Friday, May 20, 2011

Dennis A. Henigan: Tough on Terror? Only If It's OK With the Gun Lobby

Last week, the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a loud and clear message that pandering to gun lobby insanity is far more important to them than national security. A political gift is now dangling in front of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats. Will they grab it?

The vote occurred during Judiciary Committee consideration of legislation to extend the Patriot Act. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) offered an amendment to give the Attorney General the authority to deny the sale of firearms by licensed dealers to known or suspected terrorists. Most Americans are surprised to learn that being a known or suspected terrorist will prevent you from getting on an airplane, but not from buying guns or explosives. Indeed, according to the General Accounting Office, since 2004, over 1,300 individuals on the terrorist watch lists have been allowed to purchase firearms or explosives.

As a matter of policy, this "terror gap" in our gun laws is intolerable. The American public agrees. A recent survey shows that 88 percent of registered voters, and an identical percentage of gun owners, want to "prohibit people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns." An earlier survey by Republican pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz showed that 82 percent of self-acknowledged National Rifle Association members agree.

The NRA's leadership, though, is adamantly opposed to closing the "terror gap," and the gun lobby's shadow loomed large over the Judiciary Committee vote. On the day after two suspected terrorists seeking to buy guns and explosives were arrested in New York City, the Quigley Amendment was defeated, in a straight party-line vote of 21-11. The 21 Republicans were unanimous in voting to allow known terrorists to buy as many guns as they want, even though the idea to give the Attorney General additional authority to block gun sales to terrorists originated with the Bush administration.

How can any politician pretend to be serious about protecting the nation from terrorism, while voting to allow known terrorists to buy guns, including assault weapons? Osama bin Laden is dead, but the war on terror is far from over. The threat of retaliation for bin Laden's death must be taken seriously. There also is evidence that al Qaeda's new tactical emphasis is on small-scale urban attacks with guns and explosives.

Attorney General Holder has said that the raid on bin Laden's compound is yielding intelligence that likely will add more names to the terrorist watch lists. Nevertheless, the 21 Judiciary Committee Republicans apparently have no problem allowing those individuals to buy guns and explosives. It all amounts to being "tough on terror" only if it's OK with the gun lobby.

It is one thing to pander to an intimidating special interest lobby; it is quite another to compromise national security by doing so. That the Judiciary Republicans were willing to march in lockstep to allow obeisance to the gun lobby to trump the war on terror is a political gift to the Democrats that will keep on giving, if only the Democrats will seize the issue. But will they? For too long, too many in the Democratic Party leadership have been frozen into inaction on the gun issue by their own exaggerated fear of NRA reprisal.

Only recently has the Obama administration started to publicly address the continuing tragedy of American gun violence. In the wake of the horrific Tucson shooting, as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) courageously struggles to recover from the head wound she suffered in that shooting, there is renewed hope that Democratic leaders will begin to embrace common sense reforms and that there will be at least some in the Republican Party willing to stand up to the NRA.

The lesson of the Quigley Amendment vote is that Congressional Republicans are quite willing to follow the NRA off a political cliff. The question is: Will the Democrats offer them a safety net?

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)

First responders had to put up with being investigated for terrorist ties before they could get special aid for the cancers and other injuries they received while responding to the 9/11 attacks. Suspected terrorists are prohibited from getting on planes. But if they want to buy guns or explosives? No problem!?

The Poor Quality of an Undergraduate Education

We would be happy to join in the celebrations if it weren’t for our recent research, which raises doubts about the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States. Over four years, we followed the progress of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities. We found that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.

In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?

While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.

The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges. The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.

Federal legislation has facilitated this shift. The funds from Pell Grants and subsidized loans, by being assigned to students to spend on academic institutions they have chosen rather than being packaged as institutional grants for colleges to dispense, have empowered students — for good but also for ill. And expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.

Fortunately, there are some relatively simple, practical steps that colleges and universities could take to address the problem. Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades. (Indeed, the 36 percent of students in our study who reported spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone still had an average G.P.A. of 3.16.) On those commendable occasions when professors and academic departments do maintain rigor, they risk declines in student enrollments. And since resources are typically distributed based on enrollments, rigorous classes are likely to be canceled and rigorous programs shrunk. Distributing resources and rewards based on student learning instead of student satisfaction would help stop this race to the bottom.

Others involved in education can help, too. College trustees, instead of worrying primarily about institutional rankings and fiscal concerns, could hold administrators accountable for assessing and improving learning. Alumni as well as parents and students on college tours could ignore institutional facades and focus on educational substance. And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education.

Most of all, we hope that during this commencement season, our faculty colleagues will pause to consider the state of undergraduate learning and our collective responsibility to increase academic rigor on our campuses.

Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, are the authors of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”

And, of course, the cuts just keep on coming. Until people like Bill Gates work as much a portion of the year as people like me to pay their taxes (sometime around April these days), we will have short falls and crises. Taxes should be progressive, not regressive, as those who build wealth off the system (and reap the benefits of worker productivity) should share the burdens of keeping the nation safe and prosperous for all. That's my opinion, and I think it hold merit. It's not socialism, it's social responsibility!

The Twitter Trap

I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I edit a newspaper that has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto. I get that the Web reaches and engages a vast, global audience, that it invites participation and facilitates — up to a point — newsgathering. But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.

Joshua Foer’s engrossing best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls one colossal example of what we trade for progress. Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” But Foer’s book reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices.”

Foer read that Apple had hired a leading expert in heads-up display — the transparent dashboards used by pilots. He wonders whether this means that Apple is developing an iPhone that would not require the use of fingers on keyboards. Ultimately, Foer imagines, the commands would come straight from your cerebral cortex. (Apple refused to comment.)

“This is the story of the next half-century,” Foer told me, “as we become effectively cyborgs.”

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

I realize I am inviting blowback from passionate Tweeters, from aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty and from colleagues at The Times who are refining a social-media strategy to expand the reach of our journalism. So let me be clear that Twitter is a brilliant device — a megaphone for promotion, a seine for information, a helpful organizing tool for everything from dog-lover meet-ups to revolutions. It restores serendipity to the flow of information. Though I am not much of a Tweeter and pay little attention to my Facebook account, I love to see something I’ve written neatly bitly’d and shared around the Twittersphere, even when I know — now, for instance — that the verdict of the crowd will be hostile.

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

There is a growing library of credible digital Cassandras who have explored what new media are doing to our brains (Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, William Powers, et al.). My own anxiety is less about the cerebrum than about the soul, and is best summed up not by a neuroscientist but by a novelist. In Meg Wolitzer’s charming new tale, “The Uncoupling,” there is a wistful passage about the high-school cohort my daughter is about to join.

Wolitzer describes them this way: “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times.

HT to Sabine Hassenfelder, my fav physicist/philosopher for the link.

Women at I.M.F. Find Themselves Vulnerable

Some women avoid wearing skirts for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Others trade whispered tips about overly forward bosses. A 2008 internal review found few restraints on the conduct of senior managers, concluding that “the absence of public ethics scandals seems to be more a consequence of luck than good planning and action.”

This is life at the International Monetary Fund, the lender of last resort for governments that need money and, under the leadership of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an emerging force in the regulation of the global economy.

But with Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest earlier this week and indictment on Thursday on charges that he tried to rape a New York hotel housekeeper, a spotlight has been cast on the culture of the institution. And questions have been revived about a 2008 episode in which the I.M.F. decided that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had not broken any rules in sleeping with a female employee.

What may draw even more attention to the culture of the fund is the revelation of an affair involving a potential successor to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who resigned as managing director on Wednesday. Kemal Dervis of Turkey had a liaison while working at the World Bank years ago with a woman who now works at the I.M.F., according to a person with direct knowledge of the relationship.

Interviews and documents paint a picture of the fund as an institution whose sexual norms and customs are markedly different from those of Washington, leaving its female employees vulnerable to harassment. The laws of the United States do not apply inside its walls, and until earlier this month the I.M.F.’s own rules contained an unusual provision that some experts and former officials say has encouraged managers to pursue the women who work for them: “Intimate personal relationships between supervisors and subordinates do not, in themselves, constitute harassment.”

“It’s sort of like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’; the rules are more like guidelines,” said Carmen M. Reinhart, a prominent female economist who served as the I.M.F.’s deputy director for research from 2001 to 2003. “That sets the stage, I think, for more risk-taking.”

In 2007, officials at the fund declined to investigate a complaint by an administrative assistant who had slept with her supervisor, and who charged that he had given her poor performance reviews to pressure her to continue the relationship. Officials told the woman that the supervisor planned to retire soon, and therefore there was no point in investigating the charges, according to findings by the I.M.F.’s internal court.

The official, who is not named in the records, told investigators that he also had a sexual relationship with a second employee, and that he did not believe he had acted improperly.

In another case, a young woman who has since left the I.M.F. said that in 2009, a senior manager in her department started sending her increasingly explicit e-mails seeking a relationship. She complained to her boss, who did not take any action.

“They said they took it seriously, but two minutes later they were turning around and acting like everything was O.K. to the person who had done it to me,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she still works in the international development community. “He wasn’t punished. Not at all.”

Virginia R. Canter, who joined the I.M.F. last year with responsibility for investigating harassment claims, said the institution recently took a series of strong steps to protect employees. A new code of conduct adopted on May 6 specifies that intimate relationships with subordinates “are likely to result in conflicts of interest” and must be disclosed to the proper authorities.

DSK is a pig and yet one of the more progressive chiefs the IMF has seen since its inception. What are the chances of getting just as big a pig and a more regressive, less helpful chief in the turnover? Are there ANY progressive, humanistic, decent bankers in the world? ANY?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Republicans Filibuster Goodwin Liu

Republicans Filibuster Goodwin Liu

by Anne Laurie

Because, in the Republican playbook, judicial filibusters are unspeakably anti-American, unless of course it’s a Democratic nominee they’re blocking:

President Barack Obama lost his first vote on a judicial nominee Thursday, as Senate Republicans derailed the nomination of a liberal professor who leveled acerbic attacks against two conservative Supreme Court nominees — both now justices.

Democrats fell short of the 60 votes they need to end a filibuster and give Goodwin Liu an up-or-down vote on his nomination to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu, a 40-year-old legal scholar at the University of California’s Berkeley law school, could someday be a dream Supreme Court nominee for liberals…

To most Democrats and liberal backers, Liu is the type of nominee they want for a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. He supports liberal social issues such as gay marriage and affirmative action. He was given a top rating of unanimously well-qualified by the American Bar Association. He was a Rhodes Scholar and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He received numerous awards for academic and legal achievements, including the highest teaching award at his law school.

To most Republicans and conservative allies, he’s a judicial activist who made insulting remarks about the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts, now the chief justice, and Samuel Alito.

Two senators favoring a continued filibuster were Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Both were part of a group of 14 senators who previously pledged not to filibuster judicial nominees except under extraordinary circumstances.

‘Extraordinary circumstances’ such as ‘failing to be Republican’, that is. Adam Serwer at The Plum Line explains why this is more important than McCain’s ever-touchy dignity or Graham’s wounded feelings:

Liu’s confirmation battle is a symptom of a much larger problem — the GOP’s success in blocking Obama’s judicial nominations. There are 110 vacancies on the federal bench, a vacuum that leaves the judiciary ideologically skewed to the right.

The lack of Democratic appointees has allowed a more conservative federal bench to interpret the law in ways that drastically affect Americans’ daily lives. Only 133 of Obama’s nominees have been confirmed, far fewer than George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. The administration itself has also failed to put forth enough nominees, and hasn’t fought very hard for those they have.

Despite their claims, social liberalism isn’t the big reason Republicans oppose his nomination. Liu is recognized by conservatives as uniquely bright, to the point of winning plaudits from conservative attorneys like torture memo author John Yoo and former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr.

The real reason Republicans are trying to block Liu is this: Because of his youth (he’s 39), intelligence and outlook, he’d be a tempting choice the next time a spot opens up on the Supreme Court. A Liu pick would delight Obama’s liberal base and — depending on who he replaced — potentially move a conservative dominated, corporate friendly court to the left for the first time in generations.

But Liu has to make it to the federal bench first.

May 19, 2011 10:53 pm Posted in: Assholes, Lindsey Graham's Fee Fees, Republican Venality  47 Comments

The Right has been moving the court further to the extreme for 40 years. They don't want to see that regress be reversed by progressive judicial nominees. SCOTUS has been so cozy with the mega-corporations lately that the 1st Amendment has been given nearly exclusively to the rich and powerful only. Other parts of the Constitution have been bent or broken in service to the Corporate overlords again and again. If there is ever a need for a massive protest in Washington, I think SCOTUS is the preferred target of the people's outrage at this point. Yet the court seems to act with impunity and under the radar of the MSM all too often.

More Bad News For The Depressed


I can relate!

Coffee now doubleplusgood! Also, it prevents cancer. [Food Science]


Lowers chance of breast and prostate cancer -- yay! Probably kills you some other way, but who wants to live forever, right?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Watchdog: Nuclear Regulators' Action on Safety Issues Is Too Slow, Not Well-Tracked



As the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan continues to unfold, POGO, like many others, is concerned about the effectiveness of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) oversight of nuclear power here. The NRC's internal watchdog, the NRC Office of Inspector General (OIG), has questioned the aggressiveness of the NRC’s oversight as well. Case in point: an FY 2009 NRC OIG investigation close-out memo on the “Adequacy of [NRC] Staff’s Handling of Generic Safety Issues” that POGO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The OIG looked into this matter because the “lengthy review process caused the OIG to question the effectiveness of” the NRC’s system for managing generic safety issues.

The NRC’s “generic safety issues” are safety problems that the NRC has identified as applicable to a wide-range of nuclear power plants. According to the memo:

generic issues are potential safety concerns involving the design, construction, operation, or decommissioning applicable to several, or a class of, NRC licensees, certificate holders, or other entities regulated by or subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of NRC.

The OIG found that the NRC’s Generic Issues Program, which is used by NRC to analyze and recommend solutions related to generic safety issues, “does not clearly assign ownership for each issue to a particular NRC office and is not transparent to NRC senior management or the Commission.” Also, the safety issues were not always “well-tracked.”

Why is it always like pulling teeth when it comes to public safety issues? Well, because the "public" has lost all representation in the "republic" due to the fascistic takeover of government by the ultra-rich and the mega-corporations. Unless we move quickly and decisively to avert the control of government here by the richest few and their lobbyist armies, democracy as we have known it in the U.S. is over. It may already be too late.

Secret Stealth Drones Spied on Bin Laden Months before Kill Mission [Drones]


I guess it's no surprise we have (and use) these. *sigh*


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