSA leak reminds us - even as Google, Apple and Facebook protest their innocence - that surveillance today is integrated with commerce, something Orwell did not foresee. Again, many of us now know this, and many more are complicit, happily providing personal information in order to purchase over the web or connect to cyber communities.
"Our unpaid labour makes billions of dollars for many of these companies, and our credit card purchases supply information for many others, invaluable in planning, advertising and product development. Orwell has nothing specific to say on these matters. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's bluff assertion that privacy is no longer a social norm might usefully be judged against Nineteen Eighty-Four, where party members have no privacy. The novel supplies a means of thinking critically about what privacy means now and how or whether it will survive in the future."
Not even George Orwell envisaged this

Blinded by Good Intentions

Intriguing research on the cognitive biases and harmful effects of those convinced of the good of their own intentions.

Barbara Oakley describes "pathological altruism" - defined as "as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable."
...those possessing altruism bias would be most strongly biased to object to the very concept of altruism bias. Research has shown the near impossibility of reaching biased individuals using rational approaches, no matter their level of education or intelligence; such attempts can be likened to squaring the circle.
Many ancients understood this - the 'negative' version of the Golden Rule avoids the intervention bias of the positive one: "What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others." – Epictetus

Blog post on the research here. Paper here.

Tuesday, June 18

Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself

Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times:
"Global cities are turning into vast gated communities where the one per cent reproduces itself. Elite members don’t live there for their jobs. They work virtually anyway. Rather, global cities are where they network with each other, and put their kids through their country’s best schools." …
"All through history, bright young people migrated to metropolises…To buy in these cities now, you must either earn a fortune or inherit a house there – and often the same people do both. Outsiders who reach the city late rarely have the education and contacts to succeed."
Priced out of Paris

"All students should master a verifiable set of skills, but not necessarily the same skills."

The second concern is justifying the Common Core on the highly dubious notion that college and career skills are the same. On its face, the idea is absurd. After all, do chefs, policemen, welders, hotel managers, professional baseball players and health technicians all require college skills for their careers? Do college students all require learning occupational skills in a wide array of careers? In making the "same skills" claim, proponents are really saying that college skills are necessary for all careers and not that large numbers of career skills are necessary for college.

How did this "same skills" idea emerge?
What is the value of what is taught in college? Who needs to learn what? When you spend your own $, you need to ask these questions of yourself and your school. When one is spending other people's money (taxes into student aid), one is also obliged to ask these questions without mercy.

Edit/Follow up -
A recent NY District Court ruling on unpaid internships prompts the clever post headline:
Paying to Learn Nothing = Legal
Paying Nothing to Learn = Illegal

(Short article and links to related)

Monday, June 17

The brutal truth: Most companies do their best to underpay qualified applicants

"There is a durable belief that much of today’s unemployment is rooted in a skills gap, in which good jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. This is mostly a corporate fiction, based in part on self-interest and a misreading of government data. … The biggest problem in the labor market is not a skills shortage; rather, it is a persistently weak economy where businesses do not have sufficient demand to justify adding employees." …
"Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School, has noted sharply different opinions between corporate executives, who typically say that schools are failing to give workers the skills they need, and the people who actually do the hiring, who say the real obstacles are traditional ones like lack of on-the-job experience. In addition, when there are many more applicants than jobs, employers tend to impose overexacting criteria and then wait for the perfect match. They also offer tightfisted pay packages. What employers describe as talent shortages are often failures to agree on salary. … If a business really needed workers, it would pay up."
Don’t Blame the Work Force (NYT)

Work, Schooling

"It's true that having a college diploma is still much better than not having a college diploma, but that doesn't mean that by sending more kids to school, we're actually making the workforce more productive, much less mitigating the problem of economic change; we may just be forcing people to jump over a higher bar to gain access to a shrinking number of jobs."
When Work Disappears

Education Schooling policy debate needs to grapple with signaling theory and the evidence of waste. The loss of work trend described in the quote/link above may or may not indicate permanent changes.

Friday, June 14

"Man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal…"

"…biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal—a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs" … "If human beings were in fact the members of a truly social species…then, obviously, there would be no need for liberty and the State would be justified in persecuting the heretics who demanded it."
From Brave New World Revisted by Aldous Huxley

Thursday, June 13

"Is that really the country we want to be?"

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT):
"Intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities need strong and effective tools to combat terrorism. But it is my very strong opinion that we can do that without living in an Orwellian world where the government and private corporations know every telephone call that we make, every website we visit, everyplace we go. Is that really the country we want to be?"
"An Orwellian World"

Wednesday, June 12

Students are reading less complex texts in school

Reading has become more 'accessible', but less intellectually challenging:
"Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level. … 'The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read,' Stickney says, 'has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.'"
What Kids Are Reading, In School And Out (NPR)

Monday, June 10

We need whistle-blowers

Bruce Schneier writes:
"The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.
"Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal -- or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law -- but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we're living in a police state.
"We need whistle-blowers."
Government Secrets and the Need for Whistle-blowers

Friday, June 7

Facepalm Friday: Conservatives don't like environmentally-friendly lightbulbs

A study conducted by Wharton and Duke University surveyed people on whether energy-efficient products were split along a political divide:
"'Our results demonstrated that a choice that wasn't ideologically polarizing without a ('protect the environment') label became polarizing when we included that environmental labeling,' Gromet said. 'We saw a significant drop-off in conservative people choosing to buy a more expensive, energy-efficient option.'"
Pro-Environment Light Bulb Labeling Turns Off Conservatives, Study Finds (National Geographic)

Thursday, June 6

The U.S. government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans

Is everyone too worried about the state of the economy to be concerned about privacy loss and government surveillance, even of this magnitude?
"…for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
"The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.
"Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered." …
"Julian Sanchez, a surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, explained: 'We've certainly seen the government increasingly strain the bounds of 'relevance' to collect large numbers of records at once — everyone at one or two degrees of separation from a target — but vacuuming all metadata up indiscriminately would be an extraordinary repudiation of any pretence of constraint or particularized suspicion.' The April order requested by the FBI and NSA does precisely that."
NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily (The Guardian)

Wednesday, June 5

Religion takes another victim

Freedom of religion should not extend to harmful religious actions. You can martyr yourself, but not your child.
"Two Philadelphia faith-healing churches have a long history of the youngest members of their congregation dying because parents refused medical care.
"Families who attend Faith Tabernacle Congregation in North Philadelphia and First Century Gospel Church in Juniata Park have lost more than two dozen children to illness since 1971, according to non-profit Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD, Inc.). Both churches believe in the power of prayer over modern medicine.
"The Schaibles are one of those families.
"Herbert and Catherine Schaible stand charged with third-degree murder and other crimes after their 7-month-old son Brandon died from bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and a group B streptococcus infection on April 18.
"Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says the boy's death could have been prevented, but the couple instead turned to prayer.
"This is the second time the couple lost a child to illness. They were sentenced to 10 years probation after the 2009 death of their 2-year-old son Kent. Kent died after contracting pneumonia, an illness prosecutors said could have been prevented with basic medical care."
Faith-Healing Churches Linked to 2 Dozen Child Deaths

Tuesday, June 4

On morality, dominance and ignorance

Those that would impose their own personal view of morality on others depend on a general population that is trapped in ignorance…that knows no better. I am thankful that we live in an age of democratization of information—that any individual who wishes to can lift themselves out of the fog.

Monday, June 3

Proposed Noah's Ark theme park in Kentucky, eligible for tax incentives, wants to show the biblical Flood was plausible

Really, Kentucky? Tax incentives for a religious theme park?
"We're basically presenting what the Bible has to say and showing how plausible it was," said Patrick Marsh, design director for the park, which will feature a 500-foot-long wooden ark and other Old Testament attractions, including a Tower of Babel and a "Ten Plagues" ride. "This was a real piece of history - not just a story, not just a legend."
The project is currently in the design phase. Not enough private donations have come in to start construction, and building permits will not be ready until November, according to Ark Encounter co-founder and Senior Vice President Michael Zovath.
The project has $12.3 million in hand and $12.7 million more in committed donations; it needs $23 million more to start building the ark alone. Zovath does not know when that will happen.
Like Noah before the Flood, the builders are in a bit of a time crunch, since Kentucky tourism tax incentives for the project are set to expire in May 2014.
The longer it takes to start building the $150 million park, originally planned to open in spring 2014, the less the project stands to gain from the rebates, which allow it to receive up to 25 percent of project costs over 10 years from sales taxes generated by the business. ...
Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the planned park promotes "junk science."
"You don't pay for the ministry of people out of the taxpayer's collected dollars," said Lynn, who said his group will consider a lawsuit if the tax breaks for the ark ever kick in.
Noah's Ark theme park wants to show the Flood was "plausible"