Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Soft Porn of Global Catastrophe

The group 10:10 thinks this is a wonderful way to encourage people to be "civic minded" and encourage participation in a democracy...

Yeah... a democracy where the guys at the top scare you shitless if you don't "conform" to their idea of political correctness!

This group and the Earth First! group scare the pants off me. Their motto seems to be "my way or the highway!"

And this...

If you wonder what it would be like to "interview" the SS guards at a Nazi concentration camp as they finished off a big batch of the "final solution", it would probably have been with giggles like this:

The above gives you a feel for what it was like to be about the "true believers" in the late 1930s in Germany. Lots of enthusiasm and not a clue of how they, as lemmings, were going over a cliff to achieve the maniacal vision of some crazed fanatic, in this case a "global warming" fanatic.

US Tax Cuts, Simplified

Here's Austan Goolsbee, the chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, giving a very simple graphic to explain the tax cut debate:

Martin Gilbert's "In Ishmael's House"

This is a very fact-packed review of 1400 years of Jews living in Muslim lands. It is eye-opening in its incredible historical detail of oppression of Jews by Muslims. The tales of atrocities come one after another in a never-ending succession. It is depressing. But it is important to know. This book is well worth reading, especially in today's world. We need more knowledge of the long history of Muslim behaviour to better understand words and actions today.

I had to stop from time to time as I read tragedy after tragedy and tell myself that this is like "knowing" a foreign city by listening to that city's local news. All you get is a daily stream of crimes. You "learn" only the worst possible from that stream of "news". Fortunately, Martin Gilbert does stop from time to time to point out that there were periods of relatively decent treatment of the Jews and he does go to pains to point out the occasions on which Muslims put themselves at danger to hide or protect Jews. But the incessant tales of misdeeds hammers home the point that deep in the Muslim religion is a mindset toward others, Jews in particular, but other religions that is deeply hostile.

To give you a taste of the factual content of this book, here is a bit from the latter chapters talking about the oppression and expulsion of Jews from Muslim lands after Israeli independence:
In Syria, following the 1967 defeat of the Syrian forces and the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel, new regulations were imposed on the country's 3,500 Jews. These new laws harked back to a much earlier time when the Covenant of Omar could be burdensome in the extreme. There were twelve laws in all. The first: 'The Jewish right to emigrate is completely forbidden. This applies even to Jews in Syria who hold foreign passports.' The second: 'Jews are forbidden to move more than three kilometres from their place of residence. Those wishing to travel further must apply for a special permit.' The third: 'Identiy cards issued to Jews are stamped in red with the word Mussawi (Jew).'

The fourth and fifth laws, respectively: 'Jews are normally subject to a 10 p.m. curfew' and 'Jews are allowed six years elementary schooling only.' The remaining laws, in sequence: 'Jewish houses in the town of Kamishli are to be marked in red'; 'Jews are barred from jobs in the public service, public institutions and banks'; 'Government officials and military personnel are forbidden to buy in Jewish shops'; 'Foreigners may not visit the Jewish quarters unescorted by a government official'; 'Jews are forbidden to own radios or telephones, or to maintain postal contact with the outside world'; and 'No telephones may be installed in Jewish homes.' The twelfth and final regulation: 'The property and possessions of deceased Jews are confiscated by the government. Their heirs must then pay for its use. If they cannot, it will be handed over to the Palestinian Arabs.'
From a review in The Economist, this will give you a bit of a feel for the book:
FROM 624 to 628AD, several Jewish clans in the Arabian peninsula joined forces with an Arab tribe, the Quraysh, to make war on a renegade Qurayshi named Muhammad who had had the chutzpah to claim he was a prophet of God. They lost. Piqued at the Jews for rejecting a creed that—with its dietary laws, ritual circumcision and daily prayers towards (at first) Jerusalem—was so closely modelled on their own, the Prophet Muhammad decreed that they, along with Christians, would henceforth be considered dhimmiyeen under Islam; “protected” as fellow monotheists, but subject to a heavy tax and various other indignities.


Sir Martin is no Islamophobe, and his is a solid and balanced, if unexciting, chronicle of both ups and downs in Jewish fortunes. But it is nothing more. Although he gives a clear-eyed account of the conflict that prompted Muhammad to impose dhimma status on the Jews, he offers virtually no political or social context for the actions of any Muslim leader thereafter. This makes for a monotonous and ahistorical narrative: under more tolerant caliphs the Jews prospered, yet still suffered isolated attacks; under crueller ones they were oppressed, yet individual Muslims still performed acts of kindness, and so on for 12 centuries. Moreover, Christians and other dhimmiyeen are absent from the tale, so there is no sense of whether Jews were being singled out.

Things improve a little in the 20th century, the second half of the book. Here Sir Martin, best known as Winston Churchill’s official biographer, is on home turf, and he writes about the obvious effects of world wars, colonialism and the rise of Israel on the decline of Jewish-Muslim relations. There are some gripping moments in the eyewitness accounts of anti-Jewish riots in Cairo or Baghdad, but here again he remains largely silent on Muslim thinking and perceptions.
This book isn't the way to "learn" history in any grand sense. This book is too much down in the trenches with historical anecdote, too much down in the details. But it makes a very readable story. I think this bit from a review on the blog Planetary Movement pretty well sums up my feelings about this book:
Jewish life under Muslim rule naturally invites comparison with that under Christian rule. Here Gilbert quotes with approval the eminent Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis, who concluded that the situation of the Jews living under Muslim rulers was “never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best”. Lewis observes that “there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust”. But he goes on to point out that there is nothing in the history of the Jews under Islam “to compare with the progressive emancipation and acceptance accorded to the Jews in the democratic West during the last three centuries”.

Gilbert is an anecdotal historian, not an analytical one. He has produced a lively chronicle of the Jews in Muslim countries from Morocco to Afghanistan. He has rich materials at his disposal and he is attentive to the human voices of individuals. But his account is both highly selective and narrowly focused on the Jews. What is missing is the wider political, social and economic context to enable the reader to place the Jewish minority in each Muslim country within its proper historical perspective.

Some examples of Muslim openness, tolerance and courage are given by Gilbert. The bulk of the book, however, consists of examples of Muslim hatred, hostility and cruelty towards the Jews.
The book opens with incredible tales of how Mohammed tricked and lured various Jewish communities to their downfall. His typical treatment was to kill all the men and enslave all the children and women. Mohammed himself took the woman Rayhana and killed her husband when he destroyed the Jewish Qurayzah tribe in Medina. This was just the first of many "eye openers" for me as I read this book. Here's a "holy man" who slaughters and takes the victims wife as his own while selling off as slaves those he didn't outright kill. Not the acts one would expect from a religion that claims "merciful Allah" as its God.

The stories of century after century of violence and mistreatment are depressing. The Muslim rule was oppressive and geared toward forcing conversion of the Jews. Even when forced conversions were blatantly immoral, that didn't stop the Muslims. And, of course, they had the rule that once you were "converted" to go back on your conversion was apostasy and they killed you, so over the centuries the Jewish communities (and all others) in the conquered Muslim lands were slowly reduced to overwhelming Muslim majorities.

Here is one small example of the pogroms that went on despite the claim that all "peoples of the Book" were to be protected by Muslims:
That evening [early 1948 in Morocco], in the nearby town of Djerada, thirty-nine Jews were killed and thirty seriously injured, out of a total Jewish population of one hundred.
I pick on the above only because of the scale of the killing: 39% of the community! And this was just after the European holocaust in which six million Jews were killed by the madmen racists, the Nazis.

This snippet deals with how Jews trapped in Muslim lands after Israeli independence were treated:
The Moroccan Government took a hard line towards the departure of Moroccan Jews for Israel. Moulay Ahmed Alaoui, the Minister of Information, described Jewish emigration as a 'betrayal and desertion' of Morocco. In addition, he declared: 'It was unjust that Moroccans should take the place of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, and that is why we stop the Jews leaving.' Echoes of Nazism could also be heard. In March 1961, when a cinema in Cassablanca screened a dramatised version of Mein Kampf, the audience applauded when an actor in the film exclaimed: 'We must exterminate the Jews.

The public mood in Morocco remained ugly. In March 1961, after a group of Moroccan Jews carrying forged passports were stopped by the police as they approached the border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla, the Istiklal Party's newspaper, al-Alam, stated that 'any Jew attempting to emigrate to Isreal deserves the death penalty.' This harsh suggestion was ignored, but the fact that it had been made raised yet more fears among the Jews who wanted to leave Morocco.
The crazy thing is that of all the Muslim lands, Morocco still retains a Jewish community and had good relations with Israel despite its terrible treatment of its Jews.

Here is another, more depressing story:
In 1834 another event occurred that shocked the western Jewish world: the public execution of a seventeen-year-old Jewish woman Sol Hachuel ... in the Moroccan city of Tangier. The tragedy began when Sol befriended a Musliim woman who had ambitions to convert her to Islam -- a particularly meritorious act under the code of Islamic law then prevalent in Morocco. Whe n the woman's efforts failed, she denounced Sol to the Muslim authorities, claiming that the girl had indeed been converted, but had returned to Judaism.

Sol was brought before the Sultan's representative, the Basha (Governor) of Tangier, Arbi Esudio, and accused of having agreed to be converted to Islam. Sol declared: 'You have been deceived, Sir ... I never pronunounced such words: she proposed it to me, but I did not consent.' She then told the Governor, in Ladino, in words that became her epitaph: Hebrea naci y Hebrea quero morir -- ' A Jewess I was born, a Jewess I wish to die.' The Governor responded by offering Sol silk and gold if she agreed even then to convert to Islam. He then threatened her with punishment for apostasy: 'I will have you torn piece-meal by wild beasts. You shall not see the light of day, you shall perish of hunger, and experience the rigour of my vengeance and indignation, in having provoked the anger of the Prophet.'

Sol, unflinching, replied 'I will give my limbs to be torn piece-meal by wild beasts; I will renounce forever the light of day, I will perish of hunger, and when all the evils of life are accumulated on me by your orders, I will smile at your indignation, and the anger of the Prophet: since neither he nor you have been able to overcome a weak female! It is clear that Heaven is not too auspicious to making proselytes to your faith.'

The Governor was indignant at Sol's reference to Mohammed -- 'you have profaned the name I revere,' he told her -- and sent her to prison, where she was held with an iron collar around her neck, and chains on her hands and feet. Her parents appealed to the Spanish Consul in Tangier, but his considerable efforts to have her set free were unsuccessful. Sold was then sent to Fez, for the Sultan to decide her fate. Her parents were made to pay a substantial sum for the cost of the journey, and threatened with five hundred lashes if they could not find the money. Fortunately for them, the Spanish Consul paid the charge.

In Fez, the Sultan appointed the Cadi -- a senior Koranic judge -- to determine Sol's punishment. The Cadi summoned the Jewish sages of Fez, who urged him to spare Sol's life. The Cadi replied that unless she agreed to convert to Islam she would be beheaded -- and the Jewish community punished. Despite efforts by the sages to persuade her to convert in order to save her life and their community. Sol refused conversion and was found guilty. She was condemned to be executed in the main marketplace in Fez. The Cadi stated that the cost of the execution would have to be borne by her father.

A large crowd of local Muslims gathered to watch the execution, crying out as she was brought through the streets: 'Here comes she wou blasphemed the Prophet -- death! Death! to the the impious wretch! At the scaffold, Sol was permitted to wash her hands and say the Shema prayer, 'Hear! O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one...' Then one of the executioners cut her with his scimitar and, in the hope of persuading her to convert to Islam -- apparently on the Sultan's orders -- declared, 'There is yet time to become Mohametan, and save your life! On seeing her blood she turned to him with the words, 'Do not make me linger -- behead me at once -- for dying as I do, innocent of any crime, the God of Abraham will avenge my death!' She was then beheaded.

The Fez Jewish community had to pay to have Sol Hachuel's corpse, her head and the bloodstained earth given to them for Jewish burial in the Jewish cemetery. She was buried next to one of the great sages of Moroccan Jewry and declared a martyr. Her story was told and retold all over the world as the tragedy of a Jew entrapped by Islamic enmity towards the infidel.
The above story is depressing because it is repeated in many variations through this book. Stories of one religious community oppressing another. Both claiming to worship "one God" and claiming that their God is "merciful" and "just" while carrying out heinous crimes in the name of religion.

The reason why religious toleration is so important is to separate the powers of state from the hands of religious leaders and religious fanatics. History, and this history by Gilbert in particular, is replete with fanatics claiming a higher "truth" in order to kill others. The only way to have a civil society is to demand that all religions respect other religions and jealously guard the use of force in the hands of a secular government, a government dedicated to guarding all citizens of a multi-ethic, multi-racial, multi-religious nation.

What terrifies me is that the Christian fundamentalists in the US seem completely unaware of the horrors of European history with its religious wars, with the use of state power again the weak and vulnerable in the name of some idiotic religious dogma.

One final thought on historical religions. When they are too close to the present, like the Mormons, then the story of their founding become obviously difficult to swallow as credible by an outsider. The Muslim religion is on the edge of history. The details preserved are pretty scary. This is a "warrior cult" that uses the language of a "merciful God" support a bloodbath of conquest and long centuries of oppression of local peoples. What I don't understand is how modern religions can have fundamentalists declaring that the quaint details of their origins are "literally true". Mohammed comes across as deceitful and violent. I don't understand why there isn't a reformation of this religion to toss out the ugly details of the actual historical roots and focus on the noble ideas within the religion. So long as people are not able to draw a line between a violent and oppressive past and a claim to a wondrous, just, and merciful present, I can't trust them. I want to see more reformation inside Islam.

Speaking Up for Moderation

Here is a snippet from a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, given at the UN. I've bolded the key bit:
While harnessing our efforts to promote international peace and harmony we are concerned with the increasing trend in some parts of the world to perpetuate or even fuel Islamophobia. Attempts to demonize Islam offend the one and a half billion adherents of the religion. It intensifies the divide between the broad Muslim world and the West. The real issue is not between Muslims and non-Muslims but between the moderates and extremists of all religions, be it Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Across all religions we have inadvertently allowed the ugly voices of the periphery to drown out the many voices of reason and common sense. I therefore urge us to embark on building a “Global Movement of the Moderates” from all faiths who are committed to work together to combat and marginalize extremists who have held the world hostage with their bigotry and bias. We must, and I repeat, we must urgently reclaim the centre and the moral high ground that has been usurped from us. We must choose moderation over extremism. We must choose negotiations over confrontation. We must choose to work together and not against each other. And we must give this effort utmost priority for time is not on our side.
For a long time I've been calling for moderate Muslims to speak up. It is good to hear these voices. But I'm disappointed by how hard it has been to get them to speak up.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Martin Gilbert's book In Ishmael's House that reviews the history of Jews in Moslem lands. It is a good reminder of how uneven the history of Moslem lands has been, i.e. good followed by bad in a never-ending cycle. There is no sense of "progress" or "enlightenment". That's what I really want to see. These words of Najib Tun Razak need to be followed up by actions, consistent actions, by moderates everywhere.

The great lesson of the European religious wars of the early modern era was tolerance, i.e. to separate state and religion and require that the various religious groups tolerate each other and suppressing the extremists who were unwilling to accept other viewpoints.

The Reality in Afghanistan

Here's a nice insight into the conundrum that is Afghanistn. This is from the Thomas E. Ricks blog The Best Defense:
Here is a great exchange between an American officer and an Afghan elder recorded by the estimable David Wood:
. . . Instead of answering directly, the old man burst into a tirade. "We are in the middle!" he cried. "We can't say anything to you, and we can't say anything to them." What he meant: Americans push education for girls. The Taliban forbid it.

Biggs handed him a stack of cards, each bearing the location and phone numbers for the local police. "If you have trouble, call these numbers," he said.

Nabib reacted with alarm. "But what if they ask about these?"

"Hide them," said Biggs.

"But they search everyplace -- more than you," said Nabib.

Aha, said Biggs. "So there are Taliban in the village!"

"Being really honest, yes, definitely they come sometimes. But we can't tell you where they are," the old man said. "After sunset they come. We don't come out of our compounds. We are living in fear."

"We have no power to face them or you," he complained. "We are just like a soccer ball being kicked by both sides."

"We are not here to kill insurgents or anyone," said Biggs. "We are not here for you to join our team, but just to deliver government and security to your village."

The old man snorted. "They are also telling us this same speech, that they are here to protect us," he muttered.
The great tragedy of most wars is that they hurt those they are supposed to help more than they hurt "the enemy". The idea that the West is going to "save" Afghanistan is ridiculous. My preferred technique is benign neglect, i.e. leave them to their own devices but if another attack comes out of Afghanistan, then blast them like the US did in Oct-Dec 2001. This idea of "occupying" such a backward region with such a long history of petty fighting is misdirected. It is a quagmire. The only thing to do when in a quagmire is to get out and get away.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Growing Problem in Ameria: the Gap between Rich and Super-Rich

Here is a hard-hitting journalistic piece on the most pressing problem in America today...

I, for one, am just a puddle of tears... this is tragic, a truly heart-breaking tale of woe. Pity the rich. As the report notes, they suffer the oppressive nature of behind the walls of a gated community. Worse, they just aren't as rich as they used to be relative to the super-rich. Now that is a hard load to carry!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Increase the Efficiency of a Car by 25%

From research done at the University of Arizona:
UA physicists have discovered a new way of harvesting waste heat and turning it into electrical power. Taking advantage of quantum effects, the technology holds great promise for making cars, power plants, factories and solar panels more efficient.

A "forest" of molecules holds the promise of turning waste heat into electricity. UA physicists discovered that because of quantum effects, electron waves traveling along the backbone of each molecule interfere with each other, leading to the buildup of a voltage between the hot and cold electrodes (the golden structures on the bottom and top). (Rendering by Justin Bergfield)


The research group led by Charles Stafford, associate professor of physics, published its findings in the September issue of the scientific journal, ACS Nano.

"Thermoelectricity makes it possible to cleanly convert heat directly into electrical energy in a device with no moving parts," said lead author Justin Bergfield, a doctoral candidate in the UA College of Optical Sciences.

"Our colleagues in the field tell us they are pretty confident that the devices we have designed on the computer can be built with the characteristics that we see in our simulations."

"We anticipate the thermoelectric voltage using our design to be about 100 times larger than what others have achieved in the lab," Stafford added.


Car or factory exhaust pipes could be coated with the material, less than 1 millionth of an inch thick, to harvest energy otherwise lost as heat and generate electricity.

The physicists take advantage of the laws of quantum physics, a realm not typically tapped into when engineering power-generating technology. To the uninitiated, the laws of quantum physics appear to fly in the face of how things are "supposed" to behave.

The key to the technology lies in a quantum law physicists call wave-particle duality: Tiny objects such as electrons can behave either as a wave or as a particle.


Bergfield and Stafford discovered the potential for converting heat into electricity when they studied polyphenyl ethers, molecules that spontaneously aggregate into polymers, long chains of repeating units. The backbone of each polyphenyl ether molecule consists of a chain of benzene rings, which in turn are built from carbon atoms. The chain link structure of each molecule acts as a "molecular wire" through which electrons can travel.

"We had both worked with these molecules before and thought about using them for a thermoelectric device," Bergfield said, "but we hadn't really found anything special about them until Michelle Solis, an undergrad who worked on independent study in the lab, discovered that, low and behold, these things had a special feature."

Using computer simulations, Bergfield then "grew" a forest of molecules sandwiched between two electrodes and exposed the array to a simulated heat source.

"As you increase the number of benzene rings in each molecule, you increase the power generated," Bergfield said.

The secret to the molecules' capability to turn heat into power lies in their structure: Like water reaching a fork in a river, the flow of electrons along the molecule is split in two once it encounters a benzene ring, with one flow of electrons following along each arm of the ring.

Bergfield designed the benzene ring circuit in such a way that in one path the electron is forced to travel a longer distance around the ring than the other. This causes the two electron waves to be out of phase once they reunite upon reaching the far side of the benzene ring. When the waves meet, they cancel each other out in a process known as quantum interference. When a temperature difference is placed across the circuit, this interruption in the flow of electric charge leads to the buildup of an electric potential – voltage – between the two electrodes.

Wave interference is a concept exploited by noise-cancelling headphones: Incoming sound waves are met with counter waves generated by the device, wiping out the offending noise.

"We are the first to harness the wave nature of the electron and develop a concept to turn it into usable energy," Stafford said.

Analogous to solid state versus spinning hard drive type computer memory, the UA-designed thermoelectric devices require no moving parts. By design, they are self-contained, easier to manufacture and easier to maintain compared to currently available technology.

"You could just take a pair of metal electrodes and paint them with a single layer of these molecules," Bergfield said. "That would give you a little sandwich that would act as your thermoelectric device. With a solid-state device you don't need cooling agents, you don't need liquid nitrogen shipments, and you don't need to do a lot of maintenance."


Molecular thermoelectric devices could help solve an issue currently plaguing photovoltaic cells harvesting energy from sunlight.

"Solar panels get very hot and their efficiency goes down," Stafford said. "You could harvest some of that heat and use it to generate additional electricity while simultaneously cooling the panel and making its own photovoltaic process more efficient."

"With a very efficient thermoelectric device based on our design, you could power about 200 100-Watt light bulbs using the waste heat of an automobile," he said. "Put another way, one could increase the car's efficiency by well over 25 percent, which would be ideal for a hybrid since it already uses an electrical motor."
Sounds great! The only problem is that the research world is littered with ideas that looked really good on paper but never could be implemented successfully. I sure hope this isn't one of those. I hope this works out. It could be the kind of kick in the pants needed to jump start the economy and move the world out of its current Great Recession. It could revitalize everything since energy generation is at the heart of everything.

How Money "Built" a Populist "Tea Party"

The Globe and Mail newspaper has a good article by Jeet Heer on how Dave and Charles Koch, two brothers whose personal fortune, rooted in the oil industry and manufacturing, puts them in the same league as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have bought themselves a "populist" right wing party in the US, the Tea Party.

For me, the best part of the article was the walk down memory lane of how right wing "populism" has been manufactured previously in the US:
The original plutocratic populist was William Randolph Hearst, the great pioneer of tabloid journalism whose newspapers were once a byword for sensationalism.

In his youth at the end of the 19th century, Mr. Hearst was a full-throttle supporter of left-wing populism. Amid lurid accounts of murder and sex scandals, his newspapers championed the labour movement and small farmers while sharply attacking big business. He wrote in an 1897 editorial that he believed that “the multitude that are individually helpless against the rapacity of the few could be armed against their despoilers.”

Mr. Hearst's politics went through a startling flip-flop in the mid-1930s, partly in response to what he saw as the radicalism of the New Deal, but also because he started to feel financially threatened for the first time in his life. Hard hit by the Depression, he came close to losing his newspaper empire.

Suddenly he saw himself not as the champion of the common people fighting against big business, but as a hard-working property owner who needed to defend his interests against a rapacious government that was overtaxing him.

In moving from left to right, Mr. Hearst held on to the language of populism, simply changing the names of the villains. John Q. Public, the grandfather of Joe the Plumber, was no longer the victim of greedy bankers and gouging corporate monopolists, but rather of the liberal elite, consisting of egg-headed professors, corrupt union bosses and tax-happy demagogues.

Looking back on the Hearst newspapers of the 1930s as well as like-thinking peers such as the Chicago Tribune and Reader's Digest, it is interesting to notice how often they focus on the stories of supposedly persecuted millionaires, rich men whom they portrayed as the victims of a malicious state. In The New Republic in 1934, journalist Richard Neuberger, who would go on to become a U.S. senator, complained about “the current crusade to create martyrs out of millionaires.”

These stories of harassed and beleaguered millionaires were echoed in popular culture. In the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, billionaire Daddy Warbucks didn't just have watch over the pupil-less waif, he also had to fend off attacks from envious politicians and malicious do-gooders. Although not published until 1957, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged grew out of the ideological debates of the 1930s and survives as one of the most influential stories of the ill treatment of the overclass.
Take a gander at the Globe and Mail article. It is an example of how Canadians do a good job of understanding the elephant that resides next door to the Canadian mouse.

Solving Problems by Pontification

The right wing in the US loves to claim that the Social Security program is bankrupt. It isn't, but that doesn't stop them. And their fix? Well, they want to "privatize" it. That's just another name for going back to the era when individuals "looked after" themselves. That may work for 50% of the population, but there is a large number that can't plan or are so poor they have no resources to save. So "privatizing" isn't a solution.

The next favourite solution is to jack up the age of retirement so that more people die before they collect a penny. That will work, but it has this sad side-effect. From a NY Times article by John LeLand:
At the Cooper Tire plant in Findlay, Ohio, Jack Hartley, who is 58, works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack.

Mr. Hartley performs these steps nearly 30 times an hour, or 300 times in a shift. “The pain started about the time I was 50,” he said. “Dessert with lunch is ibuprofen. Your knees start going bad, your lower back, your elbows, your shoulders.”

He said he does not think he can last until age 66, when he will be eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits. At 62 or 65, he said, “that’s it.”

After years of debate about how to keep Social Security solvent, the White House has created an 18-member panel to consider changes, including raising the retirement age. Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio and the House minority leader, has called for raising the age as high as 70 in the next 20 years, and many Democrats have endorsed similar steps, against opposition from some liberal groups. The panel will report by Dec. 1, after the midterm elections.

Mr. Hartley says he feels like the forgotten man. Discussion has focused mostly on the older workers who hold relatively undemanding jobs at desks and computers that can be done at age 69 or beyond. But hard labor is not a thing of the past for older workers, who are on the whole less educated than younger ones.
The problem with politicians and academics is that they come up with "solutions" ignorant of the real world. These people don't have to do physically demanding work. So they have no idea how hard labour can wear you down. So they come up with "Marie Antoinette solutions". You know, poor Marie Antoinette didn't know what hunger meant. When she was told there was no bread for the workers in Paris she was puzzled. The table for her was always heaped with bread and cake. So her response was obvious: "Well, let them eat cake!" Sadly, those words enraged the workers and toppled a regime and remove the heads from king and queen.

An Indictment of Reganomics

Here is a bit from a paper by Michael Ettlinger and John S. Irons at the Center for American Progress that exposes the lie of "trickle down" economics, the supply side economics promoted by Ronald Reagan and pushed by Bush I and Bush II:
The first supply-side era in modern economic history began in earnest in 1981 with huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Although there were modest steps back from these tax cuts in the ensuing years in response to fiscal deficits and tax-sheltering, this first supply-side era didn’t end until the tax hikes of 1993. This respite from supply-side policies ended in 2001, however, when a new set of supply-side tax measures were enacted. Today, as budget shortfalls mount and the economy weakens, the supply-side approach to economic policy is once again up for debate. This paper reviews the theory underlying supply-side tax cuts and examines their results.

The term “supply-side” comes from the idea that economic policy, and tax policy in particular, can influence private-sector production decisions by changing the incentives to work or to invest. Like many ideologies pushed to an extreme, supply-side theory does contain a kernel of truth: In certain circumstances lower tax rates can lead to additional economic activity and can lead to additional government revenue. This is a standard incite in public economic theory. But, it is equally true that in other circumstances lower tax rates do not lead to additional economic activity or government revenue.

The chain of logic for supply-side policies to work requires the following. Lower tax rates on savings (or on those who save more) leads to higher saving rates. Higher saving leads to more economic investments and greater capital accumulation. Finally, more capital leads to greater economic growth. At each of these steps, however, there is reason to doubt the theory—there are other possible outcomes and conflicting theories.

The efficacy of supply-side policies thus becomes an empirical question: Do they work? As importantly, do they work better than alternative approaches of greater public investment to stimulate our economy? The two supply-side eras that sandwich the period from 1993 to 2001 offer us an opportunity to assess the impact of supply-side policies. The claims for these policies have been great, yet the results have been meager. Specifically:
  • Real investment growth after the tax increases of 1993 was much higher than after the tax cuts of 1981 and 2001. The yearly growth rate after 1993 was 10.2 percent versus 2.8 percent for the first supply-side era beginning in 1981, and 2.7 percent in the period of the second supply-side era beginning in 2001. Without better investment growth being associated with supply-side policies, a critical link in the theory of supply-side economics is broken—and it is difficult to draw any plausible connection between supply-side tax cuts and any observed positive economic performance.

  • Economic growth as measured by real U.S. gross domestic product was stronger following the tax increases of 1993 than in the two supply-side eras. Over the seven-year periods after each legislative action, average annual growth was 3.9 percent following 1993, 3.5 percent following 1981, and 2.5 percent following 2001.

  • Average annual real median household income growth was greatest after the 1993 tax increases, at 2.0 percent annually compared to 1.4 percent after 1981 and 0.3 percent after 2001.

  • Wage levels also did better after 1993. Average real hourly earnings following 1981 fell at an annual rate of 0.1 percent and following 2001 rose at a rate of only 0.3 percent. Following the 1993 tax increases average hourly earnings grew by 0.9 percent per year.

  • Employment growth was weaker during the supply-side eras than during the post-1993 era. Average annual employment growth was 2.1 percent after 1981, 2.5 percent after 1993, and 0.6 percent after 2001.

  • Federal budget deficits and national debt increased during supply-side periods and decreased following the 1993 tax increases. In the seven years from 1993 to 1999, the country went from a federal deficit of 3.9 percent of GDP to a surplus of 1.4 percent. After 1981 the deficit ballooned to 6 percent of GDP by 1983. In the year the 2001 tax legislation was adopted, there was a surplus of 1.3 percent of GDP. This turned into a deficit of 3.6 percent by 2004, which fell back to 1.2 percent in 2007 but will undoubtedly be higher in 2008. The national debt has followed a similar pattern, rising by an astounding 14.8 percentage points relative to GDP over the 7 years following adoption of the 1981 supply-side tax cuts, shrinking by almost 10 percentage points relative to GDP following 1993, and moving back up by 3.8 percentage points relative to GDP after the 2001 tax cuts.
Pretty damning stuff. The crazy thing is that this "voodoo economics" that Bush I complained about is back. The big gains of the 2010 mid-term elections will bring back more boosters of this snake-oil economics.

Wolves & Ecology

Here is a bit from a thoughtful piece on wolves & ecology by Chip Ward in Tom Engelhardt's blog:
... when we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, killing every last one, we de-watered the land. That’s right -- no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes, and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: no wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks where the grass is green and the livin’ easy. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. Willows are both food and building material for beavers. As the willows declined, so did beaver populations. When beavers build dams and ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds, and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone’s overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Life-giving river water receded, leaving those banks barren. Spawning beds for fish were silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade where they could have sheltered and hidden. Yellowstone’s web of life was fraying and becoming threadbare.

The unexpected relationship between absent wolves and absent water is just one example of how big, scary predators like grizzlies and mountain lions, often called “charismatic carnivores,” regulate their ecosystems from the top down.


Today, wolves are thriving in Yellowstone. The 66 wolves trapped in Canada and released in Yellowstone and the Idaho wilderness in 1995-96 have generated more than 1,700 wolves. More than 200 wolf packs exist in the area today and the effect on the environment has been nothing short of astonishing.

There was one beaver colony in the park at the time wolves were reintroduced. Today, 12 colonies are busy storing water, evening out seasonal water flows, recharging springs, and creating habitat. Willow stands are robust again and the songbirds that nest in them are recovering. Creatures that scavenge wolf-kills for meat, including ravens, eagles, wolverines, and bears, have benefited. Wolves have pushed out and killed the coyotes that feed on pronghorn antelope, so pronghorn numbers are also up. Riverbanks are lush and shady again. With less competition from elk for grass, the bison in the park are doing better, too.

Elk are the sole species that has been diminished -- and that, after all, was the purpose of putting wolves back in the game in the first place. The elk population of Yellowstone is still larger than it was at its low point in the late 1960s, but there are fewer elk today than in recent decades. The decline has alarmed elk hunters and the local businesses that rely on their trade.

Worse yet, from the hunting point of view, elk behavior has changed dramatically. Instead of camping out on stream banks and overeating, they roam far more and in smaller numbers, browsing in brushy areas where there is more protective cover. Surviving elk are healthier, but leaner, warier, far more dispersed, and significantly harder to hunt. This further dismays those who had become accustomed to easy hunting and bigger animals.

A lively debate is underway among game wardens, guides, and wildlife biologists about just how far elk numbers have declined, what role drought and other non-wolf variables may be playing in that decline, and whether elk numbers will -- or even should -- rebound. State wildlife agencies that once fed hay to bountiful populations of elk to keep them from starving during harsh winters depend on hunting and fishing licenses to fill their coffers. Predictably enough, they have come down on the side of the frustrated big game hunters, who think the wolves have killed too many elk. Hunters have been a powerful force for conservation when habitat for birds and big game is at stake, but wolf reintroduction hits them right in the ol’ game bag, and on this issue they seem to be abandoning former conservation allies.


In this regard, ecological literacy is not a side issue. It’s a prerequisite for survival. The articulation of reality is more primal than any strategy or policy. If greed is turning the Earth into a scorched planet of slums, ignorance is its enabler. Just as American farmers once realized that erosion follows ignorance and learned how to plow differently, just as most of us finally learned that rivers should not be used as toxic dumps, so today we must learn that environments have the equivalent of operating systems. Predation by large carnivores is written deep into the code of much of the American landscape. Today, a rancher who expects to do business in a predator-free landscape is no more reasonable than yesterday’s industrialist who expected to use the nearest river as a sewer. Living with wolves may be a challenging proposition, but it’s hardly impossible to do -- as folks in Minnesota or Canada can attest.
There's a lot more interesting detail in the article, go read the whole thing.

I tread a line between Chip Ward's "Mother Earth knows best" and the ill-informed eco-nuts who love pandas and baby seals and ignore ecological detail. My viewpoint is that nature is a complex of life that is indifferent to humans. We are part of the web and if we push the web too hard it will snap and we will pay a price. But the great biomass of the planet is at tiny lifeforms that we mostly ignore. Ants make up a mass as great as us and bacteria overwhelm us in total mass. We are not the masters of creation.

To be successful we have to be smarter about our real place in life. I've got nothing against humans having an outsize piece of life on earth. I like humans. But we do have to recognize that we don't "own" earth and that we can push ecosystems too hard. I'm not a "back to nature type". I have nothing against humans reshaping vast tracts. On the other hand, I enjoy wild vistas of "untouched" nature, so I'm eager to save these. I'm a middle-of-the-road type. We shouldn't feel we sit in the catbird seat and we shouldn't picture ourselves as the bogey man. We have a role to play. We just have to remember to keep our activities in context.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Barry Ritholtz Declares 'The Revolution' is at Hand

It is not often that a big money guy on Wall Street declares that revolution has broken out. It is even more amazing when somebody so deeply embedded in the belly of the corporate/finance beast declares that the enemy is the corporate/finance beast. But that is what Barry Ritholtz has done in this post on his blog The Big Picture:
Every generation or so, a major secular shift takes place that shakes up the existing paradigm. It happens in industry, finance, literature, sports, manufacturing, technology, entertainment, travel, communication, etc.

I would like to discuss the paradigm shift that is occurring in politics.

For a long time, American politics has been defined by a Left/Right dynamic. It was Liberals versus Conservatives on a variety of issues. Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice, Tax Cuts vs. More Spending, Pro-War vs Peaceniks, Environmental Protections vs. Economic Growth, Pro-Union vs. Union-Free, Gay Marriage vs. Family Values, School Choice vs. Public Schools, Regulation vs. Free Markets.

The new dynamic, however, has moved past the old Left Right paradigm. We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual. These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts. Where there is massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power. The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

This may not be a brilliant insight, but it is surely an overlooked one. It is now an Individual vs. Corporate debate – and the Humans are losing.


• Many of the regulations that govern energy and banking sector were written by Corporations;

• The biggest influence on legislative votes is often Corporate Lobbying;

• Corporate ability to extend copyright far beyond what original protections amounts to a taking of public works for private corporate usage;

• PAC and campaign finance by Corporations has supplanted individual donations to elections;

• The individuals’ right to seek redress in court has been under attack for decades, limiting their options.

• DRM and content protection undercuts the individual’s ability to use purchased content as they see fit;

• Patent protections are continually weakened. Deep pocketed corporations can usurp inventions almost at will;

• The Supreme Court has ruled that Corporations have Free Speech rights equivalent to people; (So much for original intent!)

None of these are Democrat/Republican conflicts, but rather, are corporate vs. individual issues.

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture. Consider this about the Bailouts: It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make? Almost none whatsoever.

How about government spending? The past two presidents are regarded as representative of the Left Right paradigm – yet they each spent excessively, sponsored unfunded tax cuts, plowed money into military adventures and ran enormous deficits. Does Left Right really make a difference when it comes to deficits and fiscal responsibility? (Apparently not).

What does it mean when we can no longer distinguish between the actions of the left and the right? If that dynamic no longer accurately distinguishes what occurs, why are so many of our policy debates framed in Left/Right terms?

In many ways, American society is increasingly less married to this dynamic: Party Affiliation continues to fall, approval of Congress is at record lows, and voter participation hovers at very low rates.

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power: Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users). Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn. I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek? Friedman vs Krugman? Those are the wrong intellectual debates. Its you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO. And you are losing . . .
I'm not quite convinced that we must all run onto the street and man the barricades. I do believe that times are tough. I agree that corporations have too much power and that politics is corrupt. But I'm not sure there is an "organized conspiracy" afoot, a real revolution, to replace traditional government by a dictatorship of corporations. Sure, corporations are buying politicians and democracy is deeply corrupted. But I'm not sure that "the Revolution" is at hand.

Maureen Dowd Takes on the Anti-Science Tea Party

Here are some bits from a Maureen Down op-ed in the NY Times about the nutty anti-science positions of the Tea Party and New Jersey's Republican candidate for the US Senate, Christine O’Donnell:
Christine O’Donnell doesn’t understand why monkeys can’t turn into people right before her eyes.

Bill Maher continued his video torment of O’Donnell by releasing another old clip of her on his HBO show on Friday night, this time showing one in which she argued that “Evolution is a myth.”

Maher shot back, “Have you ever looked at a monkey?” To which O’Donnell rebutted, “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”


In 2007, O’Donnell frantically warned Bill O’Reilly, “American scientific companies are crossbreeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.”

The field of human-animal experiments is dubbed “chimera” research, named for the she-monster in Greek mythology that has a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail.

Dr. Irving Weissman, director of Stanford’s Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, did the first experiments injecting human brain-forming stem cells into the brains of immune-deficient mice 10 years ago.

He assured me that the mice did not suddenly start acting human. “There were no requests for coffee from Minnie,” he said. “The total number of human brain cells in the mouse brain was less than one in a thousand. I don’t think we would get a mouse with a full human brain. And even if the mouse made it to a human mouse it would still have a mouse-brain offspring.”

Dr. Weissman is sensitive to ethical questions and has tried to ensure that “the nightmare scenario” won’t happen: putting embryonic stem cells into mice at the earliest stages, which could give rise to every tissue in the body including human sperm and eggs, which could lead to two mice mating and the early formation of human fetuses in the body of a mouse.

He is working toward breakthroughs on multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, strokes, breast cancer and a host of other diseases, and is worried by the retrogressive attitude about science and medicine among the new crop of Tea Partiers.


President Obama was supposed to be a giant leap forward in modernity, the brainy, rational first black president leading us out of the scientific darkness of the W. years. But by letting nutters get a foothold, he may usher us into the past.

Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Jim DeMint and some Tea Party types don’t merely yearn for the country they idealize from the 1950s. They want to go back to the 1750s.

Joe Miller, the Palin-blessed Republican nominee for Senate in Alaska, suggests that Social Security is unconstitutional because it wasn’t in the Constitution. The Constitution is a dazzling document, but do these originalists really think things haven’t changed since then? If James Madison beamed down now, he would no doubt be stunned at the idea that America had evolved so far but was hemming itself in by the strictest interpretation of his handiwork. He might even tweet about it.

Evolution is no myth, but we may be evolving backward. Christine O’Donnell had better hope they don’t bring back witch burning.
It is incredible that in the 21st century, the rabid right wing is running people with an 18th century mentality. So much for "American education". And it shows you how dangerous demagogues are during stressful times. Desperate people turn to bizarre demagogues when they are without hope.

Earth's Envoy for Extraterrestrial Aliens

This is a funny, tongue-in-cheek opinion piece posted by LuboŇ° Motl on his blog The Reference Frame. Motl is highly opinionated, so some may be offended, but he makes a point worth considering about bureaucracy gone wild:
The scientific consensus has convinced our world government - the officials of the United Nations - that one of the most urgent tasks for the humanity is to optimize our communication with the extraterrestrial aliens and the E.T. diplomacy.

Because their arrival is imminent, they may be confused whom they should call if they want to talk to the Earth's humans - much like the U.S. president is confused whom he should talk to if he wants to talk to Europe.

While the situation in Europe is remaining confusing and the holy mission of the "nice" people to create a unified dictatorship on the Old Continent hasn't yet succeeded, the United Nations have apparently made much more progress.

The woman who has already worked as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna - but this office wasn't yet "good enough" - is Ms Mazlan Othman, Malaysian girl who dreamed about becoming a physician. But after 100+ years of the existence of a school, she was given the first female physics PhD in Otago, whatever the place is, once the female reproductive organs became popular and worth rewarding over there. This achievement of hers, which unfortunately remained completely unmatched by her publication record, made her qualified to be employed in the modest job of the mankind's ambassador to the rest of the Universe; she will unfortunately not be sent to her new target country yet. ;-)
I'm afraid that those awaiting the "imminent" arrival of extraterrestrials will have a rather long wait... something between billions of years and never. I would guess that it is more likely that earth will be visited millions of years from now by long-forgotten descendants of today's Earth-originated robots than by any carbon-based extraterrestrial. Space is just too big for "casual visits". We are living in a vast and empty space. We aren't the centre of anything. But people keep thinking they are "important" and expect ambassadors of far flung alien empires to come courting. It ain't gonna happen!

Go read the full post by LuboŇ° Motl to get his take on extraterrestrials. I understand Motl's frustration with the cost, the waste, and the ineffectualness of the UN. But I differ from Motl. He is a radical libertarian who hates government. I happen to believe that government is a tool -- an imperfect one -- that we wield to shape a civil society. If you think there is a purpose to having a local government, to having a state/regional government, and a national government, it should be a no-brainer to see a need for an international government. But Motl is hostile to the idea. I would say that he is irrationally hostile. He is a brilliant guy, but he has a severe case of ideology, the libertarian brand, that makes him hostile to social institutions. I'm willing to agree with his frustrations about inept government and overly-repressive governments, but you don't abandon a tool just because it fails you before you master it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Republicans as 19th Century Social Darwinists Come Back to Life

Here's a bit from an excellent post by Robert Reich on his blog. This is the opening bit:
John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”

Actually, those weren’t Boehner’s words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929.

But they might as well have been Boehner’s because Hoover’s and Mellon’s means of purging the rottenness was by doing exactly what Boehner and his colleagues are now calling for: shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget.

And we all know what happened after 1929, at least until FDR reversed course.

Boehner and other Republicans would even like to roll back the New Deal and get rid of Barack Obama’s smaller deal health-care law.

The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.
You really should go read the rest of the article. It is worth your time. It is eye-opening. It is shocking. It is a "must read".


For many years I've been fascinated with the neurological condition of synesthesia. I think I first ran across this when I read Richard Cytowic's book The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

From a Wikipedia page that identifies famous people with synesthesia:
"When Liszt first began as Kapellmeister in Weimar (1842), it astonished the orchestra that he said: 'O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!' Or: 'That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!' First the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones."
– Anonymous, as quoted in Friedrich Mahling, p. 230. (Translation by Sean A. Day.)
Here's an interesting test to show that most people have a kind of multi-modal sensory processing -- a kind of "synesthesia" -- when they process auditory sounds with visual cues, i.e. we don't "hear" in isolation of what we hear when we see misleading vocalizations in an image of a face...

And this...

Technically, the above is not "synesthesia". It is merely a "perceptual phenomenon". But it does demonstrate multi-modal sensing which is what a synesthete experiences. But even more interesting, the McGurk effect can be used to test synesthetes and discover when in the sensory processing stream they get the "crossed wires" of multi-sensory experiences.

The Cognitive Daily blog has this post on synesthesia and the McGurk effect. This post explains how they use the McGurk effect to demonstrate that a "sound → color" synesthesia occurs after McGurk effect multi-modal processing, so synesthesia occurs late in the sensory processing chain:
Bargary's team says this means that synesthetic perceptions occur late in the process of sensing and perceiving words. The McGurk effect results from integrating inputs from multiple senses (vision and hearing), and the synesthetic perception must occur after that has happened -- otherwise, the synesthetes' responses wouldn't have been different when they didn't experience the McGurk effect.
Fascinating stuff!

Here is a ten minute documentary on an extraordinary synesthete who combines sound, colour, and taste.

Here is a video put up by a guy who claims he has synesthesia where faces take on tastes. I can't vouch for the accuracy of his claims, but I do find it amusing to check out his "tasting" of faces...

The book Born on a Blue Day written by Daniel Tammet is the autobiography of an autistic spectrum disorder with synesthesia. You need to read the book to discover his astonishing capabilities. Here is Daniel Tammet talking about himself:

And here is Daniel Tammet's official YouTube channel. Go there and listen to his Dec 12, 2009 lecture.

Update 2010nov26: Here's a bit from an article in The Guardian:
The Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman reported seeing equations in colour. The artist Wassily Kandinsky tried to re-create the visual equivalent of a symphony in each of his paintings. And Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "One hears a sound but recollects a hue, invisible the hands that touch your heartstrings. / Not music the reverberations within; they are of light. / Sounds that are colored, and enigmatic sonnet addressed to you."

All had synaesthesia, a harmless neurological condition in which activity in one sensory modality, such as vision or hearing, evokes automatic and involuntary perceptual experiences in another, due to increased cross-talk between the sensory pathways in the brain.

"It's generally agreed that there's cross-activation, so that activity in sensory area A will activate area B," says David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine, "but we don't know whether it's due to a difference in wiring or in the chemical cocktail." Eagleman chaired a symposium at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego earlier this week, in which he and others presented the latest findings about the condition.

Once thought to be extremely rare, synaesthesia is now believed to affect between 1 and 4% of the population.

Ethics and Emotions

From Wired magazine, here is a bit about basic differences in our views on ethics (absolutist vs consequentialist):
A couple years ago, David Pizarro, a young research psychologist at Cornell, brewed up a devious variation on the classic trolley problem. The trolley problem is that staple of moral psychology studies at dinner parties in which you ask someone to decide under what conditions it’s morally permissible to kill one person to save others. Here, via Wikipedia, is its most basic template:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
This has generated scores of studies that pose all kinds of variations. (You can take a version of the test yourself at Should You Kill the Fat Man?) Perhaps the richest has been the footbridge problem. The footbridge scenario puts the subject in a more active (hypothetical role): You’re on a footbridge over the trolley track, and next to you, leaning perilously over the rail to see what happens, stands a very large man — a man large enough, in fact, to stop the train. Is it moral to push the guy over the rail to stop the train?

Researchers generally use these scenarios to see whether people hold a) an absolutist or so-called “deontological” moral code or b) a utilitarian or “consequentialist” moral code. In an absolutist code, an act’s morality virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences. A utilitarian code allows that an act’s morality can depend on context and secondary consequences, such as whether taking one life can save two or three or a thousand. In most studies, people start out insisting they have absolute codes.

But when researchers tweak the settings, many people decide it’s relative after all: Say the man is known to be dying, or was contemplating jumping off the bridge anyway — and the passengers are all children — and for some people, that makes it different. Or the guy is a murderer and the passengers nuns. In other scenarios the man might be slipping, and will fall and die if you don’t grab him: Do you save him … even if it means all those kids will die? By tweaking these settings, researchers can squeeze an absolutist pretty hard, but they usually find a mix of absolutists and consequentialists.
Here is a video of David Pizarro discussing the above. This is taken from a page on Edge:

If you go to 12:20 in the above video you get the trolley problem presented but as a "Kill Whitey" version to tease out conservative versus liberal biases and try to understand the role of reason in moral judgements.

Here is an academic paper that formally presents the material discussed in the above video.

The Edge is an interesting site with many thinkers discussing many topics. Here's the Wikipedia page on the Edge.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Israel has Attacked Iran?

There is a lot of bad blood between Israel and Iran. Iran's President has publicly stated on many occasions that he sees Israel as a Zionist state with no right to exist. With Iran busy building nuclear bombs and upgrading its existing missiles to deliver the bombs to Israel, it looks like Israel has taken the first discreet step in a war against Iran:

There is a bit more information about the Stuxnet worm on the Wikipedia site.

Update 2010sep26: Here is a bit from a NY Times article:
Given the sophistication of the worm and its aim at specific industrial systems, many experts believe it is most probably the work of a state, rather than independent hackers. The worm is able to attack computers that are disconnected from the Internet, usually to protect them; in those cases an infected USB drive is plugged into a computer. The worm can then spread itself within a computer network, and possibly to other networks.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency in Iran on Saturday quoted Reza Taghipour, a top official of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, as saying that “the effect and damage of this spy worm in government systems is not serious” and that it had been “more or less” halted.

But another Iranian official, Mahmud Liai of the Ministry of Industry and Mines, was quoted as saying that 30,000 computers had been affected, and that the worm was “part of the electronic warfare against Iran.”


But the Iranians have reason to suspect they are high on the target list: in the past, they have found evidence of sabotage of imported equipment, notably power supplies to run the centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium at Natanz. The New York Times reported in 2009 that President George W. Bush had authorized new efforts, including some that were experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks that serve Iran’s nuclear program, according to current and former American officials.

The program is among the most secret in the United States government, and it has been accelerated since President Obama took office, according to some American officials. Iran’s enrichment program has run into considerable technical difficulties in the past year, but it is not clear whether that is because of the effects of sanctions against the country, poor design for its centrifuges, which it obtained from Pakistan, or sabotage.

“It is easy to look at what we know about Stuxnet and jump to the conclusion that it is of American origin and Iran is the target, but there is no proof of that,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and one of the country’s leading experts on cyberwar intelligence. “We may not know the real answer for some time.”

Based on what he knows of Stuxnet, Mr. Lewis said, the United States is “one of four or five places that could have done it — the Israelis, the British and the Americans are the prime suspects, then the French and Germans, and you can’t rule out the Russians and the Chinese.”
Here is one tech specialist's opinion about this computer worm:
Many aspects of Stuxnet are so completely different from malware as we know it that it's only natural that so many hard-working experts at some point in the analysis ended in frustration. The best way to approach Stuxnet is not to think of it as a piece of malware like Sasser or Zotob, but to think of it as part of an operation -- operation myrtus. Operation myrtus can be broken down into three major stages: Preparation, infiltration, and execution.

Stage 1, preparation:
- Assemble team, consisting of multiple units (intel, covert ops, exploit writers, process engineers, control system engineers, product specialists, military liaison)
- Assemble development & test lab, including process model
- Do intel on target specifics, including identification of key people for initial infiltration
- Steal digital certificates

Stage 2, infiltration:
- Initial infiltration using USB sticks, perhaps using contractor's comprised web presence
- Weapon spreads locally via USB stick sharing, shared folders, printer spoolers
- Contact to command & control servers for updates, and for evidence of compromise
- Update local peers by using embedded peer-to-peer networking
- shut down CC servers

Stage 3, execution:
- Check controller configuration
- Identify individual target controllers
- Load rogue ladder logic
- Hide rogue ladder logic from control system engineers
- Check PROCESS condition
- Activate attack sequence

What this shows is that the 0day exploits were only of temporary use during the infiltration stage. Quite a luxury for such sophisticated exploits! After the weapon was in place, the main attack is executed on the controllers. At that point, where the rogue ladder logic is executed, it's all solid, reliable engineering -- attack engineering.
Update 2010dec25: Here is some interesting info about this attack from Tom Ricks' The Best Defense blog:
By Jay Holcomb
Best Defense infowar columnist

I believe this event should be looked at from a much wider view … the Stuxnet worm (threat vector) certainly should be considered a "game changer" … the folks who are conducting the forensics analysis have been somewhat successful in gaining high level public/government attention to this issue.

While most folks seem to unofficially agree this worm likely targeted Iranian facilities -- if we look wider -- this "attack" … or perhaps a better classification "sabotage" … contains so many complex cyber elements combined into one package that it is absolutely fascinating. I do not believe it is hyperbole to say the Stuxnet worm is "revolutionary" in terms of what we should be expecting to see in future high quality cyber threat vectors.

For example, a few of the well publicized items used by the Stuxnet worm include:

At least four zero-day vulnerabilities were used. Remember, these were classified as "zero-days" once we found out about them back in June/July -- which means the folks that discovered the vulnerabilities could have been using them/testing them for 12-24 months(?) before we even knew they existed. Discovering a single previously unknown vulnerability and using it successfully against a target is impressive!

Used "legitimate certificates stolen from two certificate authorities" to digitally sign Stuxnet code to be installed on target machines -- this was needed to prevent Microsoft Windows from alerting the computer user that a suspicious file is trying to install on the computer. This is huge! Imagine if someone was able to steal a genuine SSL/TLS certificate for YOUR online bank from VeriSign or Entrust and set-up a web site that was an exact clone of YOUR online bank. If you accessed the cloned web site -- your web browser would NOT alert you to any problems with the fake web site because the site uses a valid certificate -- the entire Internet online commerce model is based on this "trust" of Certificate Authorities.
Sound unrealistic … how about this … anyone else remember 10 years ago when VeriSign issued two Microsoft certificates to someone posing as a Microsoft employee? Imagine what they could have done with those certificates … perhaps create their own "special" Microsoft Windows patch … how many folks would download and install? We often trust major companies and our systems will trust the process if the source file is using a "trusted" Certificate Authority (VeriSign for example) security certificate to sign the files! To further highlight this issue … to this day the only two "Untrusted Publishers" certificates installed in our Internet Explorer browsers are for Microsoft from VeriSign!
Numerous propagation methods -- USB drives, network shares, other peer-to-peer methods, etc. Interesting to see the Conficker vulnerability (MS08-067) was one of the Stuxnet propagation options. Depending on what type/version/patch level of Windows the worm is residing determines which propagation method it will use. (Amazing)
Command and Control options -- via Internet or peer-to-peer if Internet access is no longer available.
Very specific configuration of the target environment is needed to activate the Stuxnet payload (manufacturer, specific product type, and unique product configuration are examples) … the intelligence and reconnaissance needed of the target must have been incredible.
The goal does not seem to have been destruction -- rather interruption/delay. The payload modified the speed of very specific high speed motors and at seemingly random intervals. How many people knew weapons-grade uranium enrichment requires long periods of constant high speed motor action?
These examples do not include the many other specific SCADA asset features the worm is targeting to validate prior to payload release/action -- amazing!

With the complexity of this cyber "event" it should change how we view future potential threat vectors -- from both the government (at varying levels and organizations) and civilian perspective. The possibility of this type of complex/specifically targeted cyber threat has now been proven in the wild. It is only a matter of time before we identify a similar event has occurred or is occurring right now.

The potential targets are only limited by our imaginations. I would expect both Nation States and common Cyber Criminals have been analyzing the same materials we are and developing new ingenious complex threat vectors into critical infrastructure, defense assets (government and civilian), financial environments, technology resources, and numerous other industries depending on the target niche market.

The goal would not have to be "global domination" or "nation destruction" -- in fact, I would propose the most dangerous outcome of this event will be the smaller -- highly sophisticated/complex -- threats that are successful but stay under the radar. They launch, are successful, and either destroy themselves or are jettisoned as expendable. (From both Nation States and common Cyber Criminals)

One interesting "pie in the sky" future item -- will Cyber Criminals be able to pull together a team of experts similar to the Stuxnet team (Cyber Mercenaries … a field that we can assume is growing quickly!) to create the civilian Stuxnet equivalent -- perhaps for historic financial gain or nearly any other historic event. Sounds like a Hollywood movie doesn't it … I assume everyone has seen "Live Free of Die Hard"…

Finally, here are some additional background resources and great reading if interested:

Jay Holcomb is an assistant professor in the cyber/information assurance depart of the National Defense University.

Dismal Statistics on Income Inequality

From a post by Robert Reich on his blog:
The super-rich got even wealthier this year, and yet most of them are paying even fewer taxes to support the eduction, job training, and job creation of the rest of us. According to Forbes magazine’s annual survey, just released, the combined net worth of the 400 richest Americans climbed 8% this year, to $1.37 trillion. Wealth rose for 217 members of the list, while 85 saw a decline.

For example, Charles and David Koch, the energy magnates who are pouring vast sums of money into Republican coffers and sponsoring tea partiers all over America, each gained $5.5 billion of wealth over the past year. Each is now worth $21.5 billion.

Wall Street continued to dominate the list; 109 of the richest 400 are in finance or investments.

From another survey we learn that the 25 top hedge-fund managers got an average of $1 billion each, but paid an average of 17 percent in taxes (because so much of their income is considered capital gains, taxed at 15 percent thanks to the Bush tax cuts).

The rest of America got poorer, of course. The number in poverty rose to a post-war high. The median wage continues to deteriorate. And some 20 million Americans don’t have work.

Only twice before in American history has so much been held by so few, and the gap between them and the great majority been a chasm — the late 1920s, and the era of the robber barons in the 1880s.
Reich goes on to write about his frustration that the Democrats have decided to "postpone" decisions about tax cuts until after the mid-term election. In short, they want to hide what they do from the voters. Not a very reassuring sign! Worse, Reich feels that voting down tax cuts for the top 2% would have been a winning ploy. Going into the elections telling people that the rich no long get to avoid taxes should have been a winning strategy.

Esprit de Corps

Here is a post by Christopher Brownfield on Thomas E. Ricks' The Best Defense blog which should give pause to those in the US who go around slapping each other on the back about have "the best military" in the world:
A former attack sub officer alleges that cheating on qualification exams is widespread in the submarine force. Indeed, Christopher Brownfield writes, it is almost enforced by other officers:
My fellow officers were surprised by my failure, and wondered aloud why I hadn't used the "study guide." When my second exam arrived, so did the so-called study guide, which happened to be the answer key for the nuclear qualification exam I was taking. I was furious. Defiantly, I handed back the answer key to the proctor and proceeded to take the exam on my own. I failed again. My boss, the ship's engineer officer, started to document my failures with formal counseling so that he could fire me.

The most competent junior officer on our ship ran to my rescue, confiding that none of the other officers had passed the exam legitimately; the exam was just an administrative check-off. "Swallow your pride," he told me, and just get it done.
This does make me wonder why Defense Secretary Robert Gates has come down so hard on the Air Force for missteps with nuclear weapons, but doesn't appear to have touched the Navy on this issue.
It is clear that Brownfield has the integrity you would look for in an officer class. But it sure raises questions about the "successful" officers in the US Navy.

Brownfield has written a book about his Navy experiences. Here is the Publishers Weekly review of the book:
Now a graduate student, the author of this brash memoir of dysfunction in the armed forces began as a lieutenant on the nuclear submarine USS Hartford, where military professionalism was tarnished by systematic cheating on the nuclear-propulsion exam and high blundering when senior officers ran the ship aground. Then came a stint in the pre-surge Green Zone trying to reconstruct Iraq's electricity system in a unit whose officers spent their time downloading pirated movies or angling for consulting gigs. Tasked with the daily briefing on the collapsing grid-- blackouts proliferated as insurgents wrecked power lines, killed repair workers, and kidnapped officials--Brownfield seethed as his efforts to address problems bogged down in military bureaucracy. Brownfield was one obstreperous lieutenant: he crashes a party with Ahmed Chalabi and the American ambassador, sounds off to a visiting senator, and tweaks generals to their faces. He similarly overreaches with his incoherent analysis of the Iraq War as a war for oil and a vague call for a global energy regime of "sustainable interdependence." Still, Brownfield's stimulating, disabused tale of corruption, incompetence, and careerism in uniform is a useful--sometimes explosive--corrective to hagiographic accounts of America's militarized approach to nation building.
If you go look at the one posted review of the book on Amazon you find someone who claims to have served in the Navy at the same time and attacks Brownfield for lying in order to produce a "controversial" book and make a quick buck.

My experience is that nobody writes a whistle-blower book to make money. There just isn't much interest in the world for a message which goes against common prejudice. Instead, it is pretty clear to me that the Publishers Weekly reviewer and the Amazon reviewer both have an axe to grind: they don't like anybody who bucks conventional morality and reports that the emperor has no clothes. During the 1960s and early 1970s, dissent from the rah-rah official stance on the Vietnam war got you abused by the "leaders" of society as well as all the ordinary people who felt empowered to beat up on anybody with unconventional thoughts. It is this kind of closed-mindedness that allowed the disaster of the Vietnam war to proceed for 10 years, chew up millions of American soldiers, kill 58,000 Americans (and 820,000 Vietnamese as well as several thousand others from adjacent lands and "allies" in the fight).

I just finished reading an excellent book, Harvey J. Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America and it reminded me how Paine was abused by loyalists and even American revolutionaries who formed the Federalist Party, as well as conservatives and reactionaries over the next century and a half. Brownfield is not writing this article or his book expecting glory or to be showered with gold. To point out that your heroes have feet of clay more often gets you killed. He is doing it out of a duty and a love of country. Those who opposed the Vietnam war weren't expecting a pat on the back. They did it because the policy was bad. History has shown this to be true, but these "heroes" never got a pat on the back. Brownfield will never get a pat on the back. He will get slandered. That is the burden that a whistle-blower must bear.

Harvey J. Kaye's "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America"

This is an excellent biography, intellectual history, and analysis all wrapped up in one book. The biography is of Thomas Paine but occupies less than a third of the book. The majority is looking at how the right and left politics dealth with Thomas Paine during the subsequent two hundred years of American history. It is an analysis of how radical thought has emerged and re-emerged throughout American history under the guise of different movements. If you want to learn the bits about American history that the history books don't usually cover -- the push for real democracy and the struggles of the working peoples and the poor -- this book will give you a lot of names and events that you won't find elsewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. But I would complain that it is too much like taking a drink from a firehose. There is too much to densely packed together. This book should have been twice the length and provided more context and more analysis and more description. When I finished the book I wanted to start it again, but this time with pen & paper and a library at hand so that I could explore and research the fragments touched upon in the book.

Here are some bits and pieces to let you appreciate the book. First, some words from Thomas Paine to understand his deep democratic sentiments:
When it shall be said in any country in the workd, "My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend because I am a friend of happiness"; when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.
Wow! Those Paines words and they are an indictment of contemporary America. The recent news is that poverty has risen steeply to levels not seen since the early 1960s. US prisons hold a higher percentage of the population than in any other democratic country. For 40 years the streets of America have been filled by the homeless and the mentally ill as the broader society has stepped back from taking responsibility as "their brother's keeper" to put it in terms that those hypocrites, the Republican "family values" crowd, should understand from their religious upbringing. The aged are currently not in want because of Social Security but the political right has been trying for years to destory that social program and the recent Great Recession has ensured that millions will enter "retirement" impoverished because they lost their jobs in the fifties and will be unable to find another job for the rest of their lives. The taxes are not oppressive but the rich and the right wing groan about "onerous" taxes and keep destroying the commonwealth in order to privatize big chunks behind "gated communities" while the great majority live in public squalor.

This observation is highly relevant to today:
Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced,for "poverty is a thing created by ... civilized life," which, he believed, did not exist "in the natural state." In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: "the present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and ... a revolution should be made in it." And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This "ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation," he insisted, and its aim should be to "preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which is has produced."
The fact that the gap between rich and poor has turned into a gulf over the last thirty years of "trickle down" economics from the Reagan right would have appalled Paine.

This book points out that book burning wasn't limited to Nazi Germany. It has had its heyday in the US. Everybody knows of efforts by religious bigots and "family value" conservatives to remove books that cross racial lines or expose stories of non-traditional gender roles. But American history goes beyond simply censorship by removing books. It includes book burning:
In sermons, publications, and town hall deliberations, attacks on Paine's memory continued right through the 1850s -- no doubt further instigated by Painite enthusiasms of radicals and reformers. At the University of North Carolina pro-slavery students burned Paine's works in bonfires along with those of Voltaire and Rousseau. And in Philadelphia the city council snubbed the offer of a portrait of Paine for Independence Hall.
One of the lowpoints in American history was during the supposedly liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Sadly when the US entered WWI, draconian laws to suppress free speech and anti-immigrant laws were passed. Kaye writes about how the famous socialist Eugene V. Debs was mistreated by this supposedly "progressive" Democratic presidency:
Debs himself was no pacifist. Like Wilson -- hough far more acknowledging of Paine's inspiration -- he believed in America's world-historic purpose and promise and the imperative of extending democracy, if necessary by force of arms. Nevertheless, he opposed American involvement in the First World War, seeing the conflict as a struggle to enhance the power and profits of capital, not the lives of working people.

... outraged by the administration's jailing of dissidents, he [Debs] undertook a speaking tour in June 1918, "determined either to open prison gates or to swing them shut behind myself." ...

That afternoon -- before a gathering of more than a thousand people (which included a U.S. attorney and his hired stenographers) -- Debs proclaimed his antipathy both for "Prussian militarism" and for America's own political and social order. Noting the irony of its having become "extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world," he attacked the Wilson admininstration for suppressing Americans' liberties. Titling the nation's capitalists "Wall Street Junkes" (after the Prussian aristocracy), he chastised them for wrapping themselves in the flag while exploiting the American people. And referring to a Supreme Court decision striking down a child labor law, he accused the justices of allowing industrialists to "continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits." Finally he beseeched American workers to struggle for industrial democracy. "It is our duty," he said, "to build the new nation and the free republic."

As he had sought, Debs was indicted and arrested a fortnight later and tried in September on charges of obstructing enlistment and encouraging insubordination in the American military. Refusing to allow his lawyers to call any witnesses on his behalf, Debs requested and received permission to address the court himself, not so much to get himself acquittted as to advance a conception of patriotism critically different from that of the Wilsonians.

Taking the stand, Debs granted the "truth of all that has been testified to" and fully admitted to opposing the "present form of government" and the"prsent social system." Yet he stated he had "never advocated violence" and explicitly denied he was guilty of sedition. The trial, he contended, was not even really about him. "I am not on trial here," he declared. "There is an infinitely greater issue that is being tried ... American institutions are on trial here before a court of American citizens. The future will tell.

Making his case -- that is, America's case -- Debs imparted a narrative of the nation in which radicals served as the leading agents of America's political and moral progress, and in those terms he called George Washington, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and his foremost hero, Thomas Piane, to appear alongside him. These "rebels of their day," Debs recounted, started out, like him, as minority voices, "but they had the moral courage to stand erect and defy all the storms of detraction." He next summoned abolitionists Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens, and Wendell Phillips to join them, recalling that they too had been "regarded as public enemies" and yet Americans now taught their "children to revere their memories, while all of their detractors are in oblivion." And lastly, to show the unprecedented charactger of the government's actions, he pointed to Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, and Daniel Webster and noted that as much as those eminent and now-honored men had opposed American wars and denounced presidents, they never suffered criminal indictment. ...

In the course of his remarks, which lastede almost two hours, Debs reaffirmed his love ofAmerica and its "symbol of freedom," the American flag. But he did not leave it at that. Those same feelings, he explained, compelled him to object "when the flag is prostituted to base ends ... by those who, in the name of patriotism, would keep the people in subjection." And reciting Paine's words, "My country is the world. To do good is my religion," he declared his commitment to a "wider patriotism" and, like his heor, presented himself as a citizen of both the United Staets and the world.

The jury found Debs guilty, and the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison. Nearly sixty-five years old, Debs would spend almost two years behind bars. But his address had "electrified Socialists throughout America." In 1920 -- while still incarcerated -- he would again "run" for preisdent and as in 1912, receive almost a million votes.
The above bit of history should be an antidote to those "sunshine patriots" who proclaim "America, love it or leave it" or who proclaim "my country can do no wrong". American history is filled with injustices from slavery to Indian massacres, from the Palmer raids to the McCarthy era. Thomas Paine understood that democracy was always a "work in progress" and would require periodic efforts to keep the enterprise alive.

One last bit from the book. This is from the blacklisting era of post-WWII when authorities attacked anybody who had reacted to the horrors of the Great Depression by joining the Communist party out of the despair at finding any political party willing to undertake the hard work of saving a quarter of the population from the ravages of starvation, unemployment, and homelessness. Kaye recounts the story of Howard Fast who had written a biography of Thomas Paine:
Fast's literary works also came under attack. In 1947 the New York City Board of Education announced that it was withdrawing Citizen Tom Paine from all public school libraries -- not, the Board's spokesman dubiously claimed, because the author was a Communist but b ecause the novel contained too much "vulgarity." Belying the suggestion that this decision was motivated by colorful language, in 1949 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent agents to the nation's major libraries bearing instructions that all of Fast's titles be removed and destroyed. Meanwhile, federal loyalty reviews were asking questions such as "Do you read Howard Fast? Tom Paine? Upton Sinclair?" Even truman's special counsel, Clark Clifford, was compelled to explain why he had distributed fifty copies of Citizen Tom Paine as gifts.
Again... this is a very good book. It will teach you some history. But more importantly it will teach you about the ideals of the American Revolution and give you specifics of how that struggle to fully achieve the goals of that revolution continue to this very day.