The War on New Year

We heard less nonsense about The War on Christmas this year but now, via Pharyngula, we have a tongue in cheek protest against The War on New Year from James F. McGrath, an associate professor of religion:

Apparently the forces of darkness are mounting an attack, this time on the Christian holiday of New Year’s Day, which commemorates and worshipfully celebrates the anniversary of the day on which a Romanian monk miscalculated the year in which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born. In addition to the anticalendricals, it seems that the Chinese, Jews, and Muslims are all opting out and deciding to celebrate other days as their new year. More recently the ranks of these heathen have apparently been joined by the ancient Babylonians. Worse still, countless American companies are yielding to the pressure from these groups, and instructing them to wish people “Happy New Years Day” rather than “Happy New Year’s Day”.

Truly committed Christians should be listening carefully for the lack of apostrophe and boycott any stores that prove to be committed to this heretical anapostrophism.

Fight the good fight. Make sure that you drink too much champagne on December 31st as midnight approaches, and not on one of the days celebrated by the heathen. Too much is at stake. Imagine the confusion if we had such crowds and brightly lit orbs descending upon Times Square all throughout the year.

Is this what happened to the religious blogosphere when Indiana, where the author is located, turned into a blue state this year? Next they’ll question taking the Bible literally.

What Gonzales Did Which Was Fundamentally Wrong

If the members of the Bush administration which acted immorally while in office had any understanding of the difference between right and wrong they hopefully would not have conducted themselves as they did in office. Therefore it comes as no surprise that some of them fail to understand why their actions are receiving criticism. The Wall Street Journal quotes Alberto Gonzales as asking during an interview, “”What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?” At least he didn’t claim he was just following orders.

Think Progress summarizes some of the major things which Gonzales did which were wrong:

Politicized the DOJ: – Gonzales approved the firing and hiring of federal prosecutors for political reasons and lied to Congress about the scandal.

Approved torture: In 2002, Gonzales “raised no objections and, without consulting military and State Department experts in the laws of torture and war,” approved an infamous August 2002 memo giving CIA interrogators “legal blessings.” Gonzales witnessed an interrogation at Gitmo in 2002 and approved of “whatever needs to be done” to detainees.

Lied about warrantless wiretapping: Gonzaled lied to Congress multiple times about the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program, saying there wasn’t “any serious disagreement” about the program (there was).

Distorted pre-war intelligence: Last month, the House Oversight Committee revealed evidence showing that Gonzales lied to Congress in 2004 by claiming that the CIA “orally” approved Bush’s claim that Iraq sought uranium from Africa.

Steve Benen points out this review of Gonzales’ actions as Attorney General written for The Washington Post  by Andrew Cohen, the editor and chief legal analyst for CBS News:

When historians look back upon the disastrous tenure of Alberto R. Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States they will ask not only why he merited the job in the first place but why he lasted in it as long as he did. By any reasonable standard, the Gonzales Era at the Justice Department is void of almost all redemptive qualities. He brought shame and disgrace to the Department because of his lack of independent judgment on some of the most vital legal issues of our time. And he brought chaos and confusion to the department because of his lack of respectable leadership over a cabinet-level department among the most important in the nation.

He neither served the longstanding role as “the people’s attorney” nor fully met and tamed his duties and responsibilities to the Constitution. He was a man who got the job not because he was supremely qualified or notably well-respected among the leading legal lights of our time, but because he had faithfully and with blind obedience served President George W. Bush for years in Texas (where he botched clemency memos in death penalty cases) and then as White House counsel (where he botched the nation’s legal policy on torture).

For an administration known for its cronyism, and alas for an alarmingly incompetent group of cronies, Gonzales was the granddaddy of them all. He lacked the integrity, the intellect and the independence to perform his duties in a manner befitting the job for which he was chosen. And when he and his colleagues got caught in the act, his rationales and explanations for the purge of the U.S. Attorneys were so empty and shallow and incoherent that even the staunchest Republicans could not turn them into steeled spin. Devoid of any credibility, Gonzales in the end was a sad joke when he came to Capitol Hill.

Even before the Justice Department was exposed under his reign as a politicized den of ideology, Gonzales’ work as Attorney General was unacceptable and unworthy of high office. He defended the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program even though many conservative and liberal legal scholars alike considered it to be a violation of the law. He endorsed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which did away with important rights not just for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay but for legal aliens within the borders of the United States. Thus did Gonzales fail to exercise any sort of independent check and balance upon the White House’s most controversial legal policies.

Meanwhile, according to the National Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, big-city murder rates have risen by 10 percent over the past two years — a period that coincides precisely with Gonzales’ time as attorney general. The Federal Bureau of Investigation puts the violent crime increase at 3.7% for January-June 2006 and drug use (and production and sales) apparently are on the rise in the nation’s heartland. And the Justice Department’s record of terror-related prosecutions is a mixed one at best. Thus did Gonzales fail to succeed at the most fundamental task of chief law enforcement official — to make crime less not more prevalent.

And all the while, Gonzales’ Justice Department was crumbling from within, devastated by a cynical strategy of minimizing the role of career nonpartisan professionals within the Department in favor of young ideologues, mediocre attorneys and just plain party hacks. The U.S. Attorney scandal is just the most publicized example of this daring effort to make the Justice Department a house organ for the Bush administration. Less visible career attorneys were pushed out at the expense of rank partisans willing to toe the company line. Even the internship programs for law students were schooled to favor “right” thinking attorneys at the expense of others. One law school, founded by Pat Robertson and rated among the worst in the nation, became a feeder school for the Department. And it was all part of a plan.

UK Plans Database of Everyone’s Email and Internet Use

I’ve previously written about the plans for increased surveillance in Great Britian  here and here, and this morning new plans were reported in The Guardian. They report that, “The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone’s calls, emails, texts and internet use.” This sounds like the modern equivalent of Orwell’s warnings of televisions which watch everyone.

There have also been objections raised to this plan:

…Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, who has firsthand experience of working with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, told the Guardian such assurances would prove worthless in the long run and warned it would prove a “hellhouse” of personal private information.

“Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything,” said Macdonald. “All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen.”

Macdonald’s objections are quoted again later in the report:

“The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people.”

The Dominance of Blu-Ray: A Non-Story of 2008

After Blu-ray won the format war against HD DVD some felt that Blu-ray would finally start to take off in sales. This is one expected story of 2008 which did not occur.  Engadget points out an article at Content Agenda on what Blu-ray needs to do.

As they point out, Blu-ray has a better picture, which most will notice, and better sound, which far fewer will appreciate, compared to conventional DVD’s. While it is an improvement, the improvement is incremental and does not represent the tremendous difference seen when we moved from VHS to DVD. Blu-ray also faces  competition from new technologies such as streaming video which were not a factor when DVD first developed its market share. Another problem faced by Blu-ray is that much of the programing is not available in high definition, limiting the material which is available which justifies the move to a different player.

The gap between conventional DVD and Blu-ray is even less now that upscaling DVD players are being sold for less than $100. Such players still do not have as good a picture as Blu-ray, but the gap is even less. Blu-ray looks better, but not enough for many people to pay the extra cost. The articles linked above recommend lowering the price of Blu-ray discs to that of DVD’s. While this would help to get people to make the conversion, lower  prices alone  would not solve the problem which led me to hold off on going to Blu-ray.

One issue which I have rarely seen mentioned, but which has led me to postpone the move to Blu-ray, is viewing in different rooms. If I am watching n my main media room with the fifty inch television I can certainly see a major difference and would prefer the higher definition of Blu-ray. However I also have smaller HD televisions in three other rooms and on those sets the difference over upscaled DVD is not as significant. If I buy Blu-ray discs then I lose the option to watch them in any of the other rooms, as well as on a lap top or other computer. For now, if I really want to see a movie in high definition I’ll watch it on HD cable instead of DVD.

Blu-ray players have come down in price enough where I’d be willing to buy one for the main media room, but I’m less eager to replace the DVD players in every other room. Some day all my computers might be replaced by newer models with Blu-ray players, but that is at least a few years off.

My suggestion, besides lowering the cost of Blu-ray movies, would be to bundle a conventional DVD with a Blu-ray disc. This way I could still watch the movie in any room I choose, regardless of which type of player is present. The material costs for a DVD are very inexpensive. If they are concerned that the extra DVD will be given away or sold to others, reducing potential sales, another possibility is to have a single disc with each format present. Actually I recently heard that this is being developed but it will only help if the release of combo discs becomes a wide spread practice rather than being limited to certain shows, and if the price is not much more than buying a DVD.

Al Franken Leads in Minnesota Senate Race

Back in 2000 Al Gore found out the hard way that he was fighting an uphill battle when George Bush was considered the unofficial winner and Gore had to play the role of challenger. Al Franken initially appeared to be in a similar situation in Minnesota but he ultimately managed to take a lead. While there is still fighting over absentee ballots, and other legal battles sound likely, Franken now has a lead of fifty votes.

A Condensed History Of The Failings Of The Bush Administration

Vanity Fair has accumulated a number of interviews, primarily from those in the Bush administration, to provide a look back at the last eight years. Following is a handful of selections from their article which help demonstrate the incompetence of the Bush administration and how they often allowed ideology to prevent them from facing reality.

A major problem with George Bush was his lack of intellectual curiosity.

Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser: We had a couple of meetings with the president, and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed—I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there—didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying—sort of overly trying—to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.

The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader—well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?

This, along with many others who have described Bush in a similar manner, certainly contradicts the difficult to believe spin from Karl Rove regarding the number of books Bush has read.

Beyond Bush’s personal failings, I believe three events were most important in destroying the credibility of the Bush administration: 1) the questionable manner in which he took office, the mishandling of 9/11 and Iraq, and 3) the final blow was the mishandling of Katrina. A comment on the first.

Mark McKinnon, chief campaign media adviser to George W. Bush: My view is that civility was a heartfelt, well-intended objective that went right off the rails the day of the recount. The recount poisoned the well from the beginning. A good number of people in this country didn’t believe Bush was a legitimate president. And you can’t change the tone under those circumstances. There was a genuine effort, and I think there was some early success with Ted Kennedy and the education stuff. But it was acrimonious from the beginning.

There were many failings noted regarding the handling of terrorism, including mistakes which prevented the Bush administration from capturing or killing bin Laden.

Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser: We went into a period in June where the tempo of intelligence about an impending large-scale attack went up a lot, to the kind of cycle that we’d only seen once or twice before. And we told Condi that. She didn’t do anything. She said, Well, make sure you’re coordinating with the agencies, which, of course, I was doing. By August, I was saying to Condi and to the agencies that the intelligence isn’t coming in at such a rapid rate anymore as it was in the June-July time frame. But that doesn’t mean the attack isn’t going to happen. It just means that they may be in place.

On September 4, we had a principals meeting. The most telling thing for me about the attitude of these people was on the decision that had been pending for a long time to resume Predator [remote-controlled drone] flights over Afghanistan, and to now do what we couldn’t have done in the Clinton administration because the technology wasn’t ready: put a weapon on the Predator and use it as not only a hunter but a killer.

We had seen bin Laden when we had it in the Clinton administration, as just a hunter. We had seen him. So we thought, Man, if we could get this with a hunter-killer, we could see him again and kill him. So finally we have a principals meeting and the C.I.A. says it’s not our job to fly the Predator armed. And D.O.D. says it’s not our job to fly an unarmed aircraft.

I just couldn’t believe it. This is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of C.I.A. sitting there, both passing the football because neither one of them wanted to go kill bin Laden.


Best Blog Posts Of 2008

Great news for those blog readers who don’t have a life and are looking for something to do from now through New Year’s. Jon Swift has compiled a collection of best posts of the year from around the blogosphere. Now you can forget about watching all those bowl games. You’ll be way too busy reading all these excellent blog posts.

The entry from Liberal Values can be found here. It’s a fairly recent one because 1) I didn’t want to bother with a post about the 2008 campaigns which is now dated, and 2) I was too lazy to look back very far through the archives.

Steven Pinker on The Impact of Bush’s War on Science

AlterNet has posted an interview with Steven Pinker regarding the “war on science” conducted by the Bush administration. Here is an excerpt:

JAS: Quite a few people argue that the Bush administration has been especially misleading and meddlesome in distorting the truth about scientific research, suppressing evidence in favor of a political agenda. Do you think it’s true that the Bush administration is more anti-science than previous administrations, or do some of these problems stretch back even farther?

SP: To some extent they go back further. To be honest, I was skeptical of claims that the Bush administration is worse than previous ones. But I have now been turned around, and I see that the accusations are correct, that there is a Republican war on science, and that it does seem unprecedented. I see that in the areas with which I have firsthand familiarity. For issues like sex education and climate, I have had to take the word of the scientists who have been directly involved.

JAS: What changed your mind?

SP: I’ve been personally involved in three issues, and in each case, intervention from the Bush administration has gone against scientific consensus.

The first involved bioethics, where the President’s Council on Bioethics has been packed with cultural conservatives and opponents of biomedical research, with a concerted effort to exaggerate the downside of biomedical research and to play up the fears.

The second is evolution, where Bush himself called for the so-called “controversy” between intelligent design and evolution to be taught in schools, whereas virtually every intelligent scientist believes that there is no such controversy.

The third involves regulation of language on the airwaves, where my book The Stuff of Thought was cited by the solicitor general in a brief to a U.S. Appeals Court on whether the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to sanction the networks for failing to bleep out fleeting expletives — that is, celebrities such as Cher or Bono or Nicole Richie saying “fucking brilliant” or “they can fuck themselves” during live television broadcasts. And the government cited what I think are bogus considerations about protecting the mental health of children as a rationale for restricting speech on the airwaves. They used my writing to support their case in a way that I felt was deceptive.

JAS: Do you believe that the Bush administration’s actions will have any lasting impact on Americans’ levels of trust in science and scientific institutions?

SP: Yes. For example, the Religious Right and their supporters in the Bush administration argue that scientists are suppressing debate about evolution. Having long ago lost the legal battle to have intelligent design taught in the classrooms, they are now framing the issue as an attempt to “teach the controversy,” therefore putting scientists on the side of appearing to want to suppress controversy.

To the extent that they succeed in framing the debate that way, it would look as if scientists are pushing their own dogma. And that is simply dishonest. Scientists would have no interest in a debate between astronomy and astrology or chemistry and alchemy, simply because you have to draw the line somewhere and impose some barrier to entry of basic scientific credibility before you engage in a debate. But that can be distorted into making it seem as if scientists are as dogmatic as the defenders of religious fundamentalism.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea From The New Scientist

The New Scientist has chosen their top ten articles of the year on evolution with this introduction:

150 years after Darwin proposed it, evolution by natural selection continues to be both a battleground and a hotbed of ideas.

Scientists continue to respond to the latest attacks from creationists, and at the same time propose profound new ideas about evolution. This year has seen perceptions of the virus change from disease-causing villain to evolutionary hero, and the emergence of a new force of evolution – the absence of natural selection.

Many of the articles might not be of interest to those outside of the biological sciences, but there are some which pertain directly to the attacks on science from the right. These include Evolution: 24 Myths and Misconceptions and Evolution: What Missing Link?

Moving beyond these responses to the attacks on science from creationists, among the interesting articles are  Viruses: The unsung heroes of evolution and Vestigial organs: Remnants of evolution. The second answers questions such as why men have nipples and why humans have goose bumps. All of these articles are available on line without need for a subscription.

I’ve also recently linked to information on The Lancet’s special issue on evolution as well as this month’s issue of Scientific American which features the work of Charles Darwin.

Detroit Lions Make History

The Detroit Lions have lost 31-21 at Green Bay, becoming the first team to go 0-16 in NFL history, despite all the efforts at parity in professional football. More discussion yesterday.